On May 11, President Joe Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, primarily by requiring plants to capture emissions from their smokestacks.
Limiting greenhouse emissions from power generation is a good thing. Unfortunately, relying on “capturing emissions” to do it is a singularly bad idea.
Biden’s plan is a reference to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, which would theoretically allow power plants to “capture” carbon emissions before they’re released and “sequester” them away underground. But the technology has major problems that the proposed regulations ignore.
Even proponents of the technology agree that it’s inordinately expensive. Much cheaper alternatives exist to generate electricity without greenhouse gas emissions. Wind and solar power cost about the same or less than natural gas power, and without the added capital and operating costs of adding a carbon-scrubbing unit.
For all its cost, carbon capture isn’t even proven to work — it hasn’t been implemented at scale in the electric power generation sector anywhere in the world. The only sizable power plant in the world that uses CCS technology, the Boundary Dam power plant in Saskatchewan, Canada, is an expensive failure.
But even while covering the modest use of this technology to date, mainstream media reports have shown a tendency to inflate its dismal record.
The New York Times, for example, reported in April that CCS technology is used by “fewer than 10” power plants in the U.S. today, attributing the information to three anonymous sources who were “briefed on the rule.” Similarly, The Washington Post claimed there are four active power plants in the U.S. with CCS technology. They obtained that count from the Clean Air Task Force, a group that boosts CCS technology and whose board of directors includes members from businesses that serve fossil fuel companies.
Both numbers are wrong. The correct number of U.S. power plants currently using CCS is zero.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) database of CCS projects worldwide names nine U.S. projects in the “Power and Heat” sector — of which one is “suspended” and the other eight are “planned.” None are currently in operation.
Several people who follow the politics of CCS contacted The New York Times about their error. The paper got back to one academic researcher with a list of three U.S. power plants using CCS technology. The researcher, who asked not to be named, shared those with me.
None of the examples are relevant to the proposed regulation.
One of them is a captive power plant that supplies power to a mining company, not the general power grid. According to EPA greenhouse gas inventory rules, a rule governing emissions in the electric power sector would not apply to the industrial sector.
The sources the Times relied on either weren’t aware of this distinction or chose not to disclose it. Better informed sources — or those who weren’t trying to promote CCS — could point a reporter to the EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report, which explains it.
Two other facilities named by the Times are small commercial power plants that supply the grid. But both of them convert the captured carbon dioxide into “food-grade liquid,” avoiding the technically challenging and complex step of sequestering it in an underground injection well. They don’t truly qualify as CCS technology — and since there’s only so much demand for the food-grade byproduct in industry, the model is unlikely to be significantly expanded.
So, the count is back to zero.
The global picture for CSS isn’t much different. The Times initially reported that there are “about 40 power plants with the equipment worldwide,” which they later corrected to “about 40 power plants and other industrial facilities.” According to the same International Energy Agency database, the correct number of power plants with CCS worldwide — by far the more relevant number in a story about power plant regulation — is three.
Do these errors come from anonymous industry sources or just faulty fact checking? Whatever the cause, they aren’t politically neutral.
Efforts to make CCS appear more widespread and viable than it actually is echo the talking points of fossil fuel companies that see CCS technology as a lifeline — a way to prolong their business in an age of increasing concern about greenhouse gas emissions. They also serve the Biden administration, which is pushing hard to promote CCS as its approvals of fossil fuel projects continue to accelerate the climate crisis.
The truth is, carbon capture would be problematic even if it worked. By enabling the continued production and use of fossil fuels, it perpetuates environmental harms beyond greenhouse gas emissions — including particulate air and water pollution, with severe health consequences that disproportionately harm Indigenous, Black, Brown and poor white communities.
But so far there’s no large-scale evidence that CCS even works to reduce carbon emissions. Wind, solar, and other clean renewable sources are a much better bet — and the public deserves to hear it.