Global Witness Exposes The Lie Behind The Carbon Capture Scam

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Earth to fossil fuels: “You’re choking me to death with your carbon and methane emissions!” Fossil fuels to Earth: “Stop making such a fuss. We’re working on a solution that will allow us to continue burning fossil fuels forever. It’s called carbon capture and it’s the greatest thing since pasteurized milk.”

That’s the story the fossil fuel companies are selling to avaricious politicians and a flaccid news media. But it’s a lie, a dodge, a stall, one designed to bamboozle the gullible and preserve industry profits.

Climate Change & Carbon Capture

In 2015, Shell installed a carbon capture facility at its Scotford refinery northeast of Edmonton in Alberta. According to Dezeen, the system was designed to eliminate emissions from hydrogen production. And lo and behold, Shell is trumpeting the fact that it actually captured close to five million tons of carbon dioxide over the course of 5 years. Great news, right?

No, says Global Witness, which claims the facility actually released more carbon emissions than it captured — 7.5 million tons worth, equivalent to the the carbon footprint of 1.2 million cars. The greenhouse gases emitted included highly potent methane, which in the short term has a more than 80-times higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide.

Global Witness argues that this casts doubt on the messaging pushed by the oil and gas industry that carbon capture and storage technology makes it possible for hydrogen derived from natural gas to be used as a “low emissions” fuel to help the world reach its net zero goals. “Fossil fuel companies see fossil hydrogen as a way of continuing to make profits from extracting and burning fossil gas, whilst greenwashing it at the same time,” the report says.

Most hydrogen today is actually refined from fossil fuel sources, natural gas in particular, and in the process emits around 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year — as much as the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined. The kind of “blue hydrogen” production that is being used at the Scotford facility — which is partially funded by the government — is being pushed by oil and gas companies who say they will capture these emissions at the source and store them underground.

Process Emissions

According to Global Witness, the facility is only capable of capturing so-called process emissions — the emissions that are generated when natural gas is heated by steam to produce hydrogen while releasing carbon monoxide and a relatively small amount of carbon dioxide. It totally fails to capture the flue gas emissions from powering the equipment for this process — which account for 40% of the plant’s carbon footprint — as well as the emissions from running the CCS system itself. The onsite carbon capture system also does not prevent methane emissions, which are generated at every stage of the refining process before the fossil gas even gets to the facility.

Taking all this into account, Global Witness says the Scotford plant is only capable of capturing 39% of the greenhouse gases that are generated along its supply chain. The industry claims the technology captures 90% of emissions, which leads to this question, why aren’t industry leaders in prison for fraud?

The Howarth/Jacobson Report

Recently a report by Robert Howarth and Mark Jacobson, entitled How Green Is Blue Hydrogen?, and published in the journal Energy Science and Engineering found that blue hydrogen actually has a 20% greater greenhouse gas footprint than simply burning natural gas for heat! Think about that for a minute. Blue hydrogen is worse from an emissions standpoint than just straight up burning natural gas. Once again, why are people not in prison over this wide-scale fraud? Here is a portion of the abstract that accompanies that report:

Hydrogen is often viewed as an important energy carrier in a future decarbonized world. Currently, most hydrogen is produced by steam reforming of methane in natural gas (“gray hydrogen”), with high carbon dioxide emissions. Increasingly, many propose using carbon capture and storage to reduce these emissions, producing so-called ‘blue hydrogen,’ frequently promoted as low emissions.

“We undertake the first effort in a peer-reviewed paper to examine the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of blue hydrogen accounting for emissions of both carbon dioxide and unburned fugitive methane. Far from being low carbon, greenhouse gas emissions from the production of blue hydrogen are quite high, particularly due to the release of fugitive methane.

“Perhaps surprisingly, the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20% greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat and some 60% greater than burning diesel oil for heat, again with our default assumptions. In a sensitivity analysis in which the methane emission rate from natural gas is reduced to a low value of 1.54%, greenhouse gas emissions from blue hydrogen are still greater than from simply burning natural gas, and are only 18%-25% less than for gray hydrogen.

“Our analysis assumes that captured carbon dioxide can be stored indefinitely, an optimistic and unproven assumption. Even if true though, the use of blue hydrogen appears difficult to justify on climate grounds.”

Blue Hydrogen Is A Lie

“Fossil hydrogen is part of the fossil gas industry’s strategy to prolong its life, despite the urgent need for a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels in order to meet the Paris Agreement goals,” the Global Witness report concluded. “The lesson from [Scotford] should be loud and clear for governments all over the world. Do not invest in a technology that is not only failing to deliver any effective action in tackling the climate crisis — but is in fact contributing to it.”

Even if modern blue hydrogen plants could achieve capture rates of over 90% onsite, that would still not take into account emissions generated along the fossil fuel supply chain, says Global Witness. Rather than funding carbon capture and blue hydrogen projects, it argues governments should focus on renewable energy infrastructure and electrification as well as green hydrogen, which is not made from fossil fuels.

This isn’t the first time the oil and gas sector has been accused of using the hype around carbon capture technologies to justify its continued use of non-renewable, emissions-intensive fossil fuels. The industry has also been promoting carbon capture, storage and utilization (CCUS) projects, Dezeen says, which use captured industrial emissions and pump them into depleted reserves to flush out the remaining oil deposits in a process known as enhanced oil recovery.

In other words, they are blowing sunshine up our skirts as they wiggle and squirm to prevent the inevitable collapse of their industry, even though their business activities threaten humans with extinction. Tell us again why the leaders of the these massive international corporations are not in prison?

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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