Danger Ahead: The Public Health Disaster That Awaits From Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS)

Fossil fuel industry advocates have made plenty of promises about the potential of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to help solve the climate crisis — but the technology’s track record is more harmful than helpful. Here’s what you should know about the public health and environmental impacts of CCS.

What exactly is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)?

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is a process that captures carbon dioxide (CO2) before it enters the atmosphere from power plants or industrial sources. The CO2 is then pressurized into liquid form and transported through pipelines to a potential storage site, where it may be injected underground in rock formations. You may have also heard of carbon capture, usage, and sequestration (CCUS), a similar process that attempts to reuse that captured CO2 for other purposes, such as commercial products, to offset the financial cost of the process. Nearly all CCS sites in the US use the captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery.

CCS is currently being promoted by the fossil fuel industry as a potential solution to climate change — after all, it’s in their best interest to prolong the life of the existing fossil fuel infrastructure. However, there’s more than one catch.

It’s a highly experimental technology with an unproven track record of actually reducing CO2 emissions or removing pre-existing CO2 from the atmosphere — a necessary step for actually solving the climate crisis. A recent study by Professor Mark Jacobson at Stanford University shows that a carbon capture-equipped coal plant only results in a net 10.5-10.8% CO2 captured over 20 years. Moreover, the application of carbon capture technology increases the local air pollution and total social costs in relation to the “no capture” scenario. Even when a CCS facility operates perfectly, it does not reduce emissions at a meaningful rate.

CCS is also very expensive. Unlike cost-competitive technologies such as solar and wind, it would not be able to reach economic viability without significant public subsidies.

What are the public health hazards caused by CCS?

At every stage of the CCS process — from capture to transport to storage — deadly risks abound, according to hundreds of scientists.

CCS equipment to capture CO2 from the smokestack of a power plant requires energy to operate. To produce this energy, the power plant must burn 10% to 40% more fuel than a similar plant without CCS. (Scientists call this the “energy penalty” for using CCS.) Depending on the specific power plant, burning this additional fuel can release even more deadly toxic pollution — sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and ultra-fine particles (PM2.5). These toxicants are associated with many different illnesses, including heart attacks, cancer, asthma, low birth weight, birth defects, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and brain damage in children. As epidemiologist and toxicologist Devra Davis and others have said, “Reductions in burning of fossil fuels can yield powerful, immediate benefits to public health by reducing the adverse effects of local air pollution.” Some toxicants emitted by fossil fuel used for CCS processes, such as benzene, ethylbenzene, and n-hexane, are listed as reproductive or developmental toxicants and carcinogens under Prop 65 and thus are recognized as such by the State of California.

During the CCS process, CO2 is pressurized and turned into liquid for transport. These pipelines are placed near fossil fuel industrial sites. The pressurized pipelines used to transport CO2 during the CCS process may leak or rupture, causing a dangerous accident that asphyxiates nearby residents. Recent studies show that CO2 could permanently contaminate underground aquifers, poisoning precious drinking water for millions of people. In the event of a technological failure or earthquake, CO2 would immediately be released back to the atmosphere.

The existing fossil fuel infrastructure that would host future CCS technology is disproportionately placed in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, increasing their risk of exposure to harmful chemicals and pollution from natural gas turbine-powered CCS equipment. Increased emissions of hazardous air pollutants coming from power plants including NOx, Particulates (PM2.5), Ozone, which lead to decreased lung function, asthma onset, asthma exacerbation, increased response to allergens, CV disease, bronchitis, cognitive decline, dementia, preterm birth, birth defects and more.

What about the environmental impact of CCS?

CCS can increase the water requirements of a power plant by anywhere from 56% to 90%. Together, CO2 and water form carbonic acid, which can leach toxic metals out of rocks. CO2 seeping into water supplies from deep underground has been shown to make water dangerous to drink. Water that has been in contact with CO2 can leach arsenic, uranium, radium, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury and selenium into the water at levels that exceed federal drinking water standards. In short, CO2 seeping into water can make it dangerous to drink for humans and animals.

Ultimately, CCS technology is a false climate solution that simply doesn’t work. It will only make harmful emissions worse, straining the health of overburdened communities and delaying our progress toward meaningful climate progress.

What are the alternatives to CCS?

The most effective way to address the climate crisis is to keep fossil fuels in the ground and adopt renewable, sustainable energy resources. Timely climate action requires that we cease the emission of new CO2 into the atmosphere as quickly as possible and rapidly phase out the extraction, transport, refining, and burning of fossil fuels.

There are multiple proven climate crisis solutions that pose no risk to communities and do not extend the life of fossil fuel extraction, refining, burning and emissions. They include:

How can I raise awareness about CCS’s detrimental effects on public health and the environment?

Our team at PSR-LA hosts regular educational events and promotes action items to advance environmental justice and protect public health. Stay connected with us on social media or sign up for our email newsletter. And if you’re a health or medical professional or student, consider becoming a PSR-LA member!

Additional Resources

CCS Webinar Briefing

SCHN Newsletter on CCS

Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles (PSR-LA) places health and equity at the center of public policy. For over 40 years, we have elevated the trusted voices of health care professionals to support transformative, community-led movements for environmental justice and nuclear disarmament. Our programs equip doctors, nurses, public health workers, allied health care professionals and students with the tools they need to successfully advocate for policies that foster healthier, stronger communities across Southern California and beyond.

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