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The Heat 2020

The Scary Politics of Capturing Carbon from Coal

Why climate advocates say funding the unproven technology is a costly mistake.

Judith Lewis Mernit

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The coal-powered Gavin power plant in Cheshire, Ohio. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Last week, climate activists awoke to a shocking bit of news, delivered by Huffington Post reporter Alexander Kaufman: The Democratic National Committee had dropped an amendment to its platform supporting an end to “tax breaks and subsidies” for oil, gas and coal. Such payouts have long been an obvious target for progressives, who hold that, while climate-fueled wildfires rip through the West and record floods ravage the East, the U.S. government should not be encouraging the perpetrators of our destruction. Depending on how you calculate them, they cost U.S. taxpayers anywhere from $20 billion to more than a half-trillion dollars every year.
 


Joe Biden and Kamala Harris campaigned to yank oil and gas off the federal teat. So why did the DNC kill a platform plank calling for the end of tax breaks and subsidies for oil, gas and coal?


 
The Biden campaign quickly came out and reaffirmed the former vice president’s opposition to continued subsidies for the fossil-fuel industries. But in the platform party members voted on and approved, on the Tuesday night of the Democrats’ virtual convention, the anti-subsidy language had not been restored.

It was a puzzling turn of events. Both Biden and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, campaigned on the issue; the promise to yank oil and gas off the federal teat had survived in the 2016 platform all the way through that year’s fateful election day. For the DNC to reverse course while at the same time trying to stoke the youth climate vote seemed unhinged.

But maybe, some close observers have said, not completely without reason. R.L. Miller, the founder of Climate Hawks Vote, a DNC delegate and chair of the California Democratic Party Environmental Caucus, surmised, on the morning the news broke, that the deletion had some logic. “What I think is going on is carbon capture and storage,” she told me. Washington Examiner reporter Abby Smith had written a few weeks before about how capturing carbon dioxide emissions for storage or reuse was a climate solution that was already uniting Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
 


“There’s never a case where using carbon capture has any benefit whatsoever. It’s the Theranos of energy.”

— Mark Z. Jacobson, Stanford University

Miller herself believes capturing carbon is “a horrible idea that will never pencil out.” But if there is a “grand bargain of a bill” on the technology to be had, increasing funding for research into carbon capture would qualify as a fossil fuel subsidy. Subsidies cannot, therefore, be explicitly called out in the party platform.

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Whether or not that’s precisely true, it’s worth confronting the notion of capturing carbon as a climate solution, which does indeed bring together Democrats from states dominated by oil and gas with Republicans who owe their victories at least in part to those industries. There are basically two ways to capture carbon: The “natural way,” i.e., planting and protecting forests, especially tropical ones, and certain carbon-hungry grasslands that need the stuff to grow. Desert soils, too, have enormous power to absorb carbon in their “cryptobiotic” soils – soils of “hidden life.”

What the pols are talking about is not planting and growing lifeforms, however, but “synthetic” carbon capture: Piping emissions from a polluting facility — a coal or gas-fired electricity plant, a carbon-intensive manufacturing facility — into a filtration system where they’ll be caught up in a chemical process. And that process itself requires energy — which is typically produced with fossil fuels.

“Let’s say a coal plant is producing 100 units of electricity,” Mark Z. Jacobson, director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Energy program, explained. “Then 25 to 50 additional units would be needed to run the carbon capture equipment.” The only coal plant in the U.S. that captures the carbon it produces, Petra Nova in Texas, has a natural gas plant alongside it built expressly for that purpose. The carbon dioxide the natural gas plant emits goes right back up into the air, as does any methane – the main component of natural gas – that leaks in the process of mining and transporting and burning the gas, as it inevitably does. (Methane in the short term is a more powerful heat trap than is carbon dioxide.)
 


“There is some daylight between the DNC and the Biden campaign. But we won’t know exactly how much until Biden, should he win, takes office.”

— Collin Rees, Oil Change International

 
Worse, perhaps, the recovered carbon dioxide from Petra Nova is used by drillers in nearby oil fields to tease out the last dregs of dirty oil. Or at least it was until the end of July, when crashing crude oil prices made enhanced oil recovery uneconomic, and NRG Energy, which owns Petra Nova, stopped capturing emissions altogether.

Even at its best, however, Petra Nova never met NRG’s goal of eliminating 90 percent of the plant’s greenhouse-gas emissions. “When you add everything up,” Jacobson said, “you’re only capturing about 11 percent of the emissions from the coal plant over a 20-year time span.” And you’re spending an awful lot of money.

Of course you could use renewables to power the carbon capture equipment, which would be “slightly better,” Jacobson said. For that matter, “You could use the solar just to replace the coal.” Then you wouldn’t have to worry about all the other toxic emissions that accompany the combustion of fossil fuels – the nitrogen oxides that turn to lung-irritating ozone in the sunlight; the particulate matter than causes respiratory cancers and heart disease, and may give deadly pathogens like the novel coronavirus purchase to enter your lungs.

“If you actually look at the social cost of fossil fuels” — the health consequences, greenhouse gas emissions and the costs of the equipment — “there’s never a case where using carbon capture has any benefit whatsoever,” Jacobson said. “It’s the Theranos of energy.” In other words, a scam.

For Democrats to offer it as a climate solution both parties can embrace is pointless. “When you have a proposed solution that’s completely useless, you’re bringing people in to support that useless solution,” Jacobson said. Even if you get a bipartisan bill passed to fund carbon capture, “It’s still useless. All you’ve done is accomplished nothing fast.”

That accomplishment would have devastating effects for a cause that remains front and center of the Democratic Party’s platform: the health and well-being of the adults and children who live near oil-and-gas facilities. Three years ago, a broad coalition of environmental justice advocates wrote an open letter to Congress opposing pending laws to expand the tax code segment, 45Q, to include taxpayer funding of carbon capture technology. They argued, rightly in Jacobson’s view, that it would enable more oil, gas and coal, risking the “health of local communities and ecosystems.”

The Senate bill nevertheless passed and was signed into law in 2018. It was not just supported by Democrats; it was actually co-sponsored by a number of high profile liberals, including Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

Which points to some tension in the Democratic Party that won’t be resolved in a single election season. “There is some daylight between the DNC and the Biden campaign,” Collin Rees, senior campaigner with Oil Change International, said. But we won’t know exactly how much until Biden, should he win, takes office. “We need to know what he thinks counts as a subsidy, what kind of executive action he’s willing to take, and how much political capital he’d be willing to spend on it.”

Right now, he needs the climate vote, and the campaign has positioned itself to get it. In the last two election cycles, “activists in the climate movement have been really engaging with the party platform,” Rees said. “It’s something politicians in either party aren’t particularly used to,” he said. And for campaigns and their candidates, “it’s scary.”


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