BATON ROUGE, LA – The holy grail of stopping climate change is to reduce carbon emissions across all sources to zero. One solution that holds promise is to capture carbon dioxide – the lead cause of global warming – before it’s emitted from refineries and other industrial sources.
The practice, called carbon capture, utilization and storage, or CCUS, can be accomplished in many ways. Some are feasible but expensive. Others will require years of research and investment before being implemented.
The technical challenges divide some researchers and advocates. Spend now to do what’s possible today, or wait for better CCUS technologies? Or jettison CCUS approaches altogether as too easy on big carbon emitters?
“There’re so many different ways to do CCUS in the different things you’re trying to address,” Alyssa Dausman said. “Some technologies may not be there, and some technologies are already being used.”
Dausman and Allison DeJong are researchers at The Water Institute of the Gulf, serving as the chief scientist and planner, respectively. The Baton-Rouge-based institute is a non-advocacy nonprofit research institute that addresses complex environmental problems.
It’s difficult to say whether CCUS is worth investing in, according to Dausman. Industries have been taking advantage of CCUS for enhanced oil recovery for years, but other forms of CCUS, like direct-air capture, are decades from deployment.
The water institute advises Louisiana’s Climate Initiatives Task Force on how to reduce emissions while maximizing community and economic benefits. That’s no small task – Louisiana emits more than 200 million metric tons of CO2 each year, ranking fifth in the country. In the state, 66% of carbon emissions come from industrial sources.
This makes CCUS especially relevant for the state, since its emissions come from “hard-to-decarbonize” industrial sectors, said David Dismukes, executive director of the Louisiana State University Center for Energy Studies.
“We could replace every power plant in Louisiana, every single one, and it’s only going to reduce our emissions by 30 million tons,” Dismukes said. “We have 200 million tons we have to reduce. Where are you going to do about the other 170? So that’s why CCUS is important. Because here, it matters.”
DeJong agreed that carbon capture is necessary for the industrial sectors that are so prominent in Louisiana.
“If you’re making a decision about whether or not we need to address industrial emissions in Louisiana using some kind of carbon capture technology, the answer is yes,” DeJong said. “We have to because they’re so great; they’re immense in quantity.”
The state is home to 16 oil refineries. At these facilities, certain segments of the refining process can be electrified using renewable energy sources, but a large part of the process is pure combustion– a process that releases carbon in the atmosphere.
Besides the challenges to electrifying the refinery process, the products themselves are incredibly carbon intense.
“These are just carbon-based fuels, and so there’s carbon at every point in the cycle,” DeJong said. “It’s difficult to decarbonize a carbon fuel.”
Private and public entities have already moved on carbon capture initiatives to address these emissions. Congressional members from both parties, like Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., have proposed bills to invest in the development of CCUS.
Louisiana State Rep. Malinda White of Bogalusa sponsored a bill, now Act 326, in the 2021 Legislative Session to expand the permitting laws surrounding CCUS development. In her eyes, allowing more gases to be stored in underground reservoirs draws investors to the state and creates opportunity.
“I’ve called it one of those legacy bills where you really see a change in what people are going to be trained in – well paid jobs that have trade skills – so a workforce could be developed,” White said. “There are companies already that are knocking on the doors.”
In May, Venture Global LNG, a liquefied natural gas company, announced plans to capture and sequester 1 million tons of carbon each year at three Louisiana sites. Lake Charles Methanol LLC is also set to begin construction this summer on the world’s first methanol production facility to employ carbon capture technology.
But high costs remain a large roadblock in developing CCUS.
Brittany Tarufelli, an applied microeconomist at the LSU Center for Energy Studies, found through her research that incentives, like the 45Q tax credit, must be considerably expanded to see any wide-spread investment in these technologies.
The 45Q tax credit, laid out in Section 45Q of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, gives tax credits to taxpayers that capture and store, or use carbon dioxide. Despite this, the cost of CCUS still hasn’t come down quickly enough for the technology to deployed on a large scale.
“You can think of it as still in its infancy,” Tarufelli said. “The technology is mature, and it’s well understood, but because a lot of companies haven’t adopted carbon capture and started deploying it, we haven’t really been able to come down the cost curve.”
Some experts say that not investing in carbon capture technologies could carry a just-as-burdensome price tag.
“The cost of not doing this is probably several hurricanes, several rainstorms, several fires, crops, other costs,” John Flake, professor and head of the LSU Department of Chemical Engineering, said. “Maybe food is more expensive because you have more losses, and sea level rise – these questions are hard to answer.”
But some environmental groups are wary of embracing CCUS, warning that it’s an opportunity for companies to greenwash the public while expanding their use of fossil fuels.
Greenpeace has repeatedly criticized CCUS technologies as ways for corporations to expand their use of coal, oil and gas instead of switch to renewable energy.
Jane Patton is a campaign manager at the Center for International Environmental Law and a life-long South Louisiana resident.
“When these conversations about these sorts of technological quick fixes for the monumental problem of climate change come up, one of my first questions that I always ask is, how will they affect people?” she said. “Is this a real solution, or is this another band aid, and the definitive answer on carbon capture and storage is that it is not a real solution.”
There are limits to the amount of carbon that CCUS can handle. When the chemical industry fails to aggressively transition to clean energy, it is unlikely that CCUS can eliminate any more than 20% of the total industrial emissions, according to a national tool by Energy Innovation.
“I think that the technology is too theoretical and too expensive for us to be meaningfully looking at it as any kind of solution, even for part of our emissions,” Patton said.
Patton also mentioned ethical concerns with the deployment of carbon capture and storage.
When carbon is not stored in the same place it was captured, CCUS employs pipes to transport the gas. And sometimes those pipes fail, as in Yazoo County, Mississippi, last year, when an oil and gas company’s pipeline ruptured, releasing carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide into the air. Dozens of residents were hospitalized and over 300 had to be evacuated.
High concentrations of CO2 can cause increased respiratory rates and impaired consciousness in mild cases, and convulsions and death in more extreme cases. First responders recalled Yazoo County residents foaming at the mouth as they were rescued in February.
Patton cautioned that future CCUS pipelines may be installed in more heavily populated areas in Louisiana.
“That is a serious concern, and both you and I know that they’re not going to put them next to my mom’s neighborhood,” she said. “They’re going to put them next to poor black communities that they think don’t have a voice, and that’s not okay.”
DeJong and Dausman recognize the environmental and social concerns associated with CCUS but warn against completely discounting the technologies.
“I think that mindset of like ‘this is a savior’ versus ‘this is an excuse’ is a trap,” DeJong said. “Because we need to try everything.”
But for Patton, it’s time to deploy technologies that are available now, not wait on continual scientific research and discovery for carbon capture.
“I am in my early 30s. By the time my child is my age, it is very unlikely that he will be able to come see me at this house where we live in New Orleans because either the heat or the water will make this house unlivable,” Patton said. “I cannot sit around and wait for the people at the Center for Energy studies at LSU to tinker in their labs for 30 years.”
“We don’t have that kind of time,” Patton said. “And I think it’s important that we look at the technologies that are deployable today. Renewable energy is cheaper than carbon capture and storage, and even cheaper than oil and gas sourced energy. We need to be deploying that today.”
Still, Louisiana shouldn’t give up on CCUS, according to DeJong.
“Based on the analysis that we’ve done, we can’t take it off the table if we want to reach our goals, just because of the nature of our emissions,” she said.
“We need to keep every strategy on the table and pursue them. Because we don’t know what uncertainties are going to happen. We don’t know what’s worth it. Try everything and see if we can advance it as far as we can.”