The Unseriousness of Industrial Carbon Capture Plants

Hello. I’m not on social media anymore, because in general I’ve found it to have become quite unwelcoming over the years, but I just read something today that made me want to share something, somewhere, and I thought sharing it among nature loving people was the best place to do so. I apologize in advance if my writing is stunted, I don’t write much these days so I’m quite rusty.

CNN just released this article today titled “The ‘world’s largest’ vacuum to suck climate pollution out of the air just opened. Here’s how it works.” After reading it, I felt quite exasperated by the whole thing and find the concept ridiculously unviable and deliriously unserious. Allow me to explain.

To quote the article . . .

Mammoth will be able to pull 36,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere at full capacity, according to Climeworks. That’s equivalent to taking around 7,800 gas-powered cars off the road for a year.

Climeworks did not give an exact cost for each ton of carbon removed, but said it was closer to $1,000 a ton than $100 a ton – the latter of which is widely seen as a key threshold for making the technology affordable and viable.

Now, it didn’t give a time frame for how long it takes to pull that carbon, but I’m assuming since they’re talking about 7,800 cars off the road a year, they’re talking in that time frame.

All of this work can be done cheaper and easier with trees. According to The Arbor Day Foundation a single mature tree can absorb up to 48 tons of CO2 in a year. If we were to round our numbers down a bit to be more conservative (after all, there area always variables in the real world) and say the average adult tree can pull 40 tons of CO2 a year, then it only takes 900 trees to do the work of one of this mammoth plant.

There are tons of organizations out there that work on reforestation. The standard price per tree that I always use is $1, ever since Team Trees set that price in my head. That means, if this plant needs $1,000 to remove 1 ton of CO2 out of the air, then at the price of one dollar a single tree is more cost efficient by 40,000 times and we’re literally just talking carbon extraction here. That doesn’t include all of the other benefits that trees provide, from cooling the area around them, to filtering pollutants out of the air and water, to providing food and habitat to animals, to just plain looking beautiful.

The fact that trees do a better job is enough alone to dismiss carbon capture plants as unnecessary. But just slightly further down this article is this little bit . . .

There are already much bigger DAC plants in the works from other companies. Stratos, currently under construction in Texas, for example, is designed to remove 500,000 tons of carbon a year, according to Occidental, the oil company behind the plant.

But there may be a catch. Occidental says the captured carbon will be stored in rock deep underground, but its website also refers to the company’s use of captured carbon in a process called “enhanced oil recovery.” This involves pushing carbon into wells to force out the hard-to-reach remnants of oil — allowing fossil fuel companies to extract even more from aging oil fields.

If these plants are going to be created to assist in the use of further fossil fuel extraction, not only are they woefully inefficient, but they’ll actually have a deleterious effect on talking climate change.

Your thoughts?

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Carbon capture used to extract fossil oil?
Wins the greenwashing the gullible prize.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/5/8/clean-energy-on-the-cusp-of-rolling-back-fossil-fuels-report

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Besides trees (which are not appropriate in every situation), there is also regenerative agriculture. That has the advantage of making a profit rather than being a money pit.

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Yes. I don’t know all the details behind these carbon plants, so I can’t say whether or not they’re legitimately green washing, let alone a big scheme, but I’m somewhat suspecting that projects like these are more about winning investor dollars than helping the environment.

Thank you for sharing that Al Jazeera article. I actually passed that along to a few people. It’s great news that we’re finally starting to see renewable energies overtake traditional fossil fuels. I was talking to someone the other day about green energy and how it’s a big step in the right direction. We also touched on that we can’t consume our way out of a climate crisis though, that to have the biggest impact we not only need to switch to renewables, but consume less in general.

It’s overwhelming sometimes.

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I am generally fed up with the whole tech scene, most people in it, and its representation in the media.
If a solution to a problem isn’t a “cutting edge technology” one, it gets almost no attention.
God forbid the techbros use trains (unless of course they are far too expensive, over-engineered, unpractical, called “hyperloop”, and ““invented”” by Elmo Muskrat).
(But I guess, they have got it all figured out. If we mess up Earth badly enough, we can just all go to Mars in – [checks calendar] – four years time, after Melon Skum has nuked the poles to make it habitable.)

And really, it’s a shame because technology can do great things for humanity (I mean, without technology iNat wouldn’t be possible, for one thing). It’s just not necessary and definitely not beneficial everywhere all at once.

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Absolutely. Trees only make sense where they’re ecologically appropriate, and of course, the right trees for the right ecologies (plantations are bad). There are so many other sources of carbon sequestraions from grasslands to kelp forests to blue whales.

