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We Have the Technology to Address Climate Change & Still Use Fossil Fuels

RealClear Policy

Lawmakers want to fight climate change, but many of them are taking the wrong approach. Proposals to abandon fossil fuels entirely, like the Green New Deal, are both impractical and expensive.

Fortunately, we don’t need to ban fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions. The better approach is to capture the carbon we emit and store it underground, safely away from the atmosphere.

So-called carbon capture and sequestration (i.e., storage) is at the center of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s new climate plan, announced in February. Despite reservations from some lawmakers and environmental activists, this plan could garner bipartisan support. 

Carbon capture has been around for decades, though only on a small scale.

In the most common approach, known as “post-combustion” capture, power plants burn fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to create electricity, which releases carbon dioxide as a by-product. Rather than letting that carbon dioxide enter the atmosphere, plants can capture it and transport it, usually via pipeline, and store it deep underground.  

In a newer approach, known as “precombustion” capture, power plants can remove carbon dioxide from fossil fuels before they burn them. Both processes capture an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of the carbon. But while precombustion costs less to operate, post-combustion is easier to retrofit on older power power plants.

And other innovative approaches are in the works. For companies that don’t actually produce much carbon but want to play a role in reducing it — think tech companies — there is “direct air capture,” an emerging technology that seeks to remove CO2 directly from the air rather than where it is produced.

According to the Global CCS Institute, there are currently 19 carbon capture facilities operating worldwide, which, along with facilities under construction, have the capacity to capture 40 million metric tons of carbon each year. That’s a small portion of the 5.1 billion metric tons of carbon released in the United States alone. But these facilities show that carbon capture works.

And thanks to technological improvements, carbon capture is more cost-effective than ever. Today, it costs between $48 and $109 to capture a ton of carbon using conventional capture methods.

In recent years, carbon capture has gained momentum in Washington. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 expanded an existing tax credit for companies that implement carbon capture systems, increasing their incentive to reduce emissions. Rep. McCarthy’s climate plan would expand these tax credits and permanently extend them.

Unfortunately, progressive lawmakers and many environmentalists dislike carbon capture because it supports the use of fossil fuels. They would rather ban oil and natural gas and transition entirely to renewable energy sources.

That isn’t feasible. Fossil fuels supply nearly 63 percent of electricity generated in the United States. Meanwhile, wind power provides just 7 percent of that energy, while solar supplies less than 2 percent. Even if we had enough wind and solar power to meet energy demand, the United States would need 900 times our current energy storage infrastructure to keep the lights