By Richard Talley
June 10, 2018 - At the White House and on Capitol Hill, debates over energy policy are playing out with just as much invective as just about any other issue in America’s bitterly divided body politic. Even by those standards, however, Donald Trump’s plan to revive failing power plants with mandatory purchases has proven divisive. The latest episode features a new twist, though: some of the angriest pushback has come from the same conservative base that usually lambasts progressives and environmentalists over climate change.
With this much vitriol in the air, is there any hope for pro-fossil fuel conservatives and beleaguered conservationists to find common ground and do something – anything - about climate change at the federal level? As it turns out, there is at least one major area of violent agreement: investing in and developing carbon capture technologies.
In a sign of just how big the carbon capture tent truly is, the storied wildlife advocates at the Audubon Society recently joined the “Carbon Capture Coalition” that also includes the coal, gas, and oil industries. Audubon defended its decision by pointing to climate change as the number one threat to global bird species. As President and Chief Executive Officer David Yarnold said: “While some may be holding out for a perfect solution to climate change, we know that it will take an array of approaches to reduce planet-warming pollution.”
The Washington Examiner went so far as to run the headline “Audubon first conservation group to join clean coal coalition.” But that obviously isn’t what Audubon has in mind. Broad support for carbon capture exists not because fossil fuel industries and staunch environmentalists share the same vision, but because carbon capture technologies have so many different and critically important applications. Fossil fuel companies support carbon capture because it promises to make their industries cleaner. If conservationists are willing to make common cause with those sectors, it’s only because these technologies because the COP21 emissions goals are likely impossible to achieve without carbon capture.
The same holds true in Congress. To understand the level of bipartisan backing for carbon capture technologies on both sides of the aisle, you simply need to look at the “USE IT” Act which unanimously passed the Senate’s Environmental Public Works committee last month. The Act was introduced by Wyoming’s Republican Senator John Barrosso to promote carbon capture research and streamline approvals for CO2 pipelines. It passed through the committee, though, with the support of liberal lions like Bernie Sanders and Tammy Duckworth.
The Carbon Capture Coalition attempts to distill that widespread support into a coherent push for advancing these technologies. With over 50 members ranging from the energy industry, agriculture sector, labor unions and conservation organizations, the coalition successfully advocated for improving and extending the carbon capture tax credit, known as the “45Q tax credit,” earlier this year. The credit offers $50 for every metric ton of carbon dioxide buried underground and $35 for every ton put to work in other ways. An earlier version of the tax credit stood at $20 and $10 respectively, and was capped at 75 million tons.
Audubon’s decision to join the Coalition is in keeping with the “Birds and Climate Change Report” study it published in 2014. That study showed more than half of the bird species in North America, including the bald eagle, could lose their current habitat by 2080 due to rising temperatures. Given the threat climate change poses to birds (and humans), Audubon says it supports common sense, bipartisan solutions that reduce carbon emissions at the speed needed to protect birds.
The domestic discourse in the U.S. taking a unifying turn could even strengthen the hand of Donald Trump as he evangelizes that fossil fuels – notably coal – could still provide reliable energy supplies and power to emerging markets for decades to come. One of the main applications for developing and applying carbon capture technologies is to make baseload energy infrastructure sustainable. The Trump administration is currently laying the groundwork to share those technologies with other countries through a new global alliance it is designing to advocate for “clean and advanced fossil fuels.”
Just because the political support is there, however, does not mean that widespread adoption of carbon capture technologies is a done deal. First developed nearly 50 years ago, their use in climate change mitigation only began in the 1990s. Scaling up carbon capture projects hasn’t thus far proved easy or economical. Many environmental activists argue that carbon capture technologies amount to a “moral hazard” that make governments complacent about fossil fuel use.
And yet those fossil fuels don’t seem to be going anywhere anyway. Coal, for one, will not be leaving the global energy mix anytime soon. Today, about 30 percent of total world energy (and 40 percent of the world’s electricity) is supplied by coal. Deborah Adams of the International Energy Agency notes the world’s demand for coal actually increased in 2017 “because coal is a relatively cheap, readily available, secure, and reliable source of power.” While the Paris Climate Agreement set a global goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2060, even the head of the International Renewable Energy Agency is skeptical about the prospects of reaching that goal.
Most energy researchers believe carbon capture and storage will need to be a significant piece of any realistic plan to slow down climate change and prevent temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius in coming decades. With coal and other fossil fuels remaining very much part of the global energy mix, carbon capture represents the most realistic middle ground between two sides that otherwise stand miles apart.
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