I just happened to use trees as an example because I have the “40 tons of carbon per adult tree per year” fact memorized, so when I read about carbon sink projects, I always default to comparing their effectiveness to x number of trees. As an aside, depending on the land and the types of trees used, an acre of land can hold between 4-800 trees.

. . . I kind of have a huge love for forests.

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I’m not sure about the term “green” energy, shouldn’t it be “less brown”. I totally agree with your statement “consume less”

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Eh. It’s a marketing term, I guess. You’re not wrong though, even renewable energies have a negative social and environmental impact. Hence the need for both more ethical consumption in general and less consumption overall.

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According to The Arbor Day Foundation a single mature tree can absorb up to 48 tons of CO2 in a year.

I think you meant to say 48 pounds per year as per the link: “During one year, a mature tree will absorb more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen in exchange.”

  1. Climeworks’ Mammoth Plant Estimate:
  • Pulls 36,000 tons of CO2 per year.
  • Equivalent to taking 7,800 gas-powered cars off the road per year.
  • This implies 1 gas-powered car emits about 4.615 tons of CO2 annually (36,000 tons / 7,800 cars).
    This approach costs around $600 per tonne of CO2.
  1. Environmental Block Plantings Estimate:
  • Potential sequestration: 480 Mt (million tons) of CO2 per year​​.
  • To find the equivalent in gas-powered cars:
    480,000,000 tons divided by 4.65 tons per car says that the environmental block plantings approach would be equivalent to taking approximately 104 million gas-powered cars off the road for a year.
    Estimated to cost between $20 and $30 per tonne of CO2.

The problem is that:

“Technical sequestration associated with environmental block plantings is estimated to be approximately 480 Mt CO2-e yr-1 (25-year annual average) covering an area of 63.3 Mha”
https://www.csiro.au/en/research/environmental-impacts/emissions/carbon-sequestration-potential

That’s about 75% of the New South Wales land area here in Australia or about 1.5 times that of California in the USA.

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I don’t think there’s a way to a net zero economy without some form of carbon storage. It’s very well to say we need to create less CO2 in the first place and wean ourselves off fossil fuels (which is absolutely true of course), but we can’t do it overnight, and we can’t easily create no CO2 at all, so we need to find something to do with the CO2 we continue to create. Even repressurising oil wells with CO2 created from fossil fuels is far better than releasing it to the atmosphere - at least the carbon ends up back where it came from. I would argue that other solutions fail to grasp the scale of the emissions we need to reduce, and the urgency with which we need to do it. Incidentally, repressurising oil wells with CO2 has been going on since at least the 70s, it’s just that initially I think the CO2 came from natural underground CO2 wells, rather than captured emissions! Yes, we should also plant more trees.

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Repressurising oil wells?
Using a ‘solution’ to keep the problem growing?
That doesn’t add up right.

Restoring grassland is more effective that restoring forest - they say.
With the emphasis on restoring the local vegetation.
Plant a tree is not a silver bullet, one size fits all, solution.

Random link, plenty more out there!
https://allnativeseed.com/what-plants-are-best-for-carbon-sequestration/#:~:text=While%20trees%20have%20long%20been,storing%20carbon%20in%20the%20soil.

The problem with most forms of carbon storage is that it’s not really sustainable in the long term. There is a LOT of CO2 in the atmosphere. Even trees are not really a carbon sink in the long-term. Yes any new forest takes away carbon, but only when it’s established - then you have to keep it at the same volume of wood for an infinite amount of time to maintain the initial carbon loss and no new benefit ever occurs from it. Any “compressed gas” is similarly doubtful - how many vacant spaces there really are? Really the only way to extract CO2 permanently would be to store it bind the carbon in a solid substance, mimicking past geologic processes - so making something like limestone, coal etc… from it.

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It isn’t the fossil fuels coming out of the ground that is cooking the planet, it’s the CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere. The fact that hydrocabon reserves are also finite and unsustainable is a separate and very different issue.

We don’t have the wiggle room to keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere while we transition away from fossil fuels, we have to find a way of disposing of it differently, in vast quantities, immediately, while we transition away from fossil fuels. As far as I’m concerned, every bit of CO2 that isn’t pumped into the atmosphere is win. That isn’t keeping the problem going, let alone growing; it seems to me to be the only way out given that we can’t switch off fossil fuels tomorrow. (bear in mind that enhanced oil recovery is only part of the equation for carbon storage - most potential storage space is not in depleted hydrocarbon wells anyway).

