Capturing Carbon Emissions Could Move World to Clean Energy Future
By Byron Dorgan and Haley Barbour
July 10, 2019 - The United States and the world will be using fossil fuels for some time. This, to borrow a phrase, is an inconvenient fact. But it is one that our country must come to terms with if we are to create and commercialize technologies that respond to the global demand for reduced greenhouse gas emissions and position our economy to thrive in the process. One of these technologies is direct air capture, which uses emerging advanced systems to remove carbon dioxide directly from the ambient air, and safely stores the carbon dioxide or redirects it for commercial purposes.
Along with other carbon capture and storage technologies, direct air capture is today increasingly viewed by energy experts as an integral component to the transition to a low carbon future. In fact, no less than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its most recent major report last fall, stipulated that negative emission technologies like direct air capture will likely play a major role in long term climate protection.
For many companies, and the millions of employees and the hundreds of millions of consumers who produce and use fossil fuels, direct air capture and other carbon removal technologies are important tools that hold the potential to create economic value as part of a global energy transition. This is also true for the many businesses that rely on fossil fuels as well as for those difficult to decarbonize manufacturing and industrial sectors.
To help move this process forward and position the United States on the leading edge of this emerging industry, we are joining other labor, business, environmental, and other leaders in forming a new group, the Direct Air Capture Advisory Council, to explore the many challenges and opportunities of advancing direct air capture. Today, it is in the very early stages of commercialization, since it is costly and carries investor risks. Comprehensive policies and regulatory frameworks that provide investors with greater certainty are crucial to incentivize technology development, project deployment, and implementation of the broader business case.
The federal government has an important role to play in this process. However, current levels of public research funding for direct air capture are insufficient to drive advances in these emerging technologies. Since 2009, the cumulative federal research funding for direct air capture has totaled less than $11 million, equivalent to 4.6 percent of the average yearly appropriated research budget toward solar energy technologies.
Past research funding is less than 1 percent of the level recommended by the National Academies of $1.2 billion to $2.4 billion necessary to drive advances in direct air capture over the next one to two decades. Indeed, another National Academies report on negative emissions technologies last year noted that since direct air capture has “nearly unlimited” carbon removal capacity compared to other negative emissions technologies, investments in advances in direct air capture are especially important.
Nearly a dozen direct air capture plants around the world develop and demonstrate their technology with a mix of public and private funding. The growing level of private sector investment in direct air capture is a testament to the pivotal role it has in the climate solution set and its potential to enhance our economic growth and competitive edge in the emerging clean energy technology markets of tomorrow. But along with increased federal research development and deployment funding, other policies will likely be needed to capture the full opportunity and ensure the United States is well positioned as a leader in this strategic industry.
Policies to improve the effectiveness of investment tax credits would be valuable, as would public support for geologic storage monitoring and liability to provide certainty to project developers pursuing direct air capture. We should consider streamlining pipeline and carbon storage permitting and methods to lower the costs of investment such as loan guarantees, master limited partnerships, and private activity bonds. Both American companies and consumers will likewise have a major role to play in driving business models that ensure the United States claims an early lead in what could be an enormous international business sector.
We must also note that carbon removal technologies are in no way the substitute for the many other policies and private investments necessary to produce more low carbon and zero carbon power in our clean energy transition. It seems clear, however, that direct air capture could have a significant role to play in reducing emissions at home and all around the world. American companies must be in the vanguard of these efforts, as a matter of security, economic, and environmental policy. Indeed, those in Washington will take the key steps to determine the extent of American leadership in this key technology, but only if we capture the opportunity.
Byron Dorgan served as a former senator from North Dakota. He is now a senior fellow and a director of the Energy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Haley Barbour served as a former governor of Mississippi. They are members of the Direct Air Capture Council at the Bipartisan Policy Center.