The False Promise of Carbon Capture in Louisiana and Beyond

Katlyn Schmitt

Dec. 1, 2021

Carbon capture use and storage is at the center of the national climate policy debate, promoted by the oil and gas industry, the private sector, and even some environmental organizations as a solution to the climate crisis.

The federal infrastructure package that President Biden recently signed into law appropriates more than $10.3 billion for the nationwide buildout of carbon capture infrastructure. Preliminary deals on the Build Back Better Act also contain expansions of the primary federal tax credit incentivizing carbon capture (45Q Tax Credit). The fossil fuel industry is targeting Louisiana as an emerging hub for carbon capture, mainly because of the large concentration of industrial facilities that emit carbon dioxide in the stretch of land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

While Louisiana must move quickly and aggressively in pursuit of climate change solutions, deploying carbon capture to reach net-zero emissions is not the answer. As the authors of a new Center for Progressive Reform policy brief note, it is an unproven climate strategy, delays the green transition, and foists environmental burdens on historically disadvantaged communities.

Carbon capture is an energy-intensive, cost-prohibitive, and risk-laden process that involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial smokestacks, compressing it, and sending it through pressurized pipelines to injection wells, where it is sent underground either for long-term storage (carbon capture and storage, or CCS) or, more commonly, for use (carbon capture and use, or CCU) in an extractive process called enhanced oil recovery.

Putting aside the climate costs associated with using captured carbon dioxide to extract oil in depleted fields, carbon capture equipment has only been able to capture a small fraction of overall carbon dioxide emissions. The world's largest post-combustion carbon capture project, the Petra Nova project in southeast Texas, approximated it would have captured as much as 90 percent of the plant's overall carbon dioxide emissions; in actuality, it only captured 7 percent, all of which was used for enhanced oil recovery.

Claims of "permanent" storage of injected carbon dioxide from CCU or CCS are also unfounded. A recent report from the National Energy Technology Laboratory estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of the carbon dioxide used for enhanced oil recovery remains underground after each injection cycle. With CCS, stored carbon dioxide must be adequately contained and regulated for thousands of years to come — and too many risks and uncertainties are associated with this relatively new technology.

Louisiana's Department of Natural Resources estimates the state has more than 4,000 abandoned or orphaned oil and gas wells. These wells create even more pathways by which carbon dioxide can leak back into the atmosphere.

Carbon capture will not help contain global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal of the Glasgow Climate Pact from the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) and the United Nations Paris Agreement on Climate Change. An investment in carbon capture will result in the expansion of the fossil fuel industries and will prolong the state's dependence on fossil fuels by enabling the largest sources of air pollution to continue polluting indefinitely while simultaneously requiring those sources to use more fossil fuels in the process.

Investing in carbon capture rather than carbon-free energy sources, like geothermal, solar, and wind power, will increase total social costs, including continued fossil fuel use, more air pollution and oil mining, and continued carbon dioxide emissions (both in the short and long term). The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Committee recently concluded that carbon capture won't benefit marginalized communities.

Exacerbating climate injustice

Deploying carbon capture in Louisiana would, in fact, exacerbate climate injustice by foisting the risks and burdens of this technology on low-income communities of color.

The industrial corridor in Louisiana targeted for carbon capture is home to more than 200 oil and gas refineries, petrochemical plants, and other industrial chemical facilities that release significant quantities of carbon dioxide and other harmful pollutants. Formerly known as "Plantation Country" because it held more than 500 sugarcane plantations, the corridor is known today as "Cancer Alley" because decades of poor air and water quality from industrial pollution have heightened cancer rates and other health ailments in the region.

The predominantly Black, Latino, and low-income communities in Cancer Alley and the Indigenous and Asian American communities near the coast bear the brunt of these poor health outcomes. Cancer risks from air toxics in Cancer Alley disproportionately affect historically marginalized communities, with more significant impacts skewing toward the poorest communities and those with the highest percentage of Black people, one study found.

Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, aptly points out that in Cancer Alley, "environmental degradation and cancer risk manifest as the byproducts of colonialism and slavery." Now, these same communities stand to face continued degradation from carbon capture and its associated pipeline infrastructure. They are being asked to do the unthinkable: Trust a set of industries that have historically polluted their air, land, and water, so much so that it has made them sick and shortened their lives.

Toward true climate solutions

True climate solutions don't further endanger environmental justice communities.

To protect the health of the roughly 1.7 million individuals living in Cancer Alley, those in other communities overburdened by pollution, coastal areas, and other environmentally fragile zones in Louisiana:

  • The Louisiana State Legislature should pass a statewide moratorium on the siting of any new carbon capture and storage projects in or near any community overburdened by polluting facilities or in or near environmentally fragile areas such as coastal wetlands. No federal funding should go to projects in these areas of the state.

  • Carbon capture projects should be ineligible for any state (and federal) subsidies.

  • Philanthropic leaders and organizations should make sufficient resources available to support environmental justice communities and advocacy groups in Louisiana's Cancer Alley so they can use the array of legal tools available to oppose carbon capture and hold Louisiana, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and private developers accountable for any proposed construction of carbon capture and storage operations.

  • Governors and policymakers, including in Louisiana, should allocate resources and create incentives to support the necessary transition away from fossil fuel use and production to carbon-free, clean, and renewable energy sources.

  • Significant investments must be made in Cancer Alley and Louisiana's coastal communities to enhance quality of life, mitigate decades of harm done by toxic industries, and support a community-driven recovery that prioritizes the voices of those most impacted.

Read the full policy brief.

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