The Environmental Left Is Softening On Carbon-Capture Technology. Maybe That’s OK.

Originally published in The Intercept on September 20, 2019.

At the start of this year, more than 600 environmental groups — including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Sunrise Movement — sent a letter to Congress saying they will “vigorously oppose” federal climate legislation that promotes “corporate schemes” like carbon-capture and storage.

Congress was not chastened. This past July, tucked in the Senate’s $287 billion highway reauthorization bill, was a bipartisan measure to support carbon-capture research and development. The measure — the Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies, or USE IT, Act — was also included in the Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act, an omnibus package passed a month earlier. It has not yet passed the House, but last year, Congress passed a separate measure to expand a tax credit — known as 45Q — projected to generate $1 billion in investment in carbon-capture projects by 2024.

Neither have been the most outspoken advocates of a Green New Deal. Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, unveiled the landmark resolution with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., in February, and has been one of its leading advocates since. He has drawn a centrist primary challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy, and has been backed by the Sunrise Movement and Ocasio-Cortez. He’s comfortable with carbon-capture, and supported it in his 2009 climate bill, Waxman-Markey, the last time Congress made a serious effort to tackle the crisis.

“I have personally spoken to Senator Markey after the Green New Deal was introduced, and he said carbon capture is in,” said Brad Crabtree, co-director of the Carbon Capture Coalition, a group of roughly 60 companies, unions, research institutes, and energy groups that support carbon-capture technology. “I asked him directly, and he was pretty categorical, and immediately then talked about what he tried to do for carbon capture in Waxman-Markey.” A Markey spokesperson said the senator “has not advocated for specific energy approaches, nor advocated against any” and believes all proposals “should be on the table.” The spokesperson also noted that the Green New Deal resolution — while “policy agnostic”— calls for reductions in emissions as much as is “technologically feasible.”

Rachel Ventura is running a Democratic primary challenge against incumbent Bill Foster, a business-friendly congressman in Illinois, a decision she told The Intercept she made after he announced that he would not support a Green New Deal. A progressive member of a county board, one of Ventura’s highest-profile efforts is a massive carbon-capture project to stem emissions and produce energy from a local landfill — a project she describes as putting the Green New Deal in action at the local level.

In April, the left-wing People’s Policy Project released a report on the Green New Deal that included support for new federal investments in direct-air capture. “I support all the carbon-capture technologies in the abstract, but when it comes to the question of what the federal government should be investing in, it seems like the carbon-negative CCS is the one where it is uniquely needed,” said Matt Bruenig, founder of the think tank, using an acronym for carbon-capture storage. “Industry can figure out its own point-source stuff.”

And there is even evidence that some groups on the left are willing to moderate their maximalist opposition to carbon-capture, having recently signaled more willingness to compromise than they expressed in their letter sent to Congress earlier this year.

“Sunrise Movement does not support carbon capture for fossil fuel plants,” said Evan Weber, the group’s political director. “There’s no good justification for doing carbon capture for oil, gas, and coal power other than to keep an industry alive that has not been good for the planet. That doesn’t mean there aren’t valid uses for it, and there are some — like in the industrial sector, heavy industry, where we don’t have a clear path forward yet. There I do think we should continue to do more research and development because ultimately we do need to decarbonize every sector of our economy.”

John Noël, a senior climate campaigner with Greenpeace, echoed Weber. “We don’t have a lot of issues with capturing emissions from industrial sources,” he said. Quietly, but unmistakably, carbon capture, long loathed by the left, is moving back into the conversation.

The decades-long effort by fossil companies to sow doubt about the science of climate change has shaped the way activists and policymakers talk about it. One unintended consequence of the rejection of the scientific consensus has been the advent of the mantra “believe the science.” That puts the IPCC, or the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in a powerful position when it comes to setting the terms of the debate. To disagree with the IPCC is to disagree with the science.

That dynamic, however, can leave the environmental left boxed in when it disagrees with the IPCC. That’s the case with carbon capture, which the IPCC says is necessary to hit carbon-concentration targets absent rapid reforestation and major changes to global diets and energy consumption.

