Why Carbon Capture and Sequestration Won't Stop Climate Change

One way fossil fuel industries are trying to stay relevant in a world moving toward better, cleaner ways of producing energy is to argue that carbon emissions which contribute to climate change can be captured and stored underground. This “carbon capture and sequestration,” is supposedly a technological fix that will allow energy companies to keep burning fossil fuels indefinitely, only with the addition carbon capture equipment that conveniently eliminates their contribution to climate change. The coal industry in particular has gone to great lengths to publicize the idea that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) can work; witness the deluge of “clean coal” ads aired on TV and the Internet over the past few years.

There are many problems with the concept of CCS. Perhaps most frequently cited is the concern that injecting a significant portion of US or global carbon emissions underground may not even be technologically feasible—at least not in the foreseeable future. Then there’s the immense cost of CCS: even if the technology works, it would probably be cheaper to invest in truly clean, renewable power sources. However on top of all that is perhaps the greatest worry of all. Even if injecting carbon dioxide underground proved feasible on a large scale, and even if we somehow figured out how to pay for it, the whole idea might not actually prevent climate change. There’s no guarantee carbon dioxide injected underground will stay put—and in fact a recent incident suggests it will eventually bubble back to the Earth’s surface.

CCS isn’t ready to be employed on a scale large enough to make a real dent in climate change, but a few pilot projects are already experimenting with storing carbon underground. In the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, the energy company Cenovus has been injecting carbon dioxide into oil wells with the aim of extracting oil while sequestering carbon at the same time. Now carbon dioxide is leaking out of the soil on land formerly used for farming by a Saskatchewan couple. Jane and Cameron Kerr, owners of the property, hired energy consultant Paul Lafleur to determine where the gas was coming from. According to Lafleur, the source is the Cenovus oilfield located about two kilometers away.

In certain areas on the Kerr’s property carbon dioxide is leaking up in concentrations high enough to kill animals like rabbits and goats, most likely by asphyxiation. It has also been causing strange and colorful algal blooms in bodies of water. The safety hazard forced the Kerrs to leave their property, but Cenovus has dismissed their concerns. Cenovus unsurprisingly argues the carbon could have come from elsewhere—despite the common sense conclusion that the huge carbon injection project a couple kilometers away might have something to do with the problem.

This is just a preview of the kind of thing we can expect to see as more companies experiment with carbon capture and sequestration. Instead of conveniently disappearing underground, sequestered carbon dioxide is going to make its way to the Earth’s surface sooner or later, as it has done on the Kerr’s property. Meanwhile affected communities will become in embroiled in drawn out and frustrating struggles to “prove” that a given eruption of carbon dioxide can be linked to a certain CCS project. Most importantly of all global warming will continue unabated, as carbon dioxide fails to stay put and seeps out to contribute to climate change.

The Cenovus incident in Saskatchewan simply drives home what clean energy advocates have been arguing for years: the only viable way to prevent climate change is to shift our economy decisively away from fossil fuels. Rather than wasting billions on expensive CCS projects that don’t work, governments and private investors should combat climate change with clean, renewable energy.

Photo credit: Dan McKay