Sausage-Making Capture and Storage
How to Make a Dumb Idea Slightly Less Stupid
The legacy of the Biden administration—and the hopes of many Americans for actual progress on crucial issues—has come down to the passage of the Build Back Better Act, which Senate leaders have promised will happen sometime before Christmas. (Or not). Because it’s the sole focus of all efforts, and because its bottom line is measured in trillions of dollars, every lobbyist has been working overtime to get their provisions included; if the legislative process is sausage-making, this is the Oscar Mayer factory. And it is clear that much that is terrible will be included, because Prime Minister Joe Manchin of West Virginia has the final word.
A perfect example: the bill is going to provide vast sums of money for equipping coal and gas-fired power plants with equipment to “sequester” carbon—to pull it out of the exhaust stream and pipe it away underground somewhere. This is a patently stupid idea—at this point, solar and windpower are already cheaper than coal and gas, and getting more so by the quarter. Equipping a coal or gas plant with huge new array of pipes is obviously going to make that cost difference even greater; in a rational world, you’d simply build out the renewable energy in the first place, since it isn’t going to generate any carbon that needs to be plumbed in some Rube Goldberg fashion.
But we don’t live in a rational world—we live in a world where the fossil fuel industry has immense power, and where they’ve given more money to Joe Manchin than any other politician. So this CCS stuff is going in the bill; it’s the price that’s going to be paid for the large and important tax credits for renewable energy. The question now is, precisely how idiotic are we planning to be?
For one thing, there’s a move in the Senate—backed by industry and unions, who are working in dismal league here—to extend the tax credit for carbon capture to schemes that manage to corral only 75% of the carbon coming out the stack, even though the engineers insist they can actually get 90% of it. Numbers like this really matter—they’ll make the difference between closing coal and gas plants and letting them stagger on for years, leaning on taxpayers. As California Rep. Nannette Barragan tweeted, each new loophole increases the sense that this is “a ridiculous giveaway to the FF industry at the expense of climate action & EJ communities.” Or, as Rep. Kathy Castor who chairs the House Select Climate Crisis Committee, told Politico, “there have to be some guardrails on this.”
Even more egregiously, industry wants the tax credit even if they use the co2 to capture for “enhanced oil recovery.” That is, they want to capture the carbon from a coal-fired plant, and pump it underground where it will serve to push new oil and gas to the surface. Perhaps (if you haven’t taken large sums from the oil industry) you can see the flaw here: carbon capture becomes a tool for carbon liberation.
There’s no way that I can see, given the way political power is distributed in America, to avoid some of this sausage-making. But there should be a limit to what our leaders force us to swallow.