U.S. Labour unions divided on carbon capture

A new Labor Network for Sustainability background paper asks Can Carbon Capture Save Our Climate – and Our Jobs?. Author Jeremy Brecher treads carefully around this issue, acknowledging that it has been a divisive one within the labour movement for years. The report presents the history of carbon capture efforts; their objectives; their current effectiveness; and alternatives to CCS. It states: “LNS believe that the use of carbon capture should be determined by scientific evaluation of its effectiveness in meeting the targets and timetables necessary to protect the climate and of its full costs and benefits for workers and society. Those include health, safety, environmental, employment, waste disposal, and other social costs and benefits.”

Applying those principles to carbon capture, the paper takes a position:

“Priority for investment should go to methods of GHG reduction that can be implemented rapidly over the next decade” – for example, renewables and energy efficiency.  … “Carbon capture technologies have little chance of making major reductions in GHG emissions over the next decade and the market cost and social cost of carbon capture is likely to be far higher. Therefore, the priority for climate protection investment should be for conversion to fossil-free renewable energy and energy efficiency, not for carbon capture.”

“Priority for research and development should go to those technological pathways that offer the best chance of reducing GHGs with the most social benefit and the least social cost. Based on the current low GHG-reduction effectiveness and high market cost of carbon capture, its high health, safety, environmental, waste disposal, and other social costs, and the uncertainty of future improvements, carbon capture is unlikely to receive high evaluation relative to renewable energy and energy efficiency. Research on carbon capture should only be funded if scientific evaluation shows that it provides a better pathway to climate safety than renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

“…..People threatened with job loss as a result of reduction in fossil fuel burning should not expect carbon capture to help protect their jobs any time in the next 10-20 years. There are strong reasons to doubt that it will be either effective or cost competitive in the short run. Those adversely affected by reduction in fossil fuel burning can best protect themselves through managed rather than unmanaged decline in fossil fuel burning combined with vigorous just transition policies.”

This evaluation by LNS stands in contrast to the Carbon Capture Coalition, a coalition of U.S. businesses, environmental groups and labour unions. In August, the Coalition sent an Open Letter to Congressional Leaders, proposing a suite of supports for “carbon management technologies” – including tax incentives and “Robust funding for commercial scale demonstration of carbon capture, direct air capture and carbon utilization technologies.”  Signatories to the Open Letter include the AFL-CIO, Boilermakers Local 11, International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Laborers International Union, United Mine Workers of America, United Steelworkers, and Utility Workers Union of America.  Although the BlueGreen Alliance was not one of the signatories, it did issue a September 2 press release which  “applauds” the appointment of the Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy and Carbon Management within the U.S. Department of Energy. The new appointee currently serves as the Vice President, Carbon Management for the Great Plains Institute – and The Great Plains Institute is the convenor of the Carbon Capture Coalition.

B.C. burns while the government partners with Shell to research carbon capture technology

As British Columbia mourns over 800 lives lost in the June heat wave,  firefighters from Mexico and Quebec arrived to help fight the province’s raging forest fires , more than 400 people have been arrested protesting logging of Old Growth forests, and scientists have confirmed that oil and gas facilities in B.C. are producing 1.6 to 2.2 times more methane pollution than current estimates, it doesn’t take long to find strong and serious criticism of the B.C. government’s climate policies.  A few recent examples:

BC’s Climate Adaptation Plan won’t protect you from heat waves, or much else” by Andrew Gage of West Coast Environmental Law  (July 9)

Subsidizing Climate Change 2021: How the Horgan government continues to sabotage BC’s climate plan with fossil fuel subsidies , a report by Stand.earth

B.C. is in a state of climate emergency with no emergency plan” by Seth Klein in (National Observer, July 19)

“Seven Big Warnings from the Killer Heat Wave” (The Tyee, July 19)

“Lytton Burned, People Died. Who Should Pay?” (The Tyee, July 13)

And on July 16,  to add insult to injury, the Premier announced the formation of a new B.C. Centre for Innovation and Clean Energy  to “help B.C.-based companies develop, scale up and launch new low-carbon energy technologies and will help establish B.C. as a global exporter of climate solutions.”  The province will partner with the federal government and Shell Canada to fund a new centre  whose first priorities include carbon capture, hydrogen production,  biofuels and battery technology.  Stand.earth reacted with:  “Partnership with Shell Canada sets country and province on the wrong path to address climate change”. 

Avoiding Dangerous Distractions such as Net-zero emissions goals

Dangerous Distractions: Canada’s carbon emissions and the pathway to net zero  is a newly published report by Marc Lee, of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – B.C.  The report argues that “Net zero has the potential to be a dangerous distraction that reduces the political pressure to achieve actual emission reductions in favour of wishful thinking about future technologies and “nature-based solutions…. This permits business-as-usual to continue for longer than it should, perpetuating the era of fossil fuels including other adverse health and environmental impacts.”  Instead, the Canadian government should invest in  proven climate change solutions such as renewal energy.

A working definition of “net zero” might be similar to that offered by the  Institute for Climate Choices: “Achieving net zero emissions requires shifting to technologies and energy systems that do not produce greenhouse gas emissions, while removing any remaining emissions from the atmosphere and storing them permanently.”  “Net zero” targets have been increasingly adopted by governments – including Canada – and by businesses – whose use has been challenged by many – notably by Friends of the Earth International in Chasing Carbon Unicorns: The Deception of Carbon Markets and Net Zero (Feb. 2021).

 Dangerous Distractions  concerns the Canadian government policy approach to a net zero goal, particularly focusing on  carbon removal technologies such as carbon capture and storage, forestry management, and the use of carbon offsets, especially the international trade in carbon offsets (such as proposed by the international Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets , founded by Mark Carney).  Lee concludes: “It’s impossible to know what carbon removal technologies of the future could achieve. For now, they are a dangerous distraction that diverts resources away from bona fide solutions. Scaling these ideas is very expensive and impractical, while perpetuating the era of fossil fuels prolongs other costly adverse impacts on human health, such as those due to air pollution.”

What follows are several recommendations, the first of which  is: “ Plan to reduce domestic emissions to “real zero” and to phase out the extraction and production of fossil fuels for export.”  He continues, “Don’t subsidize carbon capture and storage (CCS) with public funds. Require CCS for any proposed fossil fuel projects and phase in requirements for CCS in current projects”, and “Fund conservation of intact forests and nature-based solutions recognizing their important carbon, biodiversity and other co-benefits but treat this as a global public service. They should not be counted towards the 2050 target”; “Reject international carbon markets and do not plan on meeting domestic GHG targets by buying credits from outside Canada.”

The government of Canada legislated its net-zero emissions goal in Bill C-12, The  Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, introduced in November 2020 and currently before Committee.  In February 2021, Canada’s federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change established a permanent  Net-Zero Advisory Body, consisting of fourteen experts, and also in February, the Institute for Climate Choices published a lengthly report, Canada’s Net Zero Future: Finding our way in the global transition. That report contrasts to  Dangerous Distractions by advocating for two pathways forward: “safe bets” in the short term, and in the long term, “wild cards” which include negative emission technologies that are not yet commercially available.

81% of carbon captured to date used in Enhanced Oil Recovery according to new report

Canada’s newly-released climate plan, A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy   (Dec. 2020)  states that one of the government’s objectives is to: “Develop a comprehensive carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) strategy and explore other opportunities to help keep Canada globally competitive in this growing industry.” As a  clue to where that is going, the government also states: “The broad range of compliance strategies allowed under the proposed Clean Fuel Standard will give fossil fuel suppliers the flexibility to choose the lowest cost compliance actions available. The same compliance strategies that will support the Clean Fuel Standard will also ensure Canada becomes a leader in carbon capture, utilization and storage, hydrogen production, and other technologies that will allow Canada to extract energy from its resources while significantly reducing and eventually eliminating carbon pollution.”  The government is no doubt influenced by such views as those in the energy-industry Public Policy Forum, which calls for a favourable regulatory environment in Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage – The Time is Now (July 2020). (this report is mainly focused on energy industry applications but also discusses decarbonization of industrial processes briefly).

A December report commissioned and released by Friends of the Earth Scotland and Global Witness focuses only on energy industry applications, and comes to a different conclusion. A Review of the Role of Fossil Fuel Based Carbon Capture and Storage in the Energy System concludes that carbon capture and storage systems will not be as effective in reducing GHG emissions as would  ramped up renewable energy generation and  energy efficiency measures. Further, the authors state that “2030 emissions reduction targets are being set up to fail due to the huge emphasis placed on CCS.”  The authors, from the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, highlight three main barriers to success: prohibitive costs;  time to reach commercial scale;  and the residual emissions from CCS, especially methane. Canada’s Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant in Saskatchewan is discussed, and cited as an example of prohibitive costs, with capital costs of approximately US$455 million and a capture cost of US$100 per tonne of CO2.  The report notes that there are just 26 operational CCS plants in the world, and significant scale is not forecast until at least 2030.  And the authors state that 81% of carbon captured to date has been used for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) – a process which pumps captured carbon underground to push previously unreachable fossil fuels up for extraction, extending the life of oil fields.  This contributes to the problem of CCS-linked emissions of carbon dioxide and methane .

A Review of the Role of Fossil Fuel Based Carbon Capture and Storage in the Energy System is summarized in an Executive Summary and by the Climate News Network . The International Energy Agency has released a number of reports related to CCUS , most recently Special Report on Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage; CCUS in clean energy transitions.  Another source of information is the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute which maintains a database of information and advocates for CCUS adoption in its publications.  

Carbon Capture and Storage – Canadian case studies, and a Labour view

The recent report Global Status of CCS 2015  by the Global CCS Institute provides a glowing overview of the technology, and profiles the Quest project near Edmonton  , as well as a link to an August 2015 report about the Boundary Dam in Saskatchewan . In October, the B.C. government introduced Bill 40, the Natural Gas Development Statutes Amendment Act, 2015, amending legislation which allows carbon capture and storage “as a permanent solution for disposing of carbon dioxide (CO2) in British Columbia”. Reference materials from the 2014 public consultations on CCS in B.C. are here  .

In a working paper published by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, author Sean Sweeney writes that “CCS may have a place in the transition to a post-carbon world, but this place must be determined democratically, and by public need.”   Hard Facts about Coal: Why Why Trade Unions Should Re-evaluate their support for Carbon Capture and Storage states that, whether intended or not, CCS can provide political cover for the ongoing and increasing use for coal.