Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage is an Important Climate Solution

As the U.S. moves towards a neutral, or even negative, climate emissions economy, new technologies will become available to help achieve that goal. President Biden has certainly aimed high when it comes to U.S. emissions reduction goals: by 2030, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions should be half of what they were in 2005. 

To cut emissions, the President plans to spur change throughout a number of sectors including expanding renewable and zero-carbon resources within the energy sector and decarbonizing the industrial and manufacturing sectors. 

The world’s scientists have asserted that technological carbon capture and removal—either capturing carbon dioxide emissions at their source or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere itself—will be essential to meeting climate goals alongside renewable technologies. The President’s plans reflect this.

Carbon Capture Technology

Wildlife in the U.S. are experiencing a crisis—one-third of all species are at increased risk of extinction, and this statistic will likely worsen as climate change continues to alter environmental conditions. To meet climate goals and ensure wildlife can survive and thrive, we must use all available tools over the next few decades to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and transition away from fossil fuel dependency. Carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) can be a helpful set of strategies in this transition—if done right, with community and wildlife impacts in mind.

Snowshoe Hare
With climate change melting snow at unexpected times during a season, the snowshoe hare is unable to camouflage against the white backdrop, leaving it exposed and vulnerable to predators. Photo credit: Tim Rains/NPS

Carbon capture technology has been in use for decades. In fact, the U.S. has 10 of its very own carbon capture and storage facilities, with a combined capacity to capture 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, mainly in industrial settings. Other CCUS technologies are stilll developing as needs change and technology advances. In the U.S. power sector, CCUS can be especially beneficial in avoiding the release of carbon dioxide for newer natural gas power plants, which are likely to remain in operation for some time even as we shift to using more clean energy. And CCUS is a potentially significant solution for addressing emissions stemming from new coal-fired power plants being brought online in rapidly developing countries like China and India.

The industrial sector is a particularly tough nut to crack when it comes to decarbonization. Materials like cement and steel are produced via chemical reactions that result in unavoidable carbon release. For processes like these where efficiency maximization can only reduce carbon emissions so much, CCUS is a favorable approach. 

The potential is real. Carbon capture can remove around 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and industrial facilities. And, CCUS strategies could achieve 14 percent of global greenhouse gas reduction goals by midcentury.

What is CCUS? 

CCUS is a three-part concept: carbon capture describes technologies that will trap carbon dioxide (CO2) before it reaches the environment. Capturing CO2 can aid in reducing some of the harmful effects of climate change over time. Most carbon capture projects use a liquid solvent to chemically remove the CO2 from a fossil fuel before it is burned, but other methods capture the gas after fuel is combusted and before it leaves a smokestack. The latter can be retrofitted onto existing facilities. 

Utilization refers to potential market uses for captured carbon, such as its conversion into other products such as biofuel. One of the most exciting opportunities for using captured CO2 may be in construction materials since the gas can be used to create solid aggregate for concrete, or used in curing concrete.  

In fact, a startup in Canada called Carbon Upcycling Technologies is doing just that—combining carbon dioxide with other waste products (such as fly ash) to make nanoparticles that can be used as manufacturing additives for concrete, plastic, and coatings. The possibilities are numerous. In all, the global market potential for reused carbon may reach $1 trillion.

retaining wall
Carbon Upcycling Technologies was able to build this residential retaining wall using their novel-patented reactor that blends carbon dioxide and other “waste” materials to create enhanced concrete additives. Photo credit: Carbon Upcycling Technologies.

After being captured, carbon dioxide can also be stored permanently underground where it is monitored to ensure it has been safely secured. It is commonly injected at least one kilometer deep into retired oil and gas fields or saline aquifers, which are permeable rock formations containing non-potable water. In general, the carbon dioxide will not resurface—however, fractures in the rock may allow a very small amount to escape—less than 1% over a millennium. 

Getting CO2 to where it can be used or stored typically necessitates infrastructure to transport the gas in liquid form, via pipeline, ship, or other means. There are already 4,500 miles of CO2 pipelines in the U.S., but these are just enough to cover current use for enhanced oil recovery —more pipelines will be needed as CCUS technology expands.

Enhanced oil recovery is actually both a form of CO2 utilization and a type of underground carbon storage that results in oil with a lower carbon footprint on a lifecycle basis. The carbon dioxide is injected underground at aging or depleted oil and gas fields to collect previously inaccessible oil. The National Wildlife Federation views this strategy as a near-term option for developing CCUS technology and markets, though not a long-term solution as the U.S. transitions away from petroleum dependency and towards electrification of the transportation sector.

Congressional Support

The infrastructure framework that is currently being built in Congress is a perfect vehicle for advancing the CCUS agenda and funding important research and testing, as many components involve developing infrastructure for its employment. Many proposals have been introduced in Congress this year to extend the reach of the existing 45Q tax credit, which was originally added to the tax code to incentivize carbon capture and storage, but needs to be more accessible and economically attractive to companies and investors to have a greater effect. 

The 45Q credit is offered for each metric ton of carbon dioxide captured and either stored or used. New proposals wish to expand 45Q to more CCUS projects and to increase federal funding for important research, testing, and deployment of CCUS in an array of settings. The NWF supports bills in Congress like the Storing CO2 and Lowering Emissions (SCALE) Act and the Accelerating Carbon Capture and Extending Secure Storage Act through 45Q (ACCESS 45Q) Act that are pushing for federal action on CCUS development and deployment. The Carbon Capture Improvement Act is another notable bill that makes it more cost-effective for carbon-emitting power plants and industrial facilities to install carbon capture, utilization, and storage equipment. 

An Ongoing Discussion

The National Wildlife Federation supports CCUS because we think it is an important and necessary part of the climate solution, especially for industry. Global greenhouse gas emissions are causing rising average temperatures, the effects of which are felt the most in disadvantaged communities. In the same vein, wildlife are also victims of climate change, which they had no part in causing. CCUS technologies can also offer impacted wildlife a fighting chance at surviving and thriving while society transitions toward a just and clean economy.  

We recognize that there is no perfect answer for solving both the climate crisis and supporting environmental justice communities, as each has complex causes and needs. Working in this realm requires continuous discussion. We are committed to evaluating and understanding how CCUS projects may affect frontline communities and wildlife habitat. 

If done responsibly, CCUS has the potential to reduce the volume of greenhouse gas emissions flowing from the oil, gas, manufacturing, and industrial sectors. And, early research shows that CCUS also reduces some common air pollutants that cause smog and human health problems. Yet any technologies can have potential trade-offs, and may have effects on the local communities where deployed. We are working to ensure that policies to solve the climate challenge helps everyone and at minimum, does no harm.