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Carbon Capture: The Fossil Fuel Industry’s False Climate Solution

A massive buildout of carbon capture facilities is not the way to avert the climate crisis.

Air pollution billows out from a coal-fired power plant's smokestacks.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

The Inflation Reduction Act is the biggest climate investment in history, and it’s a game changer for our transition to clean energy. But it also includes tax credits for carbon capture technologies that threaten to extend the life of fossil fuels and perpetuate the harms of pollution in overburdened communities. Here’s why carbon capture is largely a false solution – and what we can do to stop it.

What is carbon capture?

  • Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) are technologies that capture carbon emissions at fossil-fueled power plants and industrial facilities. The carbon is then either sequestered underground or put to use.
  • For years, this technology has been championed by the fossil fuel industry as a way to keep burning coal and gas purportedly with a smaller climate impact.
  • There are only 12 projects operating in the U.S. today, and all but one use the captured carbon to pump more oil out of the ground through a process called “enhanced oil recovery.”
  • With new taxpayer subsidies available, including in the Inflation Reduction Act, we could see a boom in new CCS and CCUS projects.  
  • CCS is different than carbon dioxide removal, which refers to technology and natural solutions that remove carbon directly from the atmosphere.

How does carbon capture extend the life of fossil fuels?

  • Subsidizing carbon capture for uneconomic coal and gas-fired power plants enables them to continue operating – and polluting – even as we set more ambitious climate targets.
  • CCS projects are energy intensive, and often powered by dirty energy, adding to the source’s overall carbon footprint.
  • The vast majority of the captured carbon is currently used for enhanced oil recovery, canceling out much of the supposed climate benefits and further entrenching our reliance on dirty fuels. 

How does carbon capture harm the environment and communities?

  • CCS has not been capturing anywhere near all of the carbon emissions from power plants it is installed on, and it does not reduce other pollutants that threaten people’s health.
  • The process of capturing, transporting, and storing carbon poses additional safety and health threats to communities nearby, including from toxic releases and waste.
  • Communities are too often cut out of the decision-making process about CCS projects, which move forward without adequate transparency or public input.
  • CCS is incredibly expensive, and it is receiving federal subsidies paid for by taxpayers, some of which have been mismanaged. Utility customers may also be forced to foot the bill for uneconomic CCS projects. 
  • Subsidizing CCS diverts resources away from real climate solutions like clean energy and electrification, and blocks progress towards environmental justice.

Is there a role for carbon capture in our clean energy transition?

  • The science is clear that we must urgently and drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, and remove CO2 from the atmosphere, to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
  • But a massive buildout of carbon capture facilities is not the answer. It is dangerous and counter-productive to deploy this risky and expensive technology to extend the life of fossil fuels.  
  • To achieve our climate, health, and environmental justice goals, we must transition away from fossil fuels to a zero-emissions, 100% clean energy economy.
  • And we must ensure that the communities that have borne the brunt of fossil fuel pollution benefit from our clean energy transition.
  • In the short term, there may be a limited use for CCS in cutting emissions from industrial sectors that are currently hard to electrify, like cement production – but only if it does not prolong fossil fuel dependency and health, safety, and environmental justice issues are addressed.

What is Earthjustice doing to combat this false solution?

  • We will use the power of the law to fight CCS projects that elongate the life of fossil fuel power plants and other polluting facilities.
  • We advocate against taxpayer subsidies for CCS projects, including loan guarantees and tax credits.   
  • We oppose efforts to force utility customers to pay to install CCS on uneconomic coal and gas plants.
  • We oppose the production and use of blue hydrogen, which is derived from fossil gas and paired with carbon capture.
  • We oppose using carbon capture for enhanced oil recovery.
  • We will continue fighting for the strongest possible carbon pollution standards for power plants to accelerate a clean energy transition.