In the early days of carbon storage as an environmental strategy there was some suspicion from environmental groups on the grounds that it might encourage fossil fuel reduction to go slower, but I don’t think that’s really the case any more. The IPCC are pretty clear that it’s very important.

Also the scheme mentioned by the OP is unusual in aiming to remove CO2 from the air. Most schemes are aiming to capture CO2 at source (power stations, steel plants etc.) so that it is not emitted in the first place, and goes straight back in the ground where it came from.

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Clearing so much rain forest that, on balance rainforest is releasing CO2 instead of retaining it.

Plants remove CO2 from the air - but then we need to not harvest / clear and cancel it out again.

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https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2024/5/18/are-seed-sowing-drones-the-answer-to-global-deforestation

As expected, someone wants to make big money from the nonsense of the excess of CO2. And they will probably succeed in doing it.

Forgive me for a premature comment, but I had to stop reading at “Arbor Day Foundation.” That organization plants invasive species and practically BRAGS about it because of how fast they grow and how fast they seed. I’m sure your regular point is valid but I can’t stand how popular that “”“charity”“” is and had to say something.

That’s also why they’re so cheap; they’re literally planting weeds and destroying the environment in order to reverse climate change. It’s like they completely forgot why climate change was an issue in the first place

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As I have it enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) does result in the extraction of more fossil fuels, but the overall carbon balance can be improved if the captured CO2 is stored permanently.

There are worse ideas out there like electric vehicles that are mostly charged from coal-fired electricity.

We consumed 69.9 terawatt-hours of electricity, and I know that’s a big scary number which I got it from the Australian energy regulator. In the same year, according to the New South Wales government, emissions from making that electricity were 52 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent, that’s 37 of the state’s total emissions.

Transport was 28 million tonnes, that’s about 20 percent, but only half of transport is light vehicles such as your car, ute, van, SUV or whatever. So light vehicles are really only about 10 per cent of the state’s total emissions. Electricity is roughly therefore four times bigger, ballpark.
https://autoexpert.com.au/posts/electric-vehicles-are-a-climate-action-fraud-heres-why

He goes on to talk about fugitive emissions which refers to the release of gases, particularly methane that occur during the extraction, processing, and transportation of coal. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with global warming potential about 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

In another article he talks about CO2 emissions associated with the production of large EV batteries. It mentions that a 100kWh battery (weighs 600kgs btw) like that in the EV9, embodies around 10 tons of CO2 in its manufacture. This means it takes several years of operation before an EV can offset its production emissions, especially if not charged exclusively with green electricity.

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South Africa as a country has a ‘proud’ record of pollution from coal-fired electricity, but we are slowly turning to wind and solar. Our own home is solar-powered and so is our electric car. Cape Town has Steenbras hydroelectricity.

Slowly the tide turns. I have seen one of our new electric buses!
https://www.engineeringnews.co.za/article/cape-town-takes-second-stab-at-rolling-out-electric-buses-for-its-myciti-service-2024-04-10

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Coal → electricity is bad no matter what, but there’s not much that the average person can do about that outside of advocacy. The average person can, however, make a decision to buy an electric car/solar power (assuming it’s within their means), and use it in an efficient way, even if their source of electricity isn’t ideal. Electricity mix changes within the lifetime of a car purchase, so being “in front of” a change in electricity source is ok. Even if it isn’t perfect (obviously greener electricity will be preferable), it’s still a better solution than the alternative.

And no offense, but John Cadogan is not a reliable or unbiased source of information - I don’t think it’s worth responding to any points he makes specifically.

More broadly (and getting back to the main topic of carbon capture), there are always going to be situations where one technology/solution’s effectiveness depends on another. With EVs, their impact depends on the ultimate source of electricity that they use. The same goes for industrial carbon capture - if there’s a very green source of electricity, carbon capture becomes much more feasible/beneficial. However, if we wait to try to develop the technology until we have that source of power, it might still take years to get it running well.

So having smaller implementation of tech to develop it now, even if inefficient, even if subsidized, yes - it’s not going to make any major dent in CO2 now. But that’s not really the point. The main potential benefit is uncertain and in the future. But climate change is such a big issue, that we have to make investments (ie, take chances) like this to increase the toolkit we may have in the future. Yes, plants pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and can act as storage. Replanting them is good - not harvesting them is even better in many situations. We’ll need to do that. But as @opisska notes, relying totally on plant-based solutions isn’t going to do enough. We’ll need to add large-scale, industrial processes to the toolkit to actually and actively bring CO2 back down to more liveable levels. Maybe that won’t happen for 30-40 years, but being able to deploy technologies like that a little bit earlier and more quickly may end up making a massive difference in the future.

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