Carbon capture is bad climate policy

White House officials and Democratic lawmakers spent weeks celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act, a legislative package that has been dubbed the most ambitious climate legislation of all time. While that is technically correct — it’s a low bar to meet — the political and practical benefits of the law are hard to spot. In addition, there will be more trouble ahead due to an over-reliance on so-called ‘carbon capture’ technologies.

Recent polls show the public knows very little about the Inflation Reduction Act, and President Biden gets low marks on climate — an issue he has repeatedly called an existential threat. Beyond sheer partisanship, there are some possible explanations for the muted public reaction; the law’s clunky name does not exactly create a sense of bold action, and the mixed messages sent by the administration undermines any sense of urgency. Lastly, a brutal summer of heat waves and extreme weather are yet another reminder that things are, to put it mildly, not going well.

Perceptions of the law might be difficult to change for some fundamental reasons; the majority of the funding goes towards tax credits that will matter a great deal to some businesses and households, but will mean little to those not enjoying the benefits firsthand. The clean energy industry appears poised to grow in the years to come, but whether the public connects that to changes in the tax code will depend on the administration’s political skills. 

Meanwhile, those who pay close attention to climate policy — especially young activists — remain frustrated by the Biden administration’s real world record. The White House has approved several major new fossil fuel projects, including the massive WIllow oil drilling scheme in Alaska. These critics argue that creating substantial new sources of climate pollution undercuts the projected emissions reductions that might come from the growth in clean energy sources.

This tension is not going away anytime soon. Bowing to demands from fossil fuel-friendly Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the Inflation Reduction Act actually requires the government to lease oil and gas drilling rights on public lands and waters alongside the approval of wind and solar projects — an absurd and self-defeating ‘balancing act.’ 

So how will the Inflation Reduction Act aim to live up to the climate hype? Some of its impact rests on major corporate tax giveaways for capturing carbon emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities. On its face, this sounds ingenuous; who wouldn’t want to eliminate pollution before it enters the atmosphere? 

In reality, though, carbon capture has proven to be a massive failure. The vision of equipping coal and fracked gas power plants with capture technology has more or less disappeared after billions of dollars and precious years were wasted. There are a small handful of projects which re-use the carbon to extract more oil from existing wells — hardly a climate solution.

It is not a surprise, then, that polluting industries have been relatively happy with the Inflation Reduction Act. It’s a classic ‘heads, we win, tails you lose’ proposition: Industries can rake in billions of dollars while their core business model remains basically unaffected. There is precious little public information about how existing carbon capture tax credits work; the federal government will not publicly identify the recipients, and there appears to be little accountability for actually demonstrating the effectiveness of storing the carbon waste.

The Biden administration’s embrace of carbon capture goes beyond the Inflation Reduction Act; in May, the Environmental Protection Agency announced draft power plant rules that would essentially require capture technology at many coal and gas facilities. After years of industry touting the benefits of carbon capture, major utility companies are now complaining that the technology is simply not feasible. And they might have a point.

When he was running for office, President Biden made bold climate declarations — including an unambiguous promise to stop fracking on public lands. Unfortunately, there has been little follow through on those pledges. If the White House wants to show it means what it says about the climate crisis — and attract young, highly motivated voters willing to fight to protect a livable future — then it must do more than rely on market mechanisms and failed techno fixes.

Wenonah Hauter is the founder and executive director of the national advocacy group Food & Water Watch. 

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