By Tim Faulkner
February 11, 2019 - As the Green New Deal makes national headlines, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., is advancing a less-heralded approach to cutting climate emissions, one with the added benefit of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Whitehouse’s latest bill, the Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies Act (USE IT Act) offers $50 million in financial incentives for carbon-capture research and infrastructure for a range of technologies, such as innovative systems that take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and smokestacks.
“The science from the world’s top experts, including our own National Academies, shows that we ought to be reversing the carbon pollution driving climate change. If we don’t, it will be nearly impossible to avoid the worst of climate change,” Whitehouse wrote in a press release.
Carbon capture, sometimes referred to as negative emissions technologies, has been lumped with less-proven methods such as bioengineering and artificial manipulation of the weather to slow the heating of the atmosphere.
But, unlike bioengineering, several carbon-capture systems are functioning on a small scale and simply need market incentives to make them enticing to polluters. Captured carbon dioxide is stored underground or used for carbonating beverages. It also feeds algae and is sequestered in raw materials for making plastics, chemicals, cement, and biofuels.
Many academics and climate groups, including the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, support carbon-capture technologies but worry about perfecting and scaling these systems in time to keep the planet from exceeding a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in temperature. Some environmental groups such as the National Resources Defense Council oppose subsidies for carbon capture because they see it as supporting fossil-fuel extraction, particularly for the process of pumping CO2 into wells to withdraw residue oil reserves, called enhanced oil recovery.
Big carbon emitters, such as oil and natural-gas extraction companies, aren’t enthusiastic about backing the potential of carbon capture.
“I would like to say they are helpful but I can’t,” Whitehouse said.
Companies such as ExxonMobil, Whitehouse said, feign support for carbon capture so they can tell shareholders they are taking on climate change. But the pledge is simply a red herring that gives justification for the extraction and drilling of fossil fuels for decades, according to Whitehouse.
“I would have to say that the fossil-fuel industry is still trying to deny the problem and shut down any and all political solutions,” he said. “They don't seem to have a long-term plan.”
But there is support for carbon capture among coal-mining states. Removing carbon from coal emissions gives hope to an embattled industry and creates rare bipartisan action during a time of political stalemate. The USE IT Act is co-sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and endorsed by senators Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Tom Carper D-Del., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., Tina Smith, D-Minn., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
The bill comes a year after Whitehouse scored a win with passage of a carbon-capture bill last year. The FUTURE Act extended and increased tax credits for carbon-capture technologies, helping companies such as Agcore Technologies LLC of Cranston, which grows high-protein algae used in foods.
The USE IT Act goes further by increasing funding for infrastructure, such as pipelines for direct air capture systems. These facilities are being developed by BioProcessH20 of Portsmouth and Global Thermostat of New York City.
The money will help scale up development of existing carbon-capture systems, like the one at a coal power plant in Saskatchewan. And carbon capture startups backed by inventors like Bill Gates will get a boost.
This funding helps these companies get closer to profitability. And coupled with a carbon fee program, or carbon tax, emitters of greenhouse gases will be more inclined to see carbon capture as a way to remove and reuse their excess CO2 and save money.
The USE IT Act is supported by environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy, Clean Air Task Force, and the Audubon Society.
“We need both carbon capture on smokestacks and carbon removal from the atmosphere if we are going to prevent the worst impacts of climate change,” said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force. “Adoption by Congress of the USE IT Act would encourage early stage innovation for carbon removal and help develop needed infrastructure for both technologies.”