Time to move on from carbon capture
Two recent studies illustrate the difference between good and bad government interventions in energy markets. They are an important lesson in the search for solutions to global climate change.
The first study is a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of the money the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has spent on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). From 2010 through 2017, DOE invested $1.1 billion on nine large CCS research and demonstration projects at coal-fired power plants and industries.
However, the public investment has been even larger because DOE began working on CCS in 1997. The department didn’t track expenditures until 2010, and it’s still investing large amounts of taxpayer money in the technology. The infrastructure bill Congress passed last year included another $2.5 billion for CCS demonstration projects through 2025.
Yet, the government has little to show for it. DOE funded eight CCS power projects from 2010 through 2017 but completed only one, the GAO reported. None achieved “economic viability.” The most common way for CCS power plants to offset costs is to help oil companies enhance production by injecting captured carbon into their wells, but that negates some of CCS’s value as a solution to carbon pollution.
Yet, although CCS losses make DOE’s controversial Solyndra failure look minuscule, there has been little outcry from fiscal conservatives about the government picking winners.
The second study, just issued by the University of Chicago and energy research company Rhodium Group, assesses a provision in the Build Back Better bill passed by the House but stalled in the Senate. The study concludes that a clean energy tax credit in the bill would produce benefits as much as four times greater than its costs. The tax credit would “deliver greater carbon abatement bang for the buck than many other climate policies in place or under discussion,” researchers found.
The question among free-market advocates is whether any government intervention in energy markets is justified. The answer is that tax breaks for mature technologies — like the century-old tax benefits for fossil fuel production — usually are not. But government subsidies are warranted to speed the development and market penetration of technologies vital to the nation’s economic and physical security. Because of climate change, several clean energy technologies meet those criteria.
These two studies offer an important lesson as the U.S. and international community invest in technology innovation to deal with climate change. Each investment should pass three tests: Is the technology possible, is it plausible, and is it desirable? CCS appears to be possible, but not economically plausible. And because it does nothing to eliminate carbon pollution as coal and gas are extracted, processed and transported, it fails the desirability test compared to renewable energy technologies that produce no carbon at all once they are in place.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Congress keeps spending money on CCS not because it’s the best way to reduce carbon pollution but because it would postpone the retirement of fossil fuels from the world’s energy mix. Either way, 25 years of fruitless taxpayer spending on CCS is enough. It’s time to move on to more promising and sustainable ways to deal with climate change.
William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.