Is Carbon Capture Accelerating Global Warming?

It has been well established that climate change is driven by anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns us in their 2021 report that even with massive reductions in current GHG emission levels, we will soon experience unprecedented rises in global temperature and natural disaster frequency (IPCC, 2021). The harsh reality is that the ease of our 21st-century lifestyles will soon be shattered by the consequences of global warming unless we take rapid and drastic action. A promising climate solution being developed and deployed globally is carbon capture and storage.

In 1977, Cesare Marchetti was the first to suggest atmospheric carbon capture and storage. He proposed that natural gas processing technology could be repurposed to collect carbon dioxide (CO₂) and then inject it into the deep ocean where it would theoretically be stored for hundreds of years (Marchetti, 1977). This idea quickly evolved into what is known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) whereby CO₂ is captured from the atmosphere and pumped into depleted oil fields to promote recovery of crude oil supplies (Brock and Bryan, 1989). EOR projects have seen reasonable success in boosting oil extraction. For example, the Wasson Field’s Denver Unit EOR project yielded over 120 million barrels of oil in 2008 alone (National Energy Technology Laboratory, 2010). Ironically, OER carbon capture is not only futile in the fight against global warming, but actually exacerbates GHG emissions. The dire state of our climate will necessitate the phasing out of fossil fuels to prevent global catastrophe (IPCC, 2021). The rapid carbon cycling pathways promoted by fossil fuel industries must be supplemented with closed system pathways which support permanent carbon storage (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Carbon cycling pathways and net flow of carbon within natural and anthropogenic systems. Carbon utilization and removal pathways (numbered 1-10) are denoted in orange, purple, and red arrows to represent cycling, open, and closed pathways, respectively. Net carbon flows to and from the atmosphere are denoted by teal arrows (Hepburn et al., 2019).

Notice in the figure above, CO₂ EOR pathway is denoted by a red arrow to represent a closed pathway for permanent carbon sequestration and storage. This is misleading because CO₂ EOR supports the burning of fossil fuels which is directly responsible for cycling pathways 1 and 2 seen in Figure 1 above. The success of carbon capture and storage technology hinges on the permanence of the carbon storage method. Among the various types of carbon storage, the most promising method in terms of cost-efficiency and scalability appears to be storing carbon within deep geological formations. A study in Iceland has demonstrated large-scale injection of CO₂ through 400-800m wells into reservoirs under basaltic lavas and hyaloclastites. Virtually all of the CO₂ injected was mineralized within two years, becoming stable carbonate minerals (Matter et al., 2016). This method provides a safe and long-term carbon storage alternative to CO₂ EOR, which is being used by oil companies to boost their oil extraction and greenwash the public. Carbon capture is an important first step but these efforts will quickly be nullified without a permanent carbon storage method. If we wish to avoid devastating global warming, we must continue implementing and researching strategies for permanent carbon storage.

References

Brock, W.R. and Bryan, L.A., 1989. Summary Results of CO2 EOR Field Tests, 1972-1987. Low Permeability Reservoirs Symposium. OnePetro. https://doi.org/10.2118/18977-MS.

Hepburn, C., Adlen, E., Beddington, J., Carter, E.A., Fuss, S., Mac Dowell, N., Minx, J.C., Smith, P. and Williams, C.K., 2019. The technological and economic prospects for CO2 utilization and removal. Nature, 575(7781), pp.87–97. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1681-6.

IPCC, 2021. Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.

Marchetti, C., 1977. On geoengineering and the CO2 problem. Climatic Change, 1(1), pp.59–68. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00162777.

Matter, J.M., Stute, M., Snæbjörnsdottir, S.Ó., Oelkers, E.H., Gislason, S.R., Aradottir, E.S., Sigfusson, B., Gunnarsson, I., Sigurdardottir, H., Gunnlaugsson, E., Axelsson, G., Alfredsson, H.A., Wolff-Boenisch, D., Mesfin, K., Taya, D.F. de la R., Hall, J., Dideriksen, K. and Broecker, W.S., 2016. Rapid carbon mineralization for permanent disposal of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Science, 352(6291), pp.1312–1314. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aad8132.

National Energy Technology Laboratory, 2010. Carbon Dioxide Enhanced Oil Recovery: Untapped Domestic Energy Supply and Long Term Carbon Storage Solution. Albany, OR: US Department of Energy.p.32. Available at: <https://www.netl.doe.gov/sites/default/files/netl-file/co2_eor_primer.pdf>.


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