Direct air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy
As Congress considers bipartisan infrastructure legislation, it must not only deploy current technologies to boost our economy and productivity, but also lay the groundwork for future transportation and energy systems, including those that help address climate change. In fact, the bipartisan infrastructure agreement contains tens of billions for upgrading the U.S. electricity grid, so it can support more renewable energy, and funding for electric vehicles and charging infrastructure. The agreement also includes billions more to help our citizens adapt to inevitable climate change and increase the resilience of our water, energy, housing and transportation systems.
But with Americans around the country facing unprecedented weather extremes that are already inflicting huge human costs on public safety and our economy, we must also invest in cutting- edge technologies that can help stave off the worst impacts of climate change, which are coming far more quickly than anticipated.
Effectively fighting climate change of course requires reducing current emissions quickly today. But leading climate scientists now generally agree that climate protection also requires finding ways to remove carbon dioxide already emitted, to both meet global emissions goals and to capture emissions from sectors like air travel and industrial processes that are extremely difficult to decarbonize. One of the most important of these decarbonizing technologies is direct air capture, which can remove heat-trapping carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.
Carbon removal has taken place long before the industrial revolution through natural processes like photosynthesis in plants and trees. But with the rise in emissions over the past two centuries, carbon emitted into the atmosphere has far outpaced the ability of natural processes to draw it down. A new emphasis on expanding natural carbon removal — through investments that support enhancing the ability of forests, agricultural soils and wetlands to draw down additional carbon — is crucial to helping address climate change. Yet, these natural carbon removal efforts will not be enough on their own.
Direct air capture has the benefit of limited land use, which makes it easier to scale to gigaton levels of carbon removal we’ll need to achieve net-zero emissions — and scale is key. Direct air capture has been successfully proven in small scale pilots and demonstration projects, but it needs to be quickly scaled up to drive down costs and spur further innovation. The federal policies currently in place are not enough to support the large-scale deployment of direct air capture that we need.
But there are signs that is beginning to change. At the end of last year, Congress passed the Energy Act of 2020 with broad bipartisan support, including funding for a direct air capture technology prize competition and for a direct air capture test center. Senate Energy Committee Chairman Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) recently released a discussion draft of potential bipartisan energy related infrastructure measures that includes $3.5 billion in funding for multiple large scale, regional direct air capture technology hubs. The committee is due to consider this legislation this week with an eye toward possible inclusion in the broader bipartisan infrastructure bill now being written.
The private sector has also just begun to make initial investment in direct air capture and related technologies. United Airlines and Oxy Low Carbon Ventures have partnered on a multimillion-dollar investment in a project being planned in the Permian basin of Texas. When completed, this project will be the largest direct air capture facility in the world, capturing 1 million tons per year and storing it permanently underground. Innovative ways to utilize captured carbon — in consumer products and industrial processes — are also springing up with the potential to make up a multitrillion-dollar market in the coming decades.
Such early investments suggest that the U.S. has the opportunity to establish global leadership on this potentially game-changing technology with the right incentives for private investment. Earlier this month, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Direct Air Capture Advisory Council on which we both serve released a report recommending specific infrastructure investments, tax incentives and other policies to catalyze U.S. research, development and deployment of the technology. But our international competitors are also acting: Just last week the UK announced engineering commencement on a project similar in size to the Permian basin project.
Direct air capture is ripe for bipartisan support. It resides at the intersection of U.S. economic and technology leadership combined with driving innovation as the key to effective climate change action, an approach that both Republicans and Democrats are increasingly urging. Congress should include significant direct air capture provisions in any bipartisan infrastructure legislation it considers this year, as part of its responsibility to foster crucial new technology and protect the American people.
Carlos Curbelo is a former Republican member of Congress from Florida.
John Delaney is a former Democratic member of Congress from Maryland.
Both serve on the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Direct Air Capture Advisory Council.