Carbon capture legislation: a small step on the long corporate climate march

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GreenBiz Collage

Away from the klieg lights and hot-takes of the political commentariat, more than a dozen senators from both parties support the Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies (USEIT) Act: legislation that seeks to remove barriers to deployment of technology that captures carbon emissions from industrial sources or directly from the air. That technology could spawn a whole new group of industries that use the carbon in their products.

If successful, the technology also could help save the planet’s climate from heating more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the maximum that scientists believe is allowable without catastrophic climate changes occurring worldwide — and open a new market for removed-carbon-based products.

The legislation in the Republican-led Senate has 14 sponsors, including eight Democrats. Such bi-partisan sponsorship in the face of vitriol over climate politics is more than just refreshing; it’s pragmatic. Only bipartisan legislation can gain the 60 votes needed to pass through the U.S. Senate, and the more sponsors, the greater the chance of passage.

In February, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard testimony on the USEIT Act from individuals across the political spectrum. The bill starts small by awarding a total of $85 million from the Environmental Protection Agency to developers of new technologies. The legislation includes a prize component for the first company to capture 10,000 tons of carbon from the air at under $200 a ton, orders the creation of two task forces to make it easier to site infrastructure and orders pipeline permitting.

Current developers of air capture technology include Swiss-based Climeworks, British Colombia-based Carbon Engineering and United States-based Global Thermostat. Cement makers such as Solida and HeidelbergCement and industrial giants such as Schlumberger and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) have shown interest in building a new carbon materials economy. For cement makers, this would involve developing cements that absorb larger amounts of carbon from the air during its curing process, bringing the industry — a major carbon emitter — closer to carbon neutrality. For ethanol makers, oil service companies such as Schlumberger are always looking for concentrated carbon dioxide streams produced from ADM’s large ethanol plants in Illinois.

In Congress, the bipartisan approach has attracted some strange bedfellows. Co-sponsors of the USEIT Act include Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), who in the past has wondered aloud whether climate change skepticism is grounds for prosecution under the same law that sends mafia leaders to prison. Whitehouse’s polar opposite, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), also supports the USEIT Act. This is the same James Inhofe who brought a snowball onto the Senate floor in 2015 to make a point against the science of climate change.

In this case, both sides of the aisle are singing from the same hymnal, looking to expand the use of carbon capture and sequestration — albeit for different reasons. Senators such as Whitehouse view the bill as an incremental step toward a national carbon price, whereas Inhofe and other pro-fossil-fuel senators view climate hawks’ support for carbon capture and sequestration as "recognition that you have to have fossil fuel" to keep America running.

In the last 15 years, attempts to pass national legislation on climate change have led to nothing but carcasses along the political blacktop. The largest roadkill was the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, which died a slow death in the Senate in April 2010 after passing the House in 2009. Earlier bills sponsored by Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman twice failed close votes in the Senate in 2003 and 2005. Given these failures, it’s no surprise that Congress is lowering its expectations, if not its rhetoric.

The USEIT Act passed out of committee April 10 in the Senate. With more Democratic than Republican co-sponsors, the bill has a better chance to pass the Democrat-controlled House, where a companion bill is also moving through committee.

The carbon-capturing technology has its own controversies; it could save coal-fired utilities from extinction over the next 10 to 20 years, something not especially enticing for the environmental community. It is also an insurance policy against the possibility that no "grand compromise" will be made between Republicans and Democrats on carbon emissions in the next decade.

While the bill in a good first step, it doesn’t go far enough in attacking the bureaucratic disincentives to drilling geologic capture wells under Underground Injection Control rules, it will help the technology improve best practices. This in turn will enlarge the list of potential industry beneficiaries to other carbon-intense industries such as cement, ethanol and fertilizer manufacturing.

In times like these, it’s important to seize opportunities for bipartisanship in climate stewardship. The USEIT Act does just that.