Carbon capture is sort of a taboo subject here at CleanTechnica. Mostly, it’s a scam devised by the fossil fuel industry to let them keep on polluting the environment with their emissions while pretending they can swoop in later, suck all the carbon dioxide out of the air, turn it into limestone, and bury it deep underground. No need to worry, folks. We got this. Just keep on pumping that gasoline into your trucks and SUVs. We’ll figure out how to limit the damage when we are good and ready — and have extracted every molecule of oil, coal, and natural gas on the entire planet.
Just as we were ready to relegate carbon capture to the world of charlatans and sorcerers, along comes Elon Musk, the wealthiest man in the known universe, who says he is donating $100 million as a prize for whoever can come up with the best carbon capture technology. He promised more details will be forthcoming next week. Sources are telling TechCrunch Musk’s donation will be connected to the X Prize Foundation, the nonprofit group that hosts competitions aimed at encouraging technological development and innovation.
A Technology In Its Infancy
It is important to distinguish between carbon capture and storage and carbon capture and utilization. The former takes the carbon extracted from the atmosphere or from the smokestacks of industry and buries in abandoned oil or gas well, in vents in the ocean floor, or in a hermetically sealed mayonnaise jar buried beneath the back porch. Wherever it goes, it is expected to remain there more or less forever.
Carbon capture and utilization takes that carbon dioxide and uses it as a feedstock for low carbon fuels like ethanol, which also can serve as the basis for fertilizers and industrial chemicals. Hydrocarbons can be rejiggered into billions of products. I took organic chemistry in college so I know about these things, even though I managed to fail the course (a painful experience that brought a screeching halt to what could have been a brilliant medical career).
At present, there are two companies involved in the business of capturing carbon — Climeworks, a Swiss startup that specializes in direct air capture using filters, and Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and uses it to force more oil out of depleted wells. How’s that for “clean tech,” huh? Carbon Engineering also processes some of the carbon dioxide it captures into renewable fuels.
A Colossal Failure In Western Australia
A carbon capture system installed at Chevron’s Gorgon LNG facility in Western Australia was supposed to take carbon dioxide out of the plant’s exhaust gases and inject it beneath Barrow Island. But the system never worked right and now The Guardian reports it has actually increased carbon emissions from the plant. Neither the government nor the company has done much to ameliorate the harm from the failed system.
The system was three years late getting into operation and quickly failed once placed in service. A spokesperson for Angus Taylor, the federal energy and emissions reduction minister, tells The Guardian, “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have concluded the Paris goals cannot be achieved without carbon sequestration deployed at scale.” What Angus forgot to say is that first carbon capture has to work before it can have any measurable impact on carbon emissions.
The Australian government, which has never met a fossil fuel scheme it didn’t like, has put $60 million into the carbon capture system at the Gorgon facility. Piers Verstegen, head of the Conservation Council of Western Australia, says the project has been “a disaster from the beginning” and should be shut down. Documents obtained by the independent energy news outlet Boiling Cold reveal the WA Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety allowed Chevron to continue injecting reservoir CO2 underground while its pressure management system was not working.
In 2018, the Australia Institute estimated the delayed commencement of carbon capture and storage at Gorgon was responsible for half of the increase in Australia’s annual emissions — no trifling matter — and yet there are no penalties in place for failure of the system despite the fact that Australian taxpayers paid a big chunk of its cost.
A spokesperson for Chevron tells The Guardian, “Like any pioneering endeavor, the carbon capture sequestration system has presented some challenges and we continue to monitor and optimize system performance, with a focus on long term, safe, efficient, and reliable operation over its 40-plus year life.”
Don’t Bet Against Musk
Carbon capture and geoengineering today are more voodoo solutions to global heating than practical approaches. So far, no one really has come up with technologies that work. But don’t bet against Elon Musk. Tesla short sellers will tell you that he has an uncanny ability to make the impossible seem like just another challenge to be overcome. In the grand scheme of things, $100 million is not a lot of money and certainly Musk can afford it. Yet it may help unlock as yet undreamed of technological advances that may actually help limit global heating. If so, it will be one of the best investments in history.