A United Nations panel is casting doubt on the promise of using machines to remove vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the air and sea in order to fight climate change.
The skepticism from the high-profile organization sent shock waves through the emerging industry of carbon removal companies that many scientists say will be essential for the world to stabilize, or one day reduce, global average temperatures. It comes as the Biden administration is preparing to pour billions of dollars into the industry.
The panel questioned the technical and economic viability of startups seeking to clean up carbon that’s already been dumped into the sky, igniting pushback from an industry that is gaining popularity but so far has not captured sizable amounts of warming gases.
Many of the teams seeking federal money to build direct air capture megaprojects in the United States have one thing in common: They include academic institutions.
That’s distinct from typical applicants for Department of Energy funding programs, experts say. It is largely due to the emerging nature of direct air capture technology — a collection of fans, filters and piping that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it permanently underground or in long-lasting products like concrete.
There are less than two dozen DAC facilities in operation worldwide, but that could sharply increase when DOE awards $3.5 billion to help build massive DAC hubs in the United States. Scientists believe DAC and other carbon removal technologies need to rapidly deploy in the coming years to avoid damaging levels of global warming that could cause extreme heat waves, disastrous flooding and lead to the collapse of food systems.
Jennifer K. Rushlow, dean of the Vermont School for the Environment and a law professor at Vermont Law & Graduate School, explains how the new regulations are designed and the delicate balance they attempt to strike between slowing climate change and avoiding further legal setbacks.
1. How has the Biden administration tailored these regulations in response to the West Virginia v. EPA ruling?
The scent of West Virginia v. EPA is all over the new proposed rules. How could it not be? The Supreme Court accused the Environmental Protection Agency of attempting a “wholesale restructure” of the nation’s energy mix because the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan essentially required existing fossil fuel power plants to either use cleaner fuels or close.
The new proposed regulations attempt to thread the needle between meeting the Biden administration’s climate commitments and avoiding another gutting in court. To do that, they focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from individual power plants with on-site technologies, instead of requiring a large-scale shift from fossil fuels to renewables.
The rules rely on ambitious and relatively new emissions reduction technologies, like carbon capture and storage, or CCS, and low-carbon hydrogen fuel. The EPA proposes to use CCS to reduce emissions from large coal plants with long life expectancies. For large natural-gas-fueled power plants that provide baseload power – meaning that they run continuously – the agency proposes at least partial replacement of natural gas with hydrogen fuel.
2. Do the draft rules indicate that EPA is responding to energy industry critiques of the Clean Power Plan?
There are a variety of strategies built into EPA’s approach in the new rules that I believe aim to secure buy-in from fossil fuel interests and mitigate against conservative backlash. The proposal takes a tiered and staggered approach to which power plants will be regulated, how stringently, and by when.
First, the EPA goes out of its way to accommodate coal plants that are already scheduled to close or anticipate shutting down in the next couple of decades. It proposes much less stringent standards for these plants, since they will not be able to spread the cost of adopting new controls over many years of operation. Since the regulations are so light for those facilities and the plants are already closing due to other economic factors, it will be hard to blame these rules for the loss of coal plants.
Along the same rationale, the EPA is only regulating baseload natural gas plants right now and leaving regulations for smaller plants and peaker plants – those that run only during peak demand periods – for another day.
Second, the rule’s reliance on carbon capture and storage, in my view, ought to be music to fossil fuel companies’ ears. CCS has long been their preferred climate mitigation tool because it is one of the only means of reducing carbon emissions that does not hamper the continued extraction and combustion of fossil fuels.
Even better from their perspective, the captured carbon effluent can be injected into geological formations for underground storage and actually flush out buried crude oil that would otherwise be unreachable – meaning even more oil production.
The EPA solicits very specific comments in these regulations from interested parties, like the energy industry, on questions such as the time frame required to implement a particular technology and what size facilities should be subject to which standards. In addition to genuinely wanting to get the rules right, this deferential approach may be designed to build an administrative record that can withstand judicial scrutiny when the agency is inevitably sued. If the regulated community provides feedback on those items, and the final rule shows that the agency was responsive to that feedback, it will be harder for a court to find that compliance with the rule is not feasible.
3. Do you see legal vulnerabilities in the proposed new rules?
The EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants is derived from the Clean Air Act, which requires the agency to set emissions limits using a standard that reflects the “best system of emission reduction” that has been “adequately demonstrated,” taking into account cost and other factors.
For coal plants, the agency identifies carbon capture and storage as the “best system of emission reduction.” The draft rule states that CCS has been “adequately demonstrated” – meaning that some plants are using it – and that the cost is manageable, thanks to tax incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act.
This reasoning is a little thin. CCS is an emerging technology that’s not yet widely used, in part because it is so expensive. In fact, the EPA could point to only a handful of existing projects to show that the technology has been “adequately demonstrated.”
However, regulated coal plants won’t necessarily be required to use CCS itself. Rather, they will be required to reduce their emissions to a level that could be achieved using CCS. If they can find other means, they are welcome to use them. But since CCS is expensive and not yet widely used, some observers speculate that the new rules will cause coal plants to shut down or switch to cleaner fuels, as the Clean Power Plan required.
This is not a topic that the EPA wants to revisit with the Supreme Court. However, if the court’s conservative majority sticks to its avowed preference for “textualist” interpretations of the law, the proposed regulations provide plenty of room for the court to find in the administration’s favor, on the basis that the new rules stick to much more familiar territory within the Clean Air Act than the Clean Power Plan did.
4. How do these regulations conform with Biden’s focus on environmental justice?
In addition to greenhouse gases, fossil fuel power plants emit deadly air pollutants that contribute to thousands of deaths every year. And they disproportionately harm the health of nearby low-income communities and communities of color.
Carbon capture and storage doesn’t reduce these pollutants at any significant scale, nor does it prevent public health, environmental and cultural damage caused by fossil fuel extraction projects. As a result, some communities view CCS as incompatible with environmental justice principles.
Some of these criticisms surfaced last year, when the White House developed guidance on CCS. For example, the Indigenous Environmental Network – a grassroots coalition of Indigenous peoples and tribal governments – delivered scathing comments that CCS perpetuates fossil fuel extraction and combustion that harm Indigenous communities.
These draft rules may widen the rift between traditional environmentalists, some of whom prioritize curbing climate change at all costs, and environmental justice community advocates who face immediate harm from fossil fuel power plants, as well as mounting and disproportionate impacts from climate change.
Despite the importance of community buy-in, little public opinion research exists on what voters and specific communities think about DAC, and CDR more broadly. Data for Progress worked to fill this gap by conducting community workshops across the country in partnership with local communitybased organizations and researchers at Stanford University. Our early efforts to support communityfirst climate infrastructure on the ground focuses on DAC hubs given their climate potential, the scale of recent federal investment, and the DOE’s intention to grant funds for implementation this year. In this work, we are looking to set a new precedent for project development, particularly the development of climate innovation projects, by engaging communities before projects begin in a meaningful and iterative way.
According to environmental groups, Illinois is at the precipice of a rush of corporations coming in to the state to lay thousands of miles of pipelines without the proper protections in place for neighboring residents.
The goal of the pipeline is to capture carbon dioxide in a liquified state from factories or power plants before it can be released into the atmosphere, then transport it in the pressurized pipeline and store it deep underground — a process billed as a way to clean up dirty industries and reduce carbon emissions.
Carbon capture and storage has been around since the 1920s, though it didn’t become commercialized until the 1970s. And it hasn’t been until the past two decades that it began being seen as a way to address the climate crisis.
But environmental groups including the Sierra Club Illinois are skeptical it can deliver on its promises.
Environmentalists rallied at the Capitol on Tuesday, urging lawmakers to pass legislation regulating the carbon capture and sequestration industry in Illinois.
Two bills were discussed during a brief rally held in front of the Lincoln statue, one which advocates support and another, which they claim is more industry-friendly, that they oppose. The bill they back is the Carbon Dioxide Transport and Storage Protections Act listed under Senate Bill 2421 and House Bill 3119.
Both pieces of legislation – sponsored by Sen. Laura Fine, D-Glenview and Rep. Ann Williams respectively – have yet to advance out of their chambers, but action could still happen before the May 19 spring session adjournment of the Illinois General Assembly. Lawmakers could tack the existing or modified language through an amendment to a shell bill- a tactic oft-seen near the end of legislative sessions.
Materials scientists showed that fine-tuning interlayer interactions in a class of 2D polymers can determine the materials’ loss or retention of desirable mechanical properties in multilayer or bulk form.
A fan-driven carbon sponge billed as North America’s largest carbon capture facility was unveiled Tuesday, with a potential global solution to climate warming arriving in a nondescript Brighton warehouse district.
The shed-size machine draws carbon dioxide out of ambient air for reuse in industrial products or sequestration in underground caverns, a technology that could be replicated thousands of times around the globe to combat the buildup of CO2 from a century of burning fossil fuels.
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