Updated: May 31
In 2018, Republicans and Democrats put aside their differences to pass a bipartisan climate policy. Inside the 2018 budget bill, Congress passed a tax incentive for carbon capture and sequestration from coal plants. The tax incentive was hailed as a major step forward for the climate, but the bill will only prolong the dying coal industry and disincentivize renewables.
The myth of sequestration
Carbon capture and sequestration refers to the process whereby the carbon emitted from coal plants can be captured and stored safely rather than emitted into the atmosphere. While this technology sounds promising on paper, it has it's fair share of problems when it comes to implementation. When a coal plant was opened several years ago in Mississippi, it was touted as a model for demonstrating that carbon capture and sequestration technology could work, but the project turned into a fiasco. The technology didn’t work as it was designed, and the plant came in behind schedule and over budget. Eventually, the plant was repurposed to refine natural gas.
The reason this plan failed is not because carbon capture and storage doesn’t work, but because it was based on coal. There is a track record of success for carbon capture technology when used to suck carbon dioxide out of ambient air. In British Columbia right now there is a start-up called Carbon Engineering that has been perfecting this technology by using a large fan to increase airflow and thus, the amount of carbon they can capture. Their success has made it clear that the failure of the Mississippi plant was rooted in the inherent flaws of coal.
Why save coal?
Given the technological barriers to carbon capture and sequestration making a serious dent in climate change when tied to the coal industry, it makes no sense that congress would give a new tax incentive to promote the technology. Every dollar that goes to this coal-related carbon capture tax incentive, is a dollar that isn’t going to proven renewable technology such as wind. It’s a dollar wasted on an industry that is dying off with or without the tax incentive. For years, coal’s share of America’s energy mix has been declining, as the (somewhat cleaner) natural gas industry has grown to replace it. Spending more money on coal will only weaken the United States and leave it vulnerable to nations like China that are investing in wind and solar.
Bipartisan progress is no progress at all
Because Americans are routinely saturated with news about partisan bickering, a policy that is described as bipartisan is often assumed to be a good policy. The danger inherent in this is that when both Republicans and Democrats agree to support a dirty and failing industry, they will be able to avoid a popular backlash by selling the policy as bipartisan. During the Biden administration, it is a possible concern that Biden will seek to expand federal support of carbon capture and sequestration in order to claim a bipartisan win. It is incumbent on those who are serious about climate change to make the case for renewables as an alternative to coal rather than trying to dress coal up as a clean industry.