Carbon capture convolution

A complicated process, explained.

Carbon capture and sequestration sounds like a bit of a no-brainer. I mean, carbon emitted from industrial facilities’ smokestacks is bad, right? So why not just put a big vacuum thing on the stacks, capture the bad stuff and blow it back into the ground where it originally came from?  

Simple, right? 


Not really. Capturing and sequestering carbon, especially from coal plants, is complicated, convoluted, energy-intensive and rather expensive. And the technology has yet to be proven on a large scale. Still, it may be fossil fuel companies’ best bet for continuing to rake in a profit while doing something about climate change — or at least appearing to do something. 

So, corporations have asked the federal government for help, and Congress and various presidential administrations have responded, offering subsidies for research and development and tax credits for every ton of carbon the companies capture and store — even if it’s pumped into aging oilfields to stimulate production of more fossil fuels. 

All-purpose carbon-storage tax credits might make sense for hard-to-decarbonize facilities like cement factories, but when applied to coal plants it gives the operator an incentive to transform a power plant that spews carbon dioxide as an undesirable byproduct into a carbon factory that produces electricity as a desirable byproduct. Operators could end up burning more coal to produce more carbon so they can get more tax credits. Meanwhile, other types of pollution, from sulfur dioxide to coal ash, continue to spill out of the plant to sully the air, water and land. 

The following diagram is based on Enchant Energy’s plan to restart and retrofit the recently shuttered San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico with carbon capture equipment. It would be the biggest carbon capture project on a coal plant to date — if it overcomes a growing set of hurdles that includes tightening regulations and scarce financing. The proposed technology is the industry standard for coal-power-plant carbon capture.

Click on illustration to enlarge.


SOURCES: Environmental Protection Agency Toxic Release Inventory, EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory, Rocky Mountain Power, Enchant Energy.

 Illustration by Fiona Martin/High Country News

Jonathan Thompson is an acting co-editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands.