Carbon Capture Is a Woke Fantasy
Let's say you're brainstorming with some friends, trying to figure out how to cash in on the woke green wave. It would probably not occur to the less boldly imaginative among us to propose 1) capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from agricultural areas covering five Midwestern states (see map from a corporate website here), 2) dehydrating and compressing it into liquid form at various capture locations, 3) transporting it via brand new pipelines, and 4) sequestering it into its permanent rocky tomb a mile beneath the surface, safe from climate change, nuclear war, and all but the most severe cosmic catastrophes. As a bonus, liquid CO2 that survives burial has commercial industrial applications, like dry ice for food preservation or creating cloudy or foggy effects for Hollywood productions. It's also used in fire extinguishers and to carbonate soft drinks, and it is even an important cooling agent for cryogenic freezing, as was done, for example, to Ted Williams and his son John Henry.
If you're wondering where the money comes from for these enterprises, the Department of Energy has announced many tens of millions of dollars in funding for research and implementation of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) projects. Additionally, carbon credits for industry are shaping up to be a powerful incentive for generating private and public investor capital.
Private industry is currently developing new processes/technologies to capture and sequester CO2 from ethanol fermentation plants. Plans are underway for Colorado and Nebraska to pioneer this process, and to start burying CO2 from ethanol in 2024. Ethanol production is a big business, consuming more than 40% (!) of the U.S. corn crop. Last summer, to help lower gas prices, Biden increased the amount of ethanol that must be added to gasoline from 10% to 15%. Ethanol's chemical composition is C₂H₅OH — almost a hydrocarbon itself, but for that outlying oxygen molecule. Ethanol is corrosive to car engines, and its production results in a net loss of energy: "Adding up the energy costs of corn production and its conversion to ethanol, 131,000 BTUs are needed to make 1 gallon of ethanol ... [which] has an energy value of only 77,000 BTU."
The largest players in the CCUS business by far are the Darth Vaders of climate change: oil companies. For decades, oil and gas producers have injected exhaust, like CO2, and water from well sites back into the wells to pressurize the rocks and stimulate production. Today, however, carbon capture is being embraced by oil companies on a massive scale. This from Investor's Business Daily:
A long list of energy industry leaders have lined up to both use and provide carbon capture services. Among them are Occidental Petroleum (OXY), Exxon Mobil (XOM), Air Products (APD) and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). Also Talos Energy (TALO) and Denbury (DEN). They're pouring billions of dollars into developing a carbon capture market estimated at a modest $2 billion in 2021. ... Occidental estimates the carbon capture market will hit $50 billion a year by 2030. Exxon sees it going as high as $4 trillion by 2050. ... Current carbon capture revenues rely heavily on federal incentives. One important issue over the longer term is whether carbon capture can stand on its own as a viable industry. Another is if the technology will really help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Are oil producers simply using the net zero target to attract climate-sensitive investors' dollars? Or perhaps using it as a pass to keep producing oil in an era of rising restrictions?
Good questions. Oil companies have been forced to embrace CCUS because of sustained, worldwide political and financial pressure to do so. Regardless of the merits (or not) of carbon capture, oil companies are not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
These ambitious plans will require building pipelines to transport the liquid CO2 to the underground burial sites. It is not anticipated that acquiring permits for these pipelines will pose any problems. The state of Colorado, for example, enthusiastically supports new pipeline infrastructure for CCUS at ethanol facilities, but the state is actively moving to restrict any pipeline extension for natural gas:
New rules affecting gas utility companies have the potential to limit system expansion and increase the costs of installing natural gas in new construction, say officials at the Colorado Energy Office. ... Xcel Energy officials warned the new rules have the potential to, for all intents and purposes, ban line extensions.
There are thousands of miles of pipelines, which, daily, transport oil and gas to and from U.S. markets safely and efficiently. New York will not allow a pipeline to traverse upstate N.Y. from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, and Massachusetts will not allow a pipeline to cross through MA into New Hampshire. As a result, in New England, many households still heat their homes with expensive and relatively filthy fuel oil. Then there are the 800,000 barrels of oil per day that could be flowing through the Keystone pipeline.
A scientist friend of mine characterizes hydrogen as the pennies of the universe, owing to the prodigious abundance of that element. And he calls carbon the Swiss Army Knife of elements, because on a molecular level, it can combine with itself and other atoms in so many configurations that carbon is present in over 90% of the millions of compounds known to man. Contrast the softness of pencil graphite with the thinness and tensile strength of graphene, up to the hardness of diamonds. Combining these two elements yields hydrocarbons, and they account for a dizzying array of industrial, consumer, and medical products.
Referring to all hydrocarbons as fossil fuels is a misnomer. Hydrocarbons, especially natural gas in its amazing abundance, are among the building blocks of the solar system. The field of organic chemistry deals only with compounds that contain carbon. It's not by accident, but by design, that we are a carbon-based life from.
Wood or charcoal is still commonly burned inside dirt-floor huts for heat and for cooking in many third-world countries. Clean-burning natural gas represents the best alternative to provide the electric power that would greatly enhance the lives of untold millions of people. But the nouveau money is apparently focused on burying carbon, not on creating power from gas, regardless of the cost, or without even knowing to what extent it may or may not help the environment.
The topsy-turviness of our world, where up is down and inside is out, got turbocharged during COVID, with its vaccine mandates and passports, its lockdowns decapitating small businesses, and the psychological damage to people young and old. Previously, hardly anyone outside the Davos boys and assorted Western world leaders had ever heard of the World Economic Forum. Suddenly, the buzz was all about Great Resets, ESG, stakeholders, sustainability, etc. Klaus Schwab was everywhere in the news, with his Teutonic accent and Battlestar Galactica costumes, backslapping with BlackRock's Larry Fink and China's President Xi (never mind that China routinely deploys more new coal-fired power plants every year than the rest of the world combined). In a word, we're being told that we're facing a dystopian future, so learn to like it.
We can be yoked and harnessed only if we allow it.