The Pros and Cons of Carbon Capture Technology

Kicking our addiction.

You can see the appeal of the idea: instead of immediately cutting our use of oil, coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels, we wean ourselves off gradually, stashing their planet-warming CO2 emissions underground until we figure out how to kick our addiction.

Since the 1970s, industrialists at cement kilns, steel mills, and other factories have used chemical scrubbers to bind to CO2 before it billows out the smokestack. More recent technologies have developed ways to literally suck the stuff out of the air, after which it’s transformed into other useful products or piped deep underground into stable geologic formations (old oil and gas fields, saline aquifers, basalt flows) to keep it forever out of the atmosphere.

More than a handful of companies are working on scaling up the idea, including several well-capitalized Canadian ones. Carbon Engineering in Squamish, B.C., sucks CO2 directly out of the air to make synthetic fuel. Pond Technologies of Markham, Ontario, feeds it to algae, which it then turns into animal feed, cosmetics, and biodiesel. Meanwhile, in Calgary, Whitecap Resources has injected over two million tonnes of CO2 a kilometre and a half underground every year—the equivalent of taking eight million cars off the road.

As you might expect, more than a handful of environmental groups oppose the idea, including several well-organized Canadian ones. In July 2021, over 500 groups across North America and beyond—from activists such as Sierra Club Canada to values-oriented ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s—took out full-page ads in The Washington Post and The Hill Times, urging governments to resist the temptation to put money behind a shortcut solution that diverts investment from other green tech. Scientists and advocates also point out the questionable track record of previous carbon capture projects—along with the risk of a storage leak or blowout that would contaminate groundwater, smother local plants and wildlife, and release millions of tonnes of previously sequestered gas back where it came from.

Both sides make a strong argument. In the short term, carbon capture is probably the most effective, least economically disruptive solution for a problem becoming more intractable by the day. Over the long term, it’s hard to see it as anything other than sweeping humanity’s most pressing problem under the rug—or to be more precise, under the mountain.