I first heard about carbon capture and storage during my graduate studies at Cornell. The global coal industry was promoting CCS as a way to clean up coal-plant pollution  and slow climate change. But its effectiveness was not completely clear.

Coal is the dirtiest energy source, generating pollution and waste products such as toxic heavy metals. CCS takes carbon dioxide from a smokestack once coal has been burned, turns it into fluid, and then pumps it underground into geological formations, where it is supposed to stay, essentially, forever. 

A major environmental concern is that carbon dioxide stored underground could cause groundwater contamination. Remediation for this type of contamination would be extremely expensive and, in some instances, impossible.

There were, and are, so many unanswered questions about this technology. My role at Greenpeace International was to help make its risks understandable.

I read a draft report on CCS, written for Greenpeace by a consulting company. I found it too technical and overly focused on critiquing the assumptions used to model how much CCS could contribute to tackling climage change; there was no mention of the environmental and public health concerns Greenpeace should raise. So I turned to the literature. Finding nothing critical of CCS, I spent six months reading the pro-CCS literature. With the help of Greenpeace’s scientists, I drew out the environmental concerns.

My paper, “False Hope: Why Carbon Storage and Capture Won’t Save the Climate,” was published in the Greenpeace Report and presented at the 2008 CCS conference in Pittsburgh, to inform the scientific community, policymakers, and other stakeholders.

It was important to challenge the coal industry’s rosy view of “clean” coal. The report led to more skepticism and criticism of the technology. My work was cited in numerous articles expressing concerns about CCS. It became a valuable tool for people who knew CCS wasn’t the silver-bullet solution that many said it was; they now had the ammunition to take it to the policy level.

The development of CCS is stagnating, and many high-profile projects have been cancelled; this extraordinarily complicated technology is collapsing under its own weight. The economy is a factor; CCS projects are so expensive that getting them funded is difficult. And countless unanswerable legal questions about CCS projects exist. Who’s liable, for example, if the carbon dioxide from a CCS project in South Africa is stored in a formation in Mozambique and that formation leaks?

Bottom line: CCS is another excuse to burn coal. The only way to avoid catastrophic climate change is to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. My focus is getting the U.S. and other countries on the right path to renewable energy.

Emily Rochon, L’13, worked as a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace International. She wrote the first comprehensive critique of CCS, the industry’s proposed technique for making coal “clean.”