Many believe that carbon capture and sequestration is the most promising technology for limiting greenhouse gases to anything close to the levels envisaged in politicians’ speeches. But even assuming the technology proves viable, carbon capture is wildly expensive and unregulated.
There are no requirements for how long the carbon dioxide must remain below ground, who owns it, who is liable for leakage.
Even though the federal government has showered the many proposed carbon capture projects with subsidies, cost has killed all but two of them. (Remarkably, Southern Company has persevered with one of them — Kemper — although it is billions over budget.) Carbon capture will make no economic sense unless its costs sharply decline or a robust national carbon tax makes the elimination of carbon dioxide emissions a significant competitive advantage over conventional fossil-fuel power plants.
Right now the only regulation of captured carbon dioxide comes from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which prohibits carbon dioxide from being injected into bedrock in areas where it might pollute drinking water aquifers. There are no requirements for how long the carbon dioxide must remain below ground, who owns it or who is liable for environmental or personal injury caused by leakage. And if a power plant sells captured carbon dioxide for, say, enhanced oil recovery (as Kemper is doing), the plant bears no responsibility for the carbon dioxide once it leaves its premises. In fact, the new owner is not even obligated to inject it. If the oil company that buys the carbon dioxide decides it does not need it, the Clean Air Act allows the company to simply vent all of it into the atmosphere. This completely defeats the very purpose of carbon capture.
The government needs to regulate how captured carbon dioxide is stored and must certify disposal sites, clearly designating who (the generator and/or the injector) is responsible for releases. Without these measures there will be no public confidence in the safety of the project. And because the carbon dioxide must remain below ground for hundreds of years, carbon capture also needs a federal liability trust fund to assume responsibility for the long-term integrity of storage and management of injection sites.
Without a significant carbon price and a comprehensive regulatory regime, carbon capture a will remain a pipe dream — no matter how much taxpayer cash is thrown at it.
Op-ed by David Bookbinder; originally in The New York Times