Democrats’ fragile package of sweeping climate and infrastructure legislation could end up being sustained by a technology known as carbon capture and storage. In other words, if he does not separate it.
The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday on a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes billions of dollars in government support for carbon capture, which extracts carbon dioxide from stack emissions or directly from the air and pumps it under Earth. But on Monday, a coalition of hundreds of progressive environmental groups sent an open letter to President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress calling on them to reject the technology.
“Carbon capture is not a climate solution,” the groups wrote in the letter, which was accompanied by an advertisement in the Washington Post. “On the contrary, investing in carbon capture delays the necessary transition from fossil fuels and other combustible energy sources, and poses significant new risks to the environment, health and safety, especially for black, brown communities. and indigenous people already overburdened by industrial pollution, dispossession and the impacts of climate change.
The letter reflects a split that has emerged in the advocacy community and among Democrats. Many of the country’s most influential traditional environmental groups did not sign the letter, while the organizations that signed included more left-wing, justice-oriented and local groups.
Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, has played an increasingly central role in climate policy discussions over the past two years. It is one of the few climate actions to benefit from bipartite support. Most major unions are also backing CCS, arguing that its deployment could create new jobs and help extend the life of some gas or coal-fired power plants, which often provide well-paying union jobs. And the fossil fuel industries have promoted the technology for decades.
Some environmental groups have also supported carbon capture technology, arguing that it could prove essential to achieving ambitious climate goals. Global emissions have continued to rise, they note, and the world is already feeling the dangerous effects of warming like the heat waves, fires and floods that have hit North America and Europe in recent weeks. In particular, according to these organizations, CCS could be linked to industrial sources such as steel and cement manufacturing, which currently do not have good emission-free alternatives, and could allow carbon dioxide to be extracted. directly from the air to help reduce airborne concentrations to safer levels.
But some progressive groups, and many that focus on environmental justice, have opposed carbon capture, saying it only serves to extend the lifespan of fossil fuels when those fuels should instead be phased out most. quickly possible.
“If the argument is that we must not stop burning fossil fuels, we are done with the conversation,” said Natalie Mebane, policy director of 350.org, who was among the groups that signed the letter. . “Because we are going to stop burning fossil fuels. “
As with so many national policy discussions this year, many may revolve around Senator Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia who is a moderate and long-time supporter of the fossil fuel industry and chairman of the Senate Committee on the energy and natural resources.
Last week, this committee approved legislation that will serve as language for the energy sections of a larger infrastructure package. The bill includes billions of dollars to support CCS, including measures to fund and accelerate the development of infrastructure to transport carbon dioxide from industrial capture sites to underground storage sites and the money to produce hydrogen from natural gas with carbon capture technology.
“This is a big first,” said Brad Crabtree, who heads the Carbon Capture Coalition, which includes companies in the coal, oil and other industrial sectors, as well as unions and some environmental groups. “It would be a policy of global significance if adopted.”
The carbon capture provisions could prove key to sustaining Manchin’s support for a separate, broader budget deal that would address climate change and other issues, and require the support of the 50 Senate Democrats to pass. Climate advocates have been pushing for this deal to include a clean electricity standard that would force utilities to switch to carbon-free energy sources, and a major question has been what types of energy could be considered as “clean”. Last week, Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) released a statement saying it was proposing a clean electricity standard, which considers fossil fuel power plants with CCS to be clean, had been part of the deal.
A spokeswoman for Smith declined to comment further.
A climate tax credit for big oil companies
Energy companies have lobbied for increased government support for carbon capture and storage. In June, Greenpeace UK published an interview he had conducted undercover with ExxonMobil lobbyist Keith McCoy, who identified technology as one of the company’s top lobbying priorities. McCoy, who believed he was speaking with a recruiter looking to hire a lobbyist, said Exxon was seeking tech support in the bipartisan infrastructure package.
“We are entering the carbon capture space, so now we are discussing how we can get the government to support some of our activities,” McCoy said, according to a transcript of the interview provided to Inside Climate News.
McCoy identified a tax credit known as 45Q, which can be claimed by companies that capture carbon dioxide from their operations, as a key part of this government support.
Lawmakers have introduced several bills this year that would extend and increase the value of this tax credit, and Crabtree said his group hopes to see elements of those bills included in the Democrats’ budget deal.
As Inside Climate News reported last year, Exxon has likely benefited more than any other company from the tax credit and may have received hundreds of millions of dollars in tax benefits from it over the past decade, according to estimates based on public documents. While the IRS said last year that $ 1 billion was claimed on the credit, it does not disclose which companies claimed the credit or how much a sole proprietorship received.
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Some advocates have pointed to Exxon’s use of the tax credit to claim that carbon capture and storage is an example of how the fossil fuel industry has manipulated policy in its favor. One of the only current markets for captured carbon dioxide is the oil industry, which injects the gas into depleted oil wells to extract more oil from the ground. Under the tax credit, businesses are allowed to claim it even if they sell the CO2 for that use, and that’s exactly what Exxon is doing with the carbon dioxide captured at its Wyoming natural gas processing plant. .
“How the hell is that a climate tax credit? »Said Mébane. The letter sent to Biden and Democratic leaders by progressive groups calls on lawmakers to ban the use of the tax credit when carbon dioxide is used for oil production. The letter was also signed by some Canadian environmental groups and sent to the leaders of that country, where the oil industry plans to build carbon capture plants.
An Exxon spokesperson declined to comment.
As oil companies come under pressure from investors and advocates to scale their businesses, many are turning more to CCS. In April, Exxon announced a proposal to create a CCS “hub” in Houston, where industrial facilities would be equipped with the technology and linked together by pipelines to transport the gas to underground storage sites. The company said the effort could cost $ 100 billion and would need government support.
The proposal highlighted another concern of some environmental groups: even if such a CCS center was capable of removing all carbon dioxide from industrial sources, it could do little about the toxic pollution emitted by refineries. , petrochemical plants and other sources that have weighed on the unhealthy-looking justice communities environment.
Crabtree said that because the government will play a role in financing and supporting its development, policymakers may demand that the deployment of carbon capture be combined with other technologies to combat these harmful pollutants as well. And he pointed to bipartisan support for the technology as proof that it should be part of any climate bill.
“It’s not a choice or a proposition here,” he said. “It must be an ‘and’.”