In a first, California counts on carbon capture to meet its climate goals

By Anne C. Mulkern | 06/05/2024 06:58 AM EDT

State officials face criticism for their plan to reach net zero in part through carbon capture. They concede CCS is “uncertain.”

An oil refinery in California must reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

An oil refinery in California is the type of facility that the state hopes will use carbon capture technology to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Rich Pedroncelli/AP

California is planning to rely partly on carbon capture and storage to reach its highly ambitious emissions-reduction goals — a strategy the state itself says is “uncertain” because the technology is still being developed.

The intention to count on CCS to help California become carbon-neutral by 2045 drew criticism from some national and state experts, who called it risky to include the method in a key emissions-reduction plan.

“You’re assuming that the technology is going to get there, which is not certain,” said Sean O’Leary, senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley institute, a think tank focused on clean energy. “You’re gambling.”


California Air Resources Board spokesperson Dave Clegern acknowledged in an email that “deployment of CCS in California is uncertain given the need for financial, regulatory, permitting, and other support.”

The regulatory board, known as CARB, wrote in an April analysis of its plan to speed up greenhouse gas emissions reductions that “deployment of CCS technologies” is a “critical [greenhouse gas] abatement measure.”

Despite his caveat, Clegern said that “CCS will be an important tool to help achieve the 48 percent emission reduction level by 2030.” CARB identified the goal as an interim step to carbon neutrality.

Carbon capture is one of several CARB strategies to fight climate change in the nation’s most populous state.

California’s plan to use CCS is occurring amid national controversy about reliance on the technology. The powerful Edison Electric Institute, which represents large electricity producers, sued the Biden administration in May arguing that EPA is improperly relying on CCS to meet national emissions goals.

EPA’s rule requires some new gas plants and coal-fired units to begin capturing emissions for permanent storage by 2032 or to close by 2039. EEI said the technology isn’t ready for use

The California analysis focuses on implications of making the state’s cap-and-trade program more stringent. The analysis is “an early snapshot” of an upcoming plan — possibly released as early as this summer — to upgrade the nation’s largest carbon market, Clegern said.

California’s reliance on CCS is championed by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, a national political figure who touts his environmental record. In a letter to CARB Chair Liane Randolph in 2022, Newsom said, “It will not be possible to eliminate all emissions across our economy, so achieving carbon neutrality will rely on carbon sequestration.”

Newsom’s goal of using CCS to remove 20 million metric tons of carbon by 2030 is roughly the equivalent of stopping carbon emissions of seven 1,000-megawatt natural-gas-fired electric power plants, said O’Leary with the Ohio River Valley institute.

‘It’s not remotely feasible’

No commercial-sized CCS plant operates anywhere in the world, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, or IEEFA, a nonprofit that advocates for transition to a sustainable energy economy.

There are 15 pilot projects testing carbon capture at factories, including four in Texas, three in Kansas and two in Wyoming, the Congressional Budget Office reports.

No CCS projects exist in California. That’s in part because of permitting holdups, Clegern said.

The pilot projects reveal the current limits of the technology — and a problem with California’s CCS plan. Most of the pilots have capture rates below the level California assumed in its modeling and below what EPA wants at power plants.

The pilots capture 50 to 70 percent of the carbon emissions they’re targeting. Some recover less than 20 percent, IEEFA said.

California assumes a 90 percent capture rate in its estimate of greenhouse gas reductions.

“But we recognize that real world costs and capture efficiency will ultimately be facility dependent,” Clegern of CARB said.

The Biden administration’s EPA rules require capture devices to achieve at least 90 percent capture to keep power plants open past 2032, said Tara Righetti, University of Wyoming’s Occidental chair of energy and environmental policies.

California is planning for CCS to be installed on the “majority” of petroleum refining operations by 2030, according to CARB’s 2022 plan for how it will meet the state’s carbon-neutrality goal.

State modeling projects six to eight years for permitting and building the facilities, said Danny Cullenward, climate economist and vice chair of California’s Independent Emissions Market Advisory Committee.

“It’s not remotely feasible to build on these timelines even if the refineries wanted to do this,” Cullenward said in an email. The facilities are not in either planning or permitting phases, he added.

Clegern said that CCS is needed “in the coming decades” as fossil fuel use persists from “all the legacy vehicles on the road.” As fossil fuel use declines, California will have less need for CCS, Clegern said.

V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, criticized CARB for counting on CCS at natural-gas-fueled power plants that generate electricity.

“The idea that we have to preserve gas plants for reliability, and therefore not make them reduce emissions or be shut down, is an example of the magical thinking” by CARB, White said.

‘Carbon purity’ affects CCS costs

Others see a more promising future for CCS.

The technology behind carbon capture has existed for years, said Ben Grove, carbon storage manager with Clean Air Task Force, which advocates for technology and policy changes aimed at net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. CCS costs vary by site.

Some industrial facilities and power plants emit high-purity streams of carbon from flues, making it “really inexpensive to capture from those sources,” Grove said.

Carbon purity is much lower at cement plants and some natural gas power plants, “so it raises the cost of capture,” Grove added. At cement plants, carbon capture alone could cost $60 to $100 per carbon ton, “and then you have transport and storage on top,” Grove said, which could add $10 to $15 a ton.

California has seven cement plants, which in 2019 produced about 9 percent of the industrial sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, CARB data shows.

A federal tax credit now available through the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 provides $85 per ton of carbon captured and stored permanently in geologic formations.

That’s more than enough to cover the cost of capturing and storing carbon from an ethanol plant, which would run about $50, Grove said.

Covering costs of the capture is just part of the calculation, said O’Leary of the Ohio River Valley Institute. CCS payback also needs to include upfront expenses. Installing the equipment on an electricity power plant could cost more than $1 billion, O’Leary said.

Moreover, the federal tax credit of $85 is only available for 12 years, O’Leary said, and most power plants are meant to run for three decades.

And, O’Leary added, using capture equipment requires electricity, so an electricity-generating plant with CCS produces about 10 percent less than a similar size plant with no capture equipment. That cuts revenue for the CCS-equipped facility.

“That has to be made up for somewhere,” O’Leary said, “presumably, you know, from ratepayers unless more subsidies are enacted.”