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Cash-Infused Carbon Capture Office Expands DOE’s Climate Mission

Nov. 17, 2021, 10:30 AM

The Biden administration has revived and rebranded the Energy Department’s fossil energy office to take a fresh approach at advancing beleaguered carbon technology, backed by billions of dollars approved by Congress and mid-century climate goals.

The Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management will link carbon capture, transportation, storage, long-term monitoring, and environmental justice into one comprehensive carbon strategy that is tied to climate goals, DOE officials said. So far, it’s unveiled a new mission statement, tapped carbon experts to fill top posts, created a division to study carbon dioxide pipelines, pledged to advance carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere, and targeted industrial sources of carbon beyond electricity generation.

Energy Department officials are looking at “how we can do things differently, responsibly, sustainably, and in a just way—and that’s entirely new for this office,” Shuchi Talati, chief of staff of the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, said in an interview.

The office also just got an infusion of new cash. Congress this month approved $12.1 billion for DOE’s carbon management programs, more than three times the funding authorized for carbon capture as part of the 2009 stimulus legislation. That’s on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars Congress approved last December for carbon programs, including those aimed at atmospheric removal and at industrial sector emissions outside of electric generation.

“Having the money itself is a massive change,” Talati said.

The office’s work has thrilled disciples of carbon capture technology who argue it’s absolutely necessary to halting emissions. The Biden administration wants to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector by 2035 and across the entire U.S. economy by 2050.

“The administration has kicked it up a notch,” Julio Friedmann, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and former Energy Department official in the fossil energy office during the Obama administration.

But environmentalists say the office’s actions are prolonging the use of climate-damaging fossil fuels without any guarantee the technology will work.

Swayed by Coal

The agency began carbon capture research in earnest in the 2000s, with policy heavily influenced by coal interests pressing for “clean coal” technology, said Charles McConnell, director of the Center for Carbon Management in Energy and Sustainability at the University of Houston.

Congress failed to pass a carbon tax that would have truly spurred large-scale carbon capture adoption, said McConnell, who led the fossil energy office from 2011 to 2013. Many of the demonstration projects funded by the 2009 stimulus “never saw the light of day” despite government support, he said.

During the Trump administration, “we lost a lot of ground” on carbon capture as the U.S. retreated from global climate leadership pacts, McConnell said. But multinational companies began to see value in capturing and utilizing carbon, led by oil and gas industry giants such as ExxonMobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. and trade groups such as the American Petroleum Institute.

Energy Department funding, combined with private sector commitments, could drive a major push to scrub emissions across all industries—not just coal, not just at power plants—as essential climate policy, he said.

But coal must remain a core tenet of the program, given the continued build-out of coal plants in places such as China and India and the promise of keeping U.S. coal communities afloat, said Steven Winberg, who led the fossil energy office from 2017 to 2021.

Biden’s climate goals can be achieved “without retiring all of this infrastructure” of fossil fuel plants, Winberg said. “That’s a political decision rather than a rational, technical decision.”

Despite critics, the Trump administration’s fossil energy office made tangible progress on carbon capture, Winberg said, reducing by roughly 25% the costs of capturing a ton of carbon and looking beyond coal to natural gas and industrial emissions.

“If there’s any indication or discussion that we weren’t focused on it, that’s simply not true,” Winberg said.

Climate Goal Clash?

Some environmental groups see the Biden administration’s carbon capture efforts as antithetical to its climate goals.

The research dollars boost the staying power of fossil fuel interests with no guarantee the technology can work at scale, said Dan Zegart, senior investigator for the Climate Investigations Center.

The need for carbon dioxide pipelines to transport captured emissions to permanent storage facilities or to places they could be recycled would entrench fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, Zegart said.

Zegart’s organization has asked the Energy Department and states for their carbon management plans. He would rather see investment in renewable energy, batteries, and “practically any of the other solutions” discussed in the climate debate.

“Why in the world would we stake our future, and the future of climate mitigation on a technology as unproven, as potentially dangerous, and that is sure to be unpopular when people realize that they’re going to wind up living among a very large network of pipelines and carbon capture facilities?” Zegart said.

Critics say the dangers arise from leaking or ruptured pipelines. Zegart cited a 2020 pipeline leak that sickened residents in Sartaria, Miss.

The DOE’s fossil energy office, however, views carbon technologies as essential to meeting climate goals, Talati said. The office plans to review regulatory uncertainties around carbon pipelines, she said.

“It remains a hard question, because we don’t know at what scale we’ll be building pipelines, and how robust infrastructure will be and how robust we’ll need it to be,” Talati said.

Learning From the Past

Cost overruns, project delays and engineering challenges have marred projects at fossil fuel plants in Mississippi, North Dakota and Australia, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) told Brad Crabtree, Biden’s nominee to lead the office, during his confirmation hearing in October.

“Why should we continue to subsidize carbon capture technology when its track record is one of so many high-profile failures?” Heinrich asked Crabtree, whose nomination is awaiting Senate confirmation.

Recent modeling “makes it crystal clear” that mid-century climate goals depend on economy-wide deployment of carbon capture, Crabtree responded.

The office would take into “deep consideration of mistakes that have been made in the past,” Talati said. “We’re understanding how demonstrations have failed.”

The office is looking to help companies that may not have the funding or investors who are willing to take a risk on carbon capture technology, Talati said.

“That’s the role of the federal government,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Moore at dmoore1@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com

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