The Biden administration intends to focus more on capturing the carbon emissions of natural gas plants and industrial manufacturing facilities than from coal-fired power, a top Energy Department official said. It’s a shift for the federal government’s carbon capture program, which, until recently, has spent significant funds and resources on attaching carbon capture to power plants, especially coal. The Trump administration saw the technology as a lifeline for coal-fired power, whereas the Biden administration views it as essential to decarbonize harder-to-abate sectors of the economy, such as steel, chemical, and cement production.
Carbon capture, which removes carbon from the smokestacks of power plants or industrial facilities to be stored underground, hasn’t been widely commercialized yet because it is still costly. However, many climate models and scientific reports, including the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, say carbon capture and removal will be critical for the world to keep global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, the Paris climate agreement goal.
“It’s clear that carbon capture may not make economic sense on the remaining existing fleet of coal-fired power plants in the United States,” said Jennifer Wilcox, the Energy Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for fossil energy, during a virtual briefing hosted Friday by the Carbon Utilization Research Council. That’s in part because many existing coal plants in the U.S. are already nearing retirement within the next decade, Wilcox noted.
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Indeed, the only large-scale carbon capture project in the U.S., the Petra Nova project on a coal plant near Houston, shut down last year amid the pandemic and economic slowdown. That project had received a nearly $200 million grant from the Energy Department. Wilcox said instead, the Energy Department will be looking for opportunities to capture carbon emissions from natural gas plants, many of which won’t reach retirement age as soon. The Energy Department is also looking closely at potential projects in the industrial sector, in which there are currently few solutions to curb emissions from the carbon-intensive processes to make steel, cement, chemicals, and other products.
“Moving forward, we want to take carbon capture out of its silo and leverage some of the work already being done by our carbon management team to expand the potential of carbon capture and [carbon dioxide] conversion,” Wilcox said. She added the department wants to work on developing low-carbon products such as cement, concrete, fuels, nylon, and polyester, including finding ways to store carbon permanently in some of those materials.
Wilcox’s remarks make clear the Biden administration sees scaling up carbon capture and removal as a critical piece of its climate agenda.
President Joe Biden’s support for the technology has split environmental groups. Several left-wing groups are raising alarm that any backing of the technology would perpetuate fossil fuel production and other carbon-intensive industries at the expense of the health of people who live closest to dirty smokestacks. Other environmental groups, however, say the U.S. can’t reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, as Biden has pledged to do by 2050, without equipping power plants and industrial facilities with carbon capture and building out a significant amount of direct air capture, which sucks carbon directly from ambient air.
The Biden administration certainly appears to agree with that position. Biden’s infrastructure plan is filled with investments for carbon capture, removal, and storage, including funding to retrofit 10 large steel, cement, and chemical production facilities with carbon capture. The infrastructure plan “is the most significant and largest investment proposal in the commercialization of carbon capture ever put forward by a single government,” said Lee Beck, carbon capture, utilization, and storage innovation director for the Clean Air Task Force, during the virtual event. Beck said the plan, if implemented, could increase the U.S. carbon management capacity by 13 times by 2035 while creating tens of thousands of jobs. The Biden administration is taking a more holistic view of carbon capture and removal than its predecessors, considering the technology part of a broader strategy to manage carbon and drive deep cuts in emissions.
Wilcox, in her remarks, also suggested the administration is looking to de-emphasize the technology’s connection to enhanced oil recovery, the predominant use of captured carbon to date. Under that process, captured carbon is injected underground to produce more oil.
When the Energy Department is considering carbon capture projects, it wants to choose regions where “dedicated storage opportunities exist, such that the success of … the capture project is not tied, for instance, to the price of oil,” Wilcox said. Wilcox also noted that, for the first time, the Energy Department asked those applying for a carbon capture funding opportunity released recently to discuss whether their project would have any potential co-benefits, such as reducing air pollution, for the area where it would be located. “Let’s say you’re sitting [a project] in Port Arthur, Texas, where there’s a lot of refineries, a lot of ozone pollution, a lot of particulate matter emissions. Is there a way that you can envision a technology associated with carbon capture that has the co-benefit of reducing other hazardous air pollutants?” Wilcox said.
The Energy Department is also asking funding applicants for a summary of the effect their technology could have on job creation. That includes not just the number of jobs that could be created but how they match up with jobs that currently exist, Wilcox said. “If you’re looking at the oil and gas industry, a lot of the same jobs that take oil and gas out of the earth … those same jobs will be the ones that will be putting CO2 back into the earth,” she added.