Sunday, June 16, 2024

Boondoggle Watch: Carbon capture great for making things worse, study finds

The study I refer to didn't actually say that carbon capture makes things worse. But that is the only conclusion one can draw given that the capturing is done for the purpose of dramatically lengthening the life of oil wells that would otherwise close, according to a recent piece in DeSmog. The oil wells in question are in Saskatchewan and were scheduled to close in 2016. Now with carbon dioxide pumping into them, they could produce oil for somewhere between 39 and 84 more years.

Back in May I reminded readers of a more expansive definition of the word "boondoggle," one promulgated by author Dmitri Orlov. To wit: It's not just something that is wasteful. Ideally, it should be something which "create[s] additional problems that can only be addressed by yet more boondoggles."

Carbon capture, it turns out, provides an excellent complementary boondoggle to the machines mentioned in my previous piece, machines which extract carbon dioxide from air rather than at the source as is done with carbon capture. In this case the carbon dioxide comes from the Dakota Gasfication Plant in Beulah, North Dakota, which according to its website is "the only commercial-scale coal gasification facility in the United States that manufactures natural gas." The gas—made synthetically from lignite coal—is piped to various electric cooperatives in five states which burn it to generate electricity. The captured carbon dioxide is then transmitted via pipeline to the Weyburn and Midale oil fields in Saskatchewan and injected into oil wells to force oil out, something the industry refers to as enhanced oil recovery.

The machines mentioned above that extract carbon dioxide from the air (which are based in Iceland) suck in this greenhouse gas without knowing whence it comes. Some of the carbon dioxide could very well come from the burning of oil produced by the Weyburn and Midale oil fields, oil forced out of the ground by carbon dioxide. The champions of the carbon dioxide injections into those fields claim that not as much of carbon dioxide re-enters the atmosphere from the burning of oil that we now know would otherwise not be produced. Count me skeptical of this claim if the wells—which have been flowing with oil since 1954—continue to produce for another 80 years.

This is not carbon capture and storage so much as carbon capture and oil replacement as new oil not previously available gets extracted and burned. The project is officially called the IEA GHG Weyburn CO2 Monitoring and Storage Research Project, a name which leads one to believe that there is public money involved. And, indeed, in the fine print one finds the following:

We were founded in 1998 by: Saskatchewan Industry & Resources, Natural Resources Canada, The University of Regina, and Saskatchewan Research Council. We are funded by Canadian and international governments and industry.

So the project's boondoggle credentials are now certified. Public money is being "invested" in this research. But, of course, what seals the deal is that the project's purpose is to produce more fossils fuels to replace (at least indirectly) the ones originally burned to make the now injected carbon dioxide. That creates an opportunity to emit more carbon dioxide that, in turn, needs to be extracted from the air using more boondoggle machines like those nifty extractors in Iceland. There is no boondoggle like a boondoggle that leads to more boondoggles!

There are two other considerations when determining the boondoggle status of this particular project. First, some nearby residents complained that the carbon dioxide was leaking from the underground reservoirs. The project managers denied this, though they admitted that they do not monitor the whole site. Leakage, of course, would entirely negate the idea that the carbon dioxide is being "stored" to prevent damage to the climate.

Second, a savvy reporter I once met referred to carbon capture and storage as a "delay and fail" strategy by the fossil fuel industry. The industry has generated a lot of hoopla and elicited substantial public funds to supposedly help make the technology "commercially viable." The funds are spent on so-called pilot projects which take many, many years to reach their conclusion.

There is no reason to believe that absent huge subsidies, carbon capture and storage will ever be broadly viable. By the time the politicians and public have figured this out, the industry will have been able to burn through another couple decades of fossil fuels with few repercussions. Of course, one of the advantages of spending limited public research funds on boondoggles like this one is that such spending will starve the alternatives to fossil fuels (including conservation and efficiency) of funds these alternatives might otherwise have had access to.

So, in carbon capture and storage we have a truly magnificent boondoggle that meets the qualifications on all counts. It therefore can be classified as a "quintessential" boondoggle. This must be distinguished from a "pure" boondoggle which burns through a lot of money without producing any tangible result; "asteroid mining" is an example mentioned in my previous piece.

As global society advances further and further into its energy, resource and climate predicament, we can count on the creation of ever more ingenious boondoggles. This is because truly effective responses would require sacrifices and much more intensified cooperation. It is much easier and more fun to contemplate how our myriad boondoggles are going usher in an era of plenty and a stable environment. The fun, however, would be destroyed if those doing the contemplation realized they are actually focused on boondoggles castles in the air.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at

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