Why net zero carbon capture contraptions are absurd

October 28, 2021

Preface.  Several papers are summarized below. The most important is by Sekera and Lichtenberger (2020). This is the most complete, up-to-date review of where carbon capture stands today. They show that the two most popular carbon dioxide removal methods likely to be funded, with taxpayer money, generate more CO2 than they capture. No private investor would spend a penny on this.

Direct Air Capture (DAC) doesn’t scale up. To keep pace with global CO2 emissions – currently 36 gigatonnes per year – would require over 30,000 large-scale DAC plants, more than three for every coal-fired power station operating in the world today. Each plant would cost up to $500m to build for a grand total of $15 trillion. To store 10 gigatonnes of CO2 a year would require four million tonnes of potassium hydroxide, 1.5 times more than the world-wide supply. Running them would take 100 exajoules, a sixth of all global energy to heat the calciner to around 1,500 F (800 C), so each DAC plant would need a gas furnace, and a ready supply of gas. Electricity can’t do this (Swain 2021). Microsoft found that DAC was 50 times more expensive per metric ton than other solutions (Joppa 2021).

My excerpts of this paper below doesn’t come close to capturing all that’s in their paper, so please do read it. A few summaries of the startling points made are:

  • The energy requirements for a net removal of ~ 3.3 gigatons of carbon equivalents by amine DAC “would amount to a global energy requirement of  29% of total global energy use in 2013 (540 EJ year−1)”, equal to nearly the total amount of electricity generated in the U.S. in 2017. Yet, even these amounts omit some downstream components of the DAC life cycle process, such as the energy requirements for transportation or sequestration of the captured CO2 and energy requirements for manufacturing sorbent at scale.
  • Although captured CO2 could be used for a variety of products other than oil (though nearly all CO2 is used to get more oil out of the ground), such as synfuels, chemicals, building materials, and cement, the amount is enormously small compared to the amount of CO2 that needs to be stored, and most of these uses wouldn’t permanently store CO2. It would soon be recycled back into the atmosphere.  And the few places that exist where CO2 might be stored might pollute groundwater, cause earthquakes, and find ways to escape back into the air.
  • There’s a lot of money to be made by corporations with taxpayer funding for these bogus “solutions” and corporate greenwashing.  The EROI is almost certainly very negative as well.
  • With renewable energy providing just a few percent of all our energy use, it wouldn’t make sense to use what little we have to remove CO2 rather than power cars, homes, industry, and transportation.

It’s also extremely unlikely that a cement or other CO2 emitting industry is also sitting on top of geological formations directly below them to sequester the CO2 in.  At any distance, the pipes and other infrastructure to move it there would be net energy negative and put companies even further in the red with debt (unless the public pays for this with tax money of course).

As Sekera and Lichtenberger (2020) point out:

To capture of 1 GtCO2  of the 37 GtCO2 emitted per year, a liquid solvent DAC system powered by natural gas would require a land area more than five times the size of the city of Los Angeles. If solar replaces the fossil fuel power source, then the required land area expands dramatically requiring a land area 10 times the size of the state of Delaware, based on estimates of the National Academies of Sciences. Nor does it include the land required for transport, injection, and storage after the CO2 has been captured. Or the vast territory required for pipelines to transport the captured CO2 to injection sites. Just one Gt of CO2 capture and transport would need a CO2 pipeline capacity larger than the existing petroleum pipeline system.

The largest DAC plant on the drawing board is the one that’s to be built by Occidental, using the DAC technology of Carbon Engineering. It will use the captured co2 for “enhanced oil recovery” – to pump out more oil. And the facility will largely be powered with natural gas it appears.  The net result is – the whole process puts more co2 into that atmosphere than it takes out. But if taxpayers pay for this scheme, then it costs Occidental nothing, AND they make themselves look “Green”.

Coal-fired plant capital costs could rise 40%-75% (as per IPCC), and their electricity consumption could rise by 30%-40% for CCS particulate removal and flue gas desulfurization (Cembalest 2011).

Energy expert Vaclav points out the daunting scale of the challenge:
“Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions (less than 3 Gt CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by [the] petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.” (Smil 2005).
And Joseph Romm in one of several articles below states that “Even a very small leakage rate of well under 1% a year would render the storage system all but useless as a “permanent repository”.

Sekera J, Lichtenberger A (2020) Assessing Carbon Capture: Public Policy, Science, and Societal Need. Biophysical Economics and Sustainability 5.

We reviewed the scientific and technical literature on CDR, focusing on two methods that have gained most legislative traction: point-source capture and direct air capture–which together we term “industrial carbon removal” (ICR), in contrast to biological methods. We anchored our review in a standard of “collective biophysical need,” which we define as a reduction of the level of atmospheric CO2. For each ICR method, we sought to determine (1) whether it sequesters more CO2 than it emits; (2) its resource usage at scale; and (3) its biophysical impacts. We found that the commercial ICR (C-ICR) methods being incentivized by governments are net CO2 additive: CO2 emissions exceed removals.

Seeing an opportunity for “market solutions,” commercial interests, investors, and some research scientists have launched startup businesses to develop and promote chemical–mechanical methods. In addition, fossil fuel interests have moved to reframe an old oil extraction technique (“enhanced oil recovery”) as a new climate mitigation method.

A vast technical and scientific literature on carbon capture and storage has emerged. For our analysis, we reviewed over 200 scientific papers as well as journalistic reports. We also reviewed numerous bills and legislation. Our objective was to determine whether the carbon dioxide removal methods being publicly subsidized and incentivized are scientifically justified from the perspective of collective biophysical need. This is a novel approach. It joins public purpose with biophysical imperatives. That is, it combines the driving purpose of societal need with the realities of biophysical constraints and imperatives that must be recognized by public policymakers. Together these two lenses form an over-arching criterion that we have termed “collective biophysical need.” Given the fundamental problem around which there is general scientific consensus—excess atmospheric CO2—we define the collective biophysical need as a reduced level of atmospheric CO2. Within this over-arching criterion, we looked at three aspects of ICR. The first, and threshold, question is whether a given process removes more CO2 than it emits. We then looked at resource usage at climate-significant scale, (particularly energy consumption and land requirements); and ancillary biophysical impacts at scale.

This biophysical approach is in contrast to the perspective of commercial viability, which is widespread in both the scientific literature and in public policymaking on carbon dioxide removal. That approach rests on a market-centric perspective, which leads to a tendency to assess the utility of carbon removal methods from the standpoint of their commercial viability, and which assumes that commercial firms will be the source of climate mitigation solutions.

Biological systems remove CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it in soil and biomass. Such systems include forests (reforestation, afforestation, and averting deforestation); farming techniques (soil and biomass carbon sequestration through regenerative farming and other improved agricultural methods); grasslands and wetlands restoration. Our preliminary research suggests that biological methods are not only more effective at atmospheric CO2 reduction, they may also be more effective and efficient in resource usage not only in terms of energy but also in terms of land. In addition, they provide co-benefits such as soil-nutrient restoration, air and water filtration, fire management, and flood control.

Projections vary concerning the annual global sequestration rate needed; one study estimates 2.5 GtCO2 per year by 2030, increasing to 8 to 10 Gt per year by 2050. Yet currently the largest DAC facility globally captures only 4000 tCO2/year, which is only 0.000004 Gt. One unbuilt DAC facility aspires to capture 36,500 tCO2/year, which is negligible: only 0.0000365 Gt, and another aspires to one million tons per year, which is still only one one-thousandth of a Gt.

For DAC to operate at climate-significant scale, the amount of energy required is massive and vast amounts of land are required. There are no plans presently for a pathway for addressing resource needs or for scaling up operations to a scale that would make any practical difference to the problem of excess atmospheric CO2.

To remove 2.5 GtCO2 per year would require a wartime level effort to excavate miles of caverns underground or massive pipeline systems to move CO2. extensive monitoring, measuring, verification, and data tracking system would be required to verify storage and to detect and monitor leakage, air and water quality, seismic activity, and other ancillary impacts from subsurface storage. The sensing and tracking technology and network could constitute a new “Internet of Carbon” (Buck 2018), which, itself, raises questions of additional energy consumption and resulting additional CO2 emissions, land requirements, and intellectual property (IP) rights to such technology. Legislation would be required to establish standards for a monitoring system. Diligent, long-term monitoring and government-funded oversight would be needed, as experience thus far demonstrates that industry self-monitoring and reporting cannot be relied upon.

In 2018, Clean Water Action reviewed industry claims for the 45Q carbon capture tax credit and found major discrepancies in industry reporting about how much CO2 was actually stored. Companies reported one amount to the IRS—nearly 60 million tons—to obtain their tax credits and another amount to EPA—3 million tons—to certify that they had permanently sequestered and stored the CO2. In 2020, a federal investigation prompted by Sen. Robert Menendez found that claimants for the 45Q tax credit failed to document successful geological storage for nearly $900 million of the $1 billion they had claimed (Frazin 2020; Hulac 2020). If ICR were operated at scale, these findings indicate that a monitoring and data tracking system may need to be government-operated.

Partial LCA

Studies that deem CCS-EOR to represent climate mitigation commonly perform a partial life cycle analysis, drawing a “project boundary” that omits parts of the full life cycle—either upstream or downstream emissions or both (see Fig. 2). The choice of boundary is especially important because captured CO2 is primarily used for enhanced oil recovery, and studies that perform a partial LCA often ignore downstream emissions from that use.Researchers define their boundaries differently depending on their research objectives. In some cases, the objective is, in fact, to support “oil production” goals. In others, the boundary begins at the point that CO2 is purchased, thereby ignoring the emissions from capturing the CO2 at the power plant or other source, and the emissions from transport of the CO2 to the oil well injection site (orange box in Fig. 2), and ends at the completion of the CO2-EOR injection process (M in Fig. 2).

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Our overall policy finding is that the scientific literature does not support the use of public funds to subsidize the commercial development and deployment of ICR, especially those methods that have been shown to emit more CO2 than they sequester, thereby adding to the existing stock of atmospheric CO2. In specific, these methods are (1) any process in which captured CO2 is used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR); and (2) direct air capture (DAC) when fossil fuel-powered. Furthermore, the current ICR path disregards known risks of chemically intensive, industrial carbon removal, and the adverse side effects and subsurface storage uncertainty at scale.

It is troubling that the biophysical issues of operating ICR at scale are insufficiently addressed or analyzed in the ICR literature. Legislators, too, have neglected to address the biophysical requirements for and consequences of operating ICR at climate-significant scale. As DAC increasingly takes prominence among carbon removal advocates, it is problematic that the issues of DAC energy consumption are short-shrifted. Scientific and technical papers increasingly acknowledge that fossil fuel-powered DAC is thermodynamically counterproductive, yet these same papers fail to tackle the consequential question of whether renewable energy should be funneled to DAC rather than used to directly supply energy for buildings and transport. Virtually ignored in legislation, and unacknowledged in many reports advocating CCS/CCUS and DAC, are the massive land requirements for DAC operation as well as land requirements (acquisition and occupancy) for pipelines for CO2 transport. Also slighted or ignored in both policymaking and most of the literature are other biophysical costs like the prodigious amount of chemicals needed for direct air capture (DAC) to operate at scale. In addition, one must consider the adverse biophysical impacts of massive CO2 transport and storage operations and infrastructure, including potential fugitive emissions, groundwater contamination, air pollution, and earthquakes. Lastly, both legislation and most of the literature ignore the “wartime level of effort” that would be required to scale-up to a climate-significant level of operation.

Our review of legislation, policy actions, and policy-oriented reports shows that government decisions on carbon removal are largely driven by the question of commercial viability. Public policy decisions are being finance-driven, not science-driven. The market frame is pervasive even though, as many studies show—and almost all acknowledge—no viable market exists for the amount of CO2 that must be removed and sequestered in order to have climate-significant impact. Although clothed in the mantle of the market, studies call for government subsidy. Also illogically, papers advocating CO2 “utilization” frequently employ a partial LCA that ignores emissions from the commercial uses to which captured CO2 is put. The history of government subsidies for renewable energy development is frequently advanced as the rationale for why government should subsidize the private development of industrial carbon removal. Early-stage subsidies built the platform for later-stage market success of solar and wind, and, it is argued, the same should be done for DAC. This argument is faulty. Unlike energy generated from solar or wind, for which there is a market, there is not, and cannot be, a “market” for burying CO2. (The dubiousness of an effective market for “carbon credits” has been widely documented; regardless, that is not the same thing as a market for captured carbon.) Paying the cost of CO2 subsurface storage is a non-market transaction. There is no “customer;” there is only the single payor—government—which pays for the service from the collective resources of the polity.

The current path also foregoes the benefits of biological carbon sequestration, which in the U.S. in particular has been dismissed by many policymakers and legislators. Public subsidy in the near-term of commercial ICR methods can create long-term “lock-in” of the fossil fuel industry as the holder of the expertise and owner of the infrastructure  and the intellectual property (IP) that would be necessary should governments decide that scaling up to a wartime level of mobilization is necessary.


Barnard M (2021) Alberta Oil Sands Emissions Alone Are 3 Times The Global Market For CO2. Cleantechnica.com.

[What follows is my summary and paraphrasing of most of the longer article, which is worth reading for the details]

So there’s a market for CO2 you ask? Yes, about 230 million tons a year, 130 for fertilizer, 80 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), and 30 for other stuff.  The CO2 for oil recovery comes from natural gas wells with too much CO2, all attempts to capture and use the CO2 from coal haven’t worked.  If there were a larger market, it is super cheap to produce.

Meanwhile, emissions amount to 40 billion tons a year, or 174 times more CO2 emitted than we have any use for.

And what about sequestering?  Most CO2 that is sequestered is that used for EOR, but the oil industry produces far more net CO2 than it sequesters.

The article then delves into how carbon is sequestered at tar sands facilities in Alberta Canada, which is just one of the 200 world oil producing areas, and notes that it would cost $45 billion CAD (Canadian dollars) to capture the CO2 emitted from the oil sands alone. Given that the tar sands capital expenditures in 2019 were $10 billion CAD, that’s over four times as much spending as was done for profit making ventures.  And the real amount of CO2 released is probably far higher than the Canadian Energy Centre states, plus the CO2 to ship tar sand oil to refineries, and after the oil is burned in vehicles, the emissions over the life cycle skyrocket far above CO2 emitted in Alberta during mining.

Romm J (2013) Carbon Capture And Storage: One Step Forward, One Step Back. Resilience.org

A new survey finds a sharp drop in large-scale integrated projects to capture CO2 from energy systems and bury it underground. This drop from 75 projects to 65 over the past year is yet more evidence that we shouldn’t expect large-scale deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) before the 2030s at the earliest, nor expect that CCS would provide more than 10% of the answer to the carbon problem by 2050.”

The 200-page Global CCS Institute study, “The Global Status of CCS, 2013,” doesn’t offer much to be optimistic about. The New York Times summarized the findings with this headline, “Study Finds Setbacks in Carbon Capture Projects.” The Times reports:… the technology for capturing carbon has not been proved to work on a commercial scale, either in the United States or abroad. The Energy Department canceled its main project demonstrating the technology in 2008.
As that story notes, one major CCS demonstration at a West Virginia coal plant was shut down in 2011 because “it could not sell the carbon dioxide or recover the extra cost from its electricity customers, and the equipment consumed so much energy that, at full scale, the project would have sharply cut electricity production.”
It finds that “while C.C.S. projects are progressing, the pace is well below the level required for C.C.S. to make a substantial contribution to climate change mitigation.”
Back in 2011, I wrote three pieces for The Economist in an online debate on why CCS can’t possibly be a stand-alone solution and why we are a long way away from CCS even making a substantial contribution:
No doubt that’s why the pro-CCS debater, Barry Jones wrote “The international community aims to deliver 20 demonstration projects by 2020, applying CCS to various kinds of industrial sectors. The idea is that CCS then becomes a commercial reality and begins to make deep cuts in emissions during the 2030s.”
CCS simply hasn’t yet proven to be practical, affordable, scalable, and ready to be ramped up rapidly.  Even a very small leakage rate of well under 1% a year would render the storage system all but useless as a “permanent repository”.

Kintisch E (2013) U.S. Carbon Plan Relies on Uncertain Capture Technology. Science 341: 1438-1439

Talk about unfortunate timing. On one side of the Atlantic Ocean last week, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Gina McCarthy was unveiling a landmark proposal to require new coal-fired power plants built in the United States to capture and store at least some of the carbon dioxide they emit. Meanwhile, in Norway, government officials announced that they were scrapping a long-anticipated $1 billion effort to test carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology on a massive scale at an oil refinery.

The so-called Mongstad project was just the kind of CCS demonstration project that specialists say will be critical to making the technology practical, allowing coal-fired power to satisfy the proposed U.S. regulations. Its cancellation, after the project went 50% over budget, was part of a discouraging pattern. Over the past decade, “a lot of programs were put in place” to develop CCS, says chemical engineer Howard Herzog of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. But “the bad news is they hit a wall.” Herzog has documented more than 25 other major CCS projects around the world that have been canceled or put on hold in recent years.

Such setbacks pose a major challenge to President Barack Obama’s plans to use CCS to help reduce carbon pollution and curb global warming. If last week’s proposal is ultimately adopted, for instance, it would require U.S. utilities building new coal-powered plants to cap carbon emissions at 500 kilograms per megawatt hour—roughly half what an average coal plant emits. CCS could enable a plant to comply, and EPA officials say there are a variety of existing and nearly ready methods companies could use. But few full-scale CCS installations—which could trap about half a million kilograms of carbon dioxide per year or more—have been built to test those technologies.

Not that governments and the power industry aren’t interested. Congress has given the U.S. Department of Energy some $6 billion to spend on CCS R&D since 2008, with a goal of bringing five large-scale demonstrations online by 2016. That investment has borne some fruit, says Jeffrey Phillips, who manages the CCS research program for the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. It has helped cut by more than 10% the amount of energy that it takes to run state-of-the-art CCS processes, for instance, which is a major issue in the industry. But “is that enough to convince an energy executive to spend $2 or $3 billion” on a new coal-fired power plant with CCS? “Absolutely not,” he says.

Skyrocketing prices for commodities, such as steel, have made building new coal-fired plants more expensive than ever—and CCS can add an estimated 30% to the price tagCCS would also increase operating costs. One pilot project in New Haven, West Virginia, suggested that power produced by a full-scale CCS facility would cost 50% more than from a traditional coal plant. And regulators are reluctant to pass such extra costs on to consumers.

At the same time, the plummeting price of natural gas has made gas-fired plants more attractive, putting even conventional coal plants at a disadvantage. (The proposed rules cover natural gas plants, too, but most are already clean enough to qualify.) Such trends—combined with the rules proposed by the Obama administration—”could mean that [U.S.] power generation companies may completely give up on coal” for new plants for the foreseeable future, Phillips says.

Others are more optimistic. The new proposal—now out for public comment and certain to face legal challenge—also provides incentives to develop CCS, says John Thompson, an analyst with nonprofit Clean Air Task Force in Boston. “Flexible” rules allowing power generators to phase in CCS over time, for instance, could give firms an opportunity to experiment and innovate.

In the short run, “these regulations don’t change much,” Herzog says, because no new coal plants are on the drawing board. He says a second Obama proposal, which will restrict emissions from existing coal plants, “could be more consequential.” That is expected next year.


Cembalest, Michael. 21 Nov 2011. Eye on the Market: The quixotic search for energy solutions. J. P. Morgan

Joppa L et al (2021) Microsoft carbon removal. Lessons from an early corporate purchase. Microsoft

Smil V (2005) Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties. The MIT Press.

Swain F (2021) The device that reverses CO2 emissions. Cooling the planet by filtering excess carbon dioxide out of the air on an industrial scale would require a new, massive global industry – what would it need to work? BBC.


Teaser photo credit: NET Power Facility. La Porte, Tx. By Net Power Inc. – https://www.netpower.com/, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80737318


Tags: carbon capture and storage, Direct air capture, greenwashing