May 21, 2019 / 4:51 PM / 6 months ago

U.S. push to capture carbon fuses green and fossil-fuel interests

JACKSON, Wyoming, May 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - J ason Albritton, who works for green group The Nature Conservancy, says he is all for technology to suck carbon dioxide (CO2), the main cause of climate change, out of the air.

Stephen Johnson, president of Illinois Clean Fuels, a start-up that will produce jet fuel from municipal garbage, is also a fan of the nascent technique known as carbon capture and storage (CCS). He plans to turn a profit pumping the planet-warming gas he traps underground.

For Don Gaston, meanwhile, who heads the Illinois utility Prairie State Generating Company, capturing CO2 offers the promise of keeping his coal-fired power plant running at a time of rising pressure to pollute less.

Environmentalists and fossil fuel industry representatives made for strange bedfellows this week as they convened outside the U.S. ski town of Jackson, Wyoming, to strategize on ways to get commercial CCS off the ground across the United States.

CCS involves separating carbon dioxide from other gases and re-using it as an ingredient in anything from plastics to fizzy drinks, or storing it away for good, typically in geological formations.

The technology is gradually gaining momentum worldwide, with the United Nations saying in a scientific report last year it would likely be needed to keep the rise in global temperatures below catastrophic levels.

But it is also controversial.

Some environmentalists worry CCS will help perpetuate the fossil-fuel status quo at the expense of the rapid, deep cuts in dirty energy use needed to curb global warming, said Steve Clemmer, director of energy research at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Still, in the United States, CCS is beginning to transcend ideological leanings, he said on the sidelines of the CO2NNECT 2019 meeting.

The United States has half of the world’s 18 large-scale CCS projects, according to the Global CCS Institute in Australia.

Clemmer said CCS had won backing in U.S. states with fossil fuel industries and lobbies, as well as in greener states whose leaders want to address climate change.

In politically conservative North Dakota, Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp introduced a successful bill for a national tax credit expansion last year aimed at promoting use of the technology.

Similarly, sponsors of this week’s meeting included environmental groups such as the National Audubon Society, but also fossil fuel companies like Occidental Petroleum.

“Carbon capture has recently caught the eye of a curious coalition of interests,” said David Livingston, a deputy director at the Atlantic Council, a bipartisan think tank.

“Their interests overlap,” he added.

BIPARTISAN BACKING

The Carbon Capture Coalition, which consists of more than 60 companies, labor unions and green groups, launched a blueprint at the gathering, calling for additional policies to boost CCS.

Co-director Brad Crabtree said he hoped it would continue to resonate across party lines.

The “foundational first step” of a tax credit expansion last year needed to be followed by a wider set of policies to accelerate the technology’s deployment at scale, he added.

Any U.S. industrial facility that injects CO2 into an oil field before 2024 is eligible for the higher tax credit. So far the program’s success has relied heavily on power plants, which produce nearly 30 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.

Crabtree expects more projects will soon be dedicated to storing CO2 emissions from other industries such as gas processing and cement and chemical production.

The “policy blueprint” from the Carbon Capture Coalition called for additional tax incentives and research funding.

It largely reflects measures in bills with bipartisan support that are already before lawmakers.

Chief among these, the “USE IT Act”, co-sponsored by Democratic and Republican members of Congress, seeks support for CO2 pipelines and funding for research to develop technology that sucks CO2 from the air.

So-called “direct air capture”, which pulls gas directly from the atmosphere, is an emerging field with only a handful of players.

“The more the costs go down, the more projects are built, and you get this virtuous circle,” said Crabtree.

Beefed-up backing from the U.S. government for CCS is as crucial as other initiatives to cut planet-warming emissions, from planting forests to setting up wind farms, said Julio Friedmann, a senior research scholar at Columbia University.

The International Energy Agency says CCS will be needed to cut 14 percent of the emissions that have to be abated by 2060 to limit a global rise in average temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6F) above pre-industrial times.

"The climate math demands we ... reduce greenhouse gas emissions however we can," Friedmann said. (Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers climate change, humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)

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