“Those changes would be positive, but I’d rather not rely on them manifesting at global scale to stabilize the climate,” said James Mulligan, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.

A number of factors have driven renewed attention to carbon-capture technology, most notably the growing agreement among scientists that keeping average global temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius will require not only reducing future emissions, but also removing some of the carbon dioxide that’s already been released. Modeling by the International Energy Agency suggests that nearly 15 percent of all emissions reduction must come from carbon capture by midcentury. There’s also’s greater recognition among climate experts that emissions from the industrial sector — like those associated with aviation fuel, cement, and steel — can’t be easily reduced with renewable sources. Nearly 30 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from industry.

The opposition to carbon-capture is rooted largely in politics, as opponents argue that it is merely being put forward cynically by a fossil fuel industry intent on its own survival at the expense of the planet’s. Sen. Bernie Sanders, in his recently released climate change plan, came out against carbon-capture technology, calling it a “false solution.” Noël, of Greenpeace, who stipulated support for carbon-capture in an industrial scenario, drew the line at power plants. “If you’re building new power plants with the intent to put carbon capture, we don’t think that’s a good use of money, especially federal subsidies, and we think it further entrenches the extractive mindset and the fossil fuel’s political grip which thwarts meaningful action,” he said.

Activists on the environmental left view financial support for carbon-capture as yet another misguided subsidy for polluters and a barrier to transitioning away from fossil fuels once and for all.

But if political concerns are driving opposition to carbon capture, there are important political reasons to support it, too. Opponents currently lack a political strategy to deal with the fact that nearly all of organized labor (and not just the building trades) is committed to advancing the technology. Unions will be a key constituency to organize in the fight to pass any sort of Green New Deal.

“I don’t see labor supporting any climate policy that doesn’t include support for carbon capture and storage,” said Brad Markell, executive director for the Industrial Union Council at the AFL-CIO. “You can very safely say that.”

Some Democratic legislators who support a Green New Deal, like Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Brian Schatz, have backed recent carbon-capture bills.

Union representatives support investments in carbon-capture technology because, they say, it will help preserve the high-paying, unionized jobs in the fossil fuel industry, while also taking steps to tackle a warming planet that scientists say is necessary. Unions argue that the most important priority is to reduce emissions and decarbonize the economy, not necessarily to move off fossil fuels as fast as possible. “Some groups have a strain of thought to leave everything in the ground, and that’s a difficult discussion for labor,” Markell of the AFL-CIO said.

Earlier this summer, the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of eight large labor unions and six national environmental groups released a plan for tackling inequality and climate change that included support for carbon-capture tech. Environmental groups in the BlueGreen Alliance include the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Defense Action Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters, collectively known in environmental circles as “big green.” These groups declined to sign the letter outlining opposition to carbon capture sent by other green groups to Congress earlier this year.

The BlueGreen Alliance includes a number of building trade unions, as well as unions that represent industries that won’t necessarily be directly impacted by investments in carbon capture, like the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Communications Workers of America. SEIU was also the first international union to back the federal Green New Deal resolution.

“I think about carbon capture every day. It’s more than just useful — it’s indispensable for addressing climate change,” said Lee Anderson, director of governmental affairs for the Utility Workers Union of America. “Even if we close every coal fire plant in America — which I don’t think we’re going to do for a while — but even if we did that, it doesn’t change the basic fact that if you believe and follow the science, carbon capture is a thing we must do globally at scale or we won’t make it.”

Anderson thinks there’s a fundamental misconception about labor’s motives. “There’s this idea that we want to save coal and natural gas and petroleum for its own sake because we love those things,” he said. “What we love is the things associated with them, which is cheap and abundant energy and really good jobs that support the economy. It’s about combatting emissions, saving jobs and the communities around those places that rely on those jobs. It’s about not driving people out of middle-class jobs that are almost impossible to replace. Why would we not support it?”

“It’s about economic stability, not just job preservation,” emphasized Cecile Conroy, director of government affairs for the International Brotherhood of Boilmakers. “We’re not just being selfish here. The Boilmakers, the IBEW, the Utility Workers — you unload our jobs, what’s going to happen to our multimillion-dollar health care and pension plans on Wall Street? Surely people don’t want to see those things collapse. There’s a whole thread of this that’s for economic and social stability and the tax base and making sure communities have jobs to go to.”

Cost remains significant barrier for carbon-capture technology — but supporters say if the government backed it like it did for wind and solar, we’d see similarly steep drops in price. One study published in 2018 suggested that direct-air capture — ­a carbon-capture method that sucks CO2 from the atmosphere — could cost between $94 and $232 per metric ton, a significant reduction from a 2011 study that estimated the price at more than $600 per metric ton.

The most economical form of carbon-capture technology right now is through enhanced oil recovery, in which companies capture carbon dioxide, store it geologically, and then use that CO2 injection for producing additional oil. According to the International Energy Agency, using carbon capture yields a 37 percent reduction in emissions per barrel of oil compared to conventional oil production.

There’s certainly growing scientific momentum behind investing in the technology, and a study published in Nature Communications this past summer used computer modeling to show that a “massive” rollout of direct-air capture technology could help bring down climate mitigation costs.

Though opponents of carbon capture usually argue in the political arena that we can’t afford not to invest in fighting climate change, when it comes to carbon capture, critics generally emphasize that the technology is too costly, too underdeveloped, and will detract from more important steps society needs to take. Other critics see the fossil fuel industry’s interest in carbon capture as glaring proof that this is not really about environmental protection at all, but a way to boost the bottom line of oil and gas companies. After years of denying and obfuscating climate science, why should the government help out these companies and effectively give them more political power to fight climate regulation?

Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth, said that grassroots opposition to carbon-capture technology comes from “an understanding that the fossil fuel industry needs to be confronted head-on and overcome completely.” Under that framework, he said, “there’s much less patience for saying, ‘Well, let’s just pay Exxon Mobil to develop new technologies to save everyone.’”

Crabtree, of the Carbon Capture Coalition, said these sorts of objections misunderstand the actual dynamics of the fossil fuel industry, where U.S. domestic production of oil and gas continues to grow rapidly thanks to capital investment flowing into shale development. “Enhanced oil recovery, which has significant climate benefit, is not the component of the industry causing that growth,” he said. “Critics of carbon capture are seeking to prevent the adoption of less carbon-intensive CO2-EOR, when growth in conventional oil and gas production is exploding. It’s not an effective strategy if your goal is to reduce carbon emissions.”

One of the most powerful arguments made by carbon-capture advocates is that given the trajectory of coal around the world, it may be too risky to expect to meet global climate targets without carbon capture and storage technology as part of the solution.

One recent forecast published in August by Wood Mackenzie, a global energy consulting firm, projected that coal, gas, and oil will contribute around 85 percent of primary energy supply by 2040, compared to 90 percent today. Other analyses find that while developed nations are moving away from fossil fuels, developing nations will still be relying significantly on coal, oil, and natural gas to drive economic growth over the next two decades. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that non-OECD energy demand will rise by 71 percent between 2012 and 2040.

“Without carbon-capture and sequestration, we will not solve the problem,” said Phil Smith, spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America. “Go tell China and India and Indonesia to stop burning coal. They’ll say no. Countries are going to continue to use coal for electricity.” Smith argued that it consequently makes the most sense for the U.S. to take a lead in developing carbon-capture tech. “For one thing, this sort of technology can be developed here, sold globally, and can put people to work,” he said.

“Our fuel usage will look different in 2040 and beyond, but those years are a far way away and we have to be realistic about what our usage is today and in the next 10, 15 to 20 years,” said Roxanne Brown, international vice president at large for the United Steelworkers.

“We can’t switch to renewables overnight,” added Conroy of the Boilmakers. “And too often, climate change is discussed only in the context of the U.S., when it’s really a global problem, and a lot of developing countries will still need to rely on fossil fuels to sustain their population, so we need this technology.”

Commercial carbon-capture technology dates back to 1972, when it was first used to seize CO2 from natural gas processing and then used for enhanced oil recovery. Today, 19 full-scale carbon-capture projects are in operation worldwide, with 14 using captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery and five storing the carbon dioxide in saline aquifers.

The federal government has had a rough time with a few big carbon-capture projects. In 2003, President George W. Bush announced the “FutureGen” project to demonstrate carbon-capture and storage at a coal-fired electrical generating station. The Department of Energy partnered with coal companies and pledged $1.1 billion for the project. But years of problems delayed it, and construction didn’t begin until 2014. By 2015, the federal government suspended the effort altogether, after wasting $378 million in taxpayer funds.

Likewise another high-profile carbon capture project in Mississippi was suspended in 2017, after running three years behind schedule and $4 billion over its projected budget. That project, known as Kemper, was led by energy giant Southern Company, which was reported to have misled state regulators and the federal government to get more subsidies. (The Department of Justice opened an investigation into the failed project this past spring.) “Kemper was a fiasco, and it was a huge money pit that never went anywhere,” said Ross of Friends of the Earth. “There’s been so much effort to shove federal money into carbon-capture black holes.”

But carbon-capture advocates say that Kemper’s failure isn’t an example of carbon-capture technology itself failing. “Kemper was trying to marry this commercially established carbon-capture technology [Selexol] to an unproven new coal technology [TRIG Gasifier],” said John Thompson, the technology and markets director of the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group. “Selexol has been used hundreds and hundreds of times around the world since 1960 on all kinds of plants. So you were marrying this very old, very established technology that was cheap and easy to use, to this innovation, this new way of converting coal into electricity, and that method was capital intensive and went way over budget.”

Advocates point to Petra Nova, a large coal fire plant outside Houston that launched in 2017, as an example of the technology’s potential. The federal government gave $190 million to the project, which burns coal and then uses scrubbers to remove carbon dioxide from the process, something known as “post-combustion” carbon capture. It marks the U.S.’s first and the world’s largest commercial post-combustion carbon-capture system at a power plant, and was hailed particularly for launching on time and on budget.

Proponents also emphasize second-generation innovations, like those identified in a feasibility study released in November 2018, which looked at the SaskPower’s Boundary Dam 3 in Canada. In 2014 Boundary Dam 3 became the world’s first power station to successfully use carbon capture and storage technology, and the feasibility study suggested that future projects could see steep reductions in capital costs.

Reforestation, or replanting an area with trees, is one method of “natural carbon capture” — which research suggests can also offer significant short-term emissions reductions. But as an IPCC report released in August also made clear, carbon-removal efforts that involve things like planting large-scale forests can also lead to increased food insecurity and other environmental issues.

Mulligan, for his part, said tree restoration should be pursued alongside technological and natural approaches to carbon removal that do not demand large-scale land use. Climate “modelers are good at modeling lowest-cost options given a set of assumptions, but they’re less good at thinking holistically about constraints [and] societal tradeoffs,” he said of the IPCC pathways. “When I look at the pathways that deploy lots of BECCS” — bioenergy with carbon-capture and store, a negative emissions technology — “the key message I take away isn’t that we need lots and lots of BECCS; it’s that we need to find a way to remove lots and lots of carbon from the atmosphere — whether that’s BECCS or other options that the modelers haven’t yet figured out a way to model.”

Support from the oil and gas industry understandably makes those concerned about the environment anxious. Some of the biggest investors in carbon capture to date include companies like Halliburton, General Electric, NRG, Equinor, and Shell. And earlier this year, Occidental Petroleum and Chevron announced that they would be investing in Carbon Engineering, a direct-air capture company that’s also backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Grand View Research Inc., a business consulting firm, estimates that the global carbon capture and storage market will exceed $8.75 billion by 2025.

Crabtree said that while oil and gas companies in his coalition largely support carbon capture as a business investment, and not out of a deep concern for saving the planet, that doesn’t negate its environmental potential. “We didn’t require people to sign on to each other’s agenda,” he said.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets that aims to strengthen coverage of the climate crisis.