The Biden administration relaunched and renamed the Department of Energy’s office of fossil fuels to take a new approach to advancing besieged carbon technology, backed by billions of dollars approved by Congress and the country’s climate goals. mid-century.
The Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management will link carbon capture, transport, storage, long-term monitoring and environmental justice into a comprehensive carbon strategy linked to climate goals, officials said. DOE. So far, it has unveiled a new mission statement, brought in carbon experts to top positions, created a division to study carbon dioxide pipelines, committed to advancing the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and targeted industrial sources of carbon beyond electricity generation.
Energy ministry officials are examining “how we can do things differently, responsibly, sustainably and fairly – and this is entirely new to this office,” said Shuchi Talati, chief of staff at the Office of the Energy Ministry. fossil fuel and carbon management. in an interview.
The office has also just received an infusion of new cash. Congress this month approved $ 12.1 billion for DOE’s carbon management programs, more than three times the funding allowed for carbon capture under the 2009 stimulus legislation. adds to the hundreds of millions of dollars Congress approved last December for carbon programs, including those aimed at removing the atmosphere and emissions from the industrial sector outside of power generation.
âHaving the money in itself is a huge change,â said Talati.
The work of the office has thrilled followers of carbon capture technology who argue that it is absolutely necessary to stop emissions. The Biden administration wants to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector by 2035 and in the entire U.S. economy by 2050.
“The administration has taken it up a notch,” Julio Friedmann, senior researcher at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and former head of the energy department of the Office of Fossil Energy under the Obama administration.
But environmentalists say the bureau’s actions prolong the use of climate-damaging fossil fuels with no guarantees that the technology will work.
influenced by coal
The agency began research into carbon capture in earnest in the 2000s, with politics heavily influenced by coal interests pushing for “clean coal” technology, said Charles McConnell, director of the Center for Carbon Management. in Energy and Sustainability at the University of Houston.
Congress failed to pass a carbon tax that would have genuinely spurred the adoption of large-scale carbon capture, said McConnell, who led the office of fossil energy from 2011 to 2013. Many Demonstration projects funded by the 2009 stimulus package “never saw the light of day” despite government support, he said.
During the Trump administration, “we lost a lot of ground” on carbon capture as the United States withdrew from global climate leadership pacts, McConnell said. But multinational companies have started to see the value of capturing and using carbon, led by oil and gas industry giants such as
Funding from the Energy Ministry, combined with commitments from the private sector, could lead to a major push to phase out emissions across industries – not just coal, not just power plants – as a key climate policy, did he declare.
But coal must remain a core tenet of the program, given the continued construction of coal-fired power plants in places like China and India and the promise to keep America’s coal communities afloat, said Steven Winberg, who led the office of fossil energies from 2017 to 2021.
Biden’s climate goals can be met “without removing all that infrastructure” from fossil-fuel power plants, Winberg said. “It is a political decision rather than a rational and technical decision.”
Despite criticism, the Trump administration’s office of fossil fuels has made tangible progress on carbon capture, Winberg said, reducing the costs of capturing a ton of carbon by about 25% and going beyond coal for natural gas and industrial emissions.
âIf there is any indication or discussion that we weren’t focused on this, it just isn’t true,â Winberg said.
The shock of climate goals?
Some environmental groups believe the Biden administration’s carbon capture efforts are contrary to its climate goals.
Research dollars bolster the sustainability of fossil fuel interests without any guarantee that the technology can work at scale, said Dan Zegart, senior researcher at the Climate Investigations Center.
The need for carbon dioxide pipelines to transport captured emissions to permanent storage facilities or to places where they could be recycled would bolster fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, Zegart said.
Zegart’s organization has asked the Department of Energy and states for their carbon management plans. He would prefer to see investments in renewables, batteries and âvirtually every other solutionâ discussed in the climate debate.
“Why on earth would we want to stake our future and the future of climate change mitigation on such unproven, potentially dangerous technology that will certainly be unpopular when people realize they are going to end up living among a very large network of pipelines and carbon capture facilities? Zegart said.
Critics say the dangers stem from leaks or ruptures of pipelines. Zegart cited a 2020 pipeline leak that sickened residents of Sartaria, Mississippi.
The DOE’s office of fossil energy, however, sees carbon technologies as essential to achieving climate goals, Talati said. The office plans to look at regulatory uncertainties around carbon pipelines, she said.
âThis remains a difficult question, as we don’t know at what scale we will build pipelines, and how robust the infrastructure will be and how badly we will need it,â Talati said.
Learn from the past
Cost overruns, project delays and technical challenges have hampered projects at fossil fuel plants in Mississippi, North Dakota and Australia, Senator Martin Heinrich (DN.M.) told Brad Crabtree , Biden’s candidate for the office, during his confirmation hearing in October. .
“Why should we continue to subsidize carbon capture technology when its track record is one of many large-scale failures?” Heinrich asked Crabtree, whose appointment is awaiting confirmation from the Senate.
Recent modeling “clearly shows” that mid-century climate goals depend on the deployment of economy-wide carbon capture, Crabtree replied.
The office would take into account “a thorough review of mistakes that have been made in the past,” Talati said. “We understand how the protests failed.”
The office is looking to help companies that may not have the funding or investors who are willing to take a risk on carbon capture technology, Talati said.
âThat’s the role of the federal government,â she said.