Report: Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage a Mistake

A new report by Rachel Smolker and Almuth Ernsting of Biofuelwatch condemns carbon capture and storage (CCS) as setting the stage for increased burning of climate-busting biomass and fossil fuels for energy, in effect keeping us from looking at the way the way we produce—and consume—energy.


BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage): Climate saviour or dangerous hype? reveals the technical and financial unlikelihood of reducing carbon dioxide emissions through carbon capture and storage, how the technology will result in the burning of even more biomass and fossil fuels, and points out the “serious risks and hazards” inherent in the process.  

BECCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from biomass power facilities by “using chemical and physical absorption, filtering membranes, or adsorption,” transporting the gas via truck, ships, or pipelines, “and injecting it into geological formations” beneath the Earth’s surface.

Smolker and Ernsting demonstrate that, instead of BECCS preventing runaway climate change, “promises of future CCS capability have been used as rationale for construction of new ‘CCS-ready’ coal and biomass burning facilities.” Oil, coal, and biomass developers are hoping to employ CCS to stay within CO2 allowances mandated by the European Union while continuing to burn their polluting product.

The report concludes that BECCS will lead to “a new form of ‘underground’ land grab,” mainly in the global South. The report authors caution that the use of BECCS “would lead to massively increased demand for biomass and attendant negative impacts on peoples and lands.”

CCS is also a method for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) which involves “forcing more oil out of existing depleted wells,” oil which might otherwise remain in the ground. A major impetus for CCS is the “quest to exploit more oil from partially depleted reservoirs which requires a large continuous stream of cheap CO2.” The Center for Climate Change and Energy Solutions (formerly Pew Center for Climate Change) advocates for tax credits and other pro-EOR policy, “claiming as much as 60 billion barrels of oil (compared to 25 billion barrels exploited form all US oil reserves to date) could be accessed from US oil deposits” through the technology. Roughly 80% of BECCS in the US “involve capturing CO2 from ethanol refineries and using it to extract more oil,” according to the report.

Even if BECCS from power stations becomes feasible—which the report casts doubt upon due to “huge” and “largely prohibitive” costs—“the evidence suggests that the long term reliability of underground storage cannot be guaranteed” and may result in leakage. Earthquakes and other natural disasters are a further threat to long term carbon storage and “any sudden large release could be extremely dangerous, since exposure to elevated concentrations of CO2 can be lethal.”

Any sort of failure in carbon storage could “undermine efforts to reduce emissions and protect climate,” with report authors explaining that “even a 1% leakage rate would result in all of the CO2 being released again within a century.”

Much of the report focuses on the expansion of biomass incineration for energy predicted to accompany the further development of CCS, including “a more than six-fold increase in industrial bioenergy production from 2007,” according to the International Energy Authority’s Greenhouse Gas R&D Programme. Smolker and Ernsting state that if carbon capture and storage were implemented on a large scale in an attempt to geo-engineer the climate it would “require massive amounts of biomass—in the order of hundreds of millions of hectares of new dedicated plantations.”

BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage): Climate saviour or dangerous hype? makes short work of biomass industry and government claims that bioenergy is carbon neutral, citing recent studies which demonstrate that “large-scale bioenergy including biomass combustion and other processes generally result in even more greenhouse gas emissions than the fossil fuels they are intended to replace.” In regards to industry assertions that bioenergy CCS would be “carbon negative,” the report concludes that “if bioenergy is not carbon neutral in the first place, then adding capture and storage certainly cannot render it carbon negative.”

Financially, CCS requires “further equipment, infrastructure (including pipelines), monitoring, energy and financial investment,” verification and insurance. Estimates reach “up to $80 or more per metric ton” of CO2 from power stations, and “those costs would most likely be passed on to ratepayers.” Other costs are likely to be borne by taxpayers as “worldwide, governments have pledged on the order of $25 billion for the support of CCS projects.”

Costs aside, BECCS is very inefficient in regards to Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI), as “11-40% more fuel would need to be burnt for the same energy output,” since “the process itself requires energy.”

“There is little real-world experience” with carbon capture and storage, warns the report. “There is however considerable, (disproportionate) hype and expectation.”

The future of BECCS from power stations is uncertain since the technology “involves such high costs—both in terms of finance and additional energy required—that the prospect of large-scale application appears remote.” Just the same, grassroots community opposition to carbon capture and storage projects has already begun in Ohio, Germany, and the Netherlands.