An astute journalist I know once described carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a “delay-and-fail strategy” devised by the fossil fuel industry. The industry’s ploy was utterly obvious to him: Promise to perfect and deploy CCS at some vague point in the future. By the time people catch on that CCS won’t work, the fossil fuel industry will have successfully extended the time it has operated without onerous regulation for another couple of decades.

And because huge financial resources (mostly government resources) will have gone to CCS projects instead of low-carbon energy production, society will continue to be wildly dependent on carbon-based fuels (giving the industry further running room).

The trouble is that the cynical CCS strategy has already been under way and failing for more than two decades already. And yet, it is seeking a renewed lease on life with a proposal for a vast network of carbon dioxide pipelines “twice the size of the current U.S. oil pipeline network by volume.” The public face of the effort is a former Obama administration secretary of energy with a perennially bad haircut, Ernest Moniz.

Moniz has a partnership with the AFL-CIO to push the idea. No doubt unions like the project because it would create a lot of jobs regardless of whether it actually addresses climate change.

Just for the record, here’s a list of reasons that CCS doesn’t work and likely will not work in any time frame that matters for addressing climate change:

  1. It’s very costly. Many of the pilot projects have been shut down because they are uneconomical.
  2. Suitable underground storage is not abundant and frequently not near facilities that produce the carbon dioxide.
  3. Long-term storage may fail, releasing the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere anyway. After all, one must have injection wells into the underground storage, wells that can leak if not properly maintained. Not least, there is no multi-decade record of successful, leak-free sequestration. And finally, there is no assurance that such storage facilities can be maintained properly for the many centuries required to have them actually protect the climate.
  4. The carbon dioxide in some current viable CCS projects is used by the oil industry to flush out more oil from existing wells. That’s hardly in keeping with the purpose of addressing climate change

Energy expert Vaclav Smil did some calculations for an American Scientist magazine article that demonstrate the scale of the CCS challenge:

[I]n order to sequester just a fifth of current CO2 emissions we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation-storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storages took generations to build. Technically possible—but not within a timeframe that would prevent CO2 from rising above 450 ppm.

Smil wrote that back in 2011. The latest reading in Hawaii at the often-cited Scripps Institution of Oceanography Mauna Loa Observatory is 418 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. The relentless upward slope of the observatory’s graph of carbon dioxide concentration shows that the fossil fuel industry’s tactics—of which delay-and-fail CCS is just one—are working splendidly.

It is troubling that a key official at the U.S. Department of Energy is taking the CCS plan seriously. One would think that decades of failure would finally make clear the false promises of the industry. But, of course, failure is the whole point of the CCS ruse. What’s puzzling is that the failure to date has somehow become a rallying cry to try harder by building one of the biggest boondoggles ever conceived.

Photo: Carbon Capture Pilot Plant in 2012. Author Mm907 (2015).Via Wikimedia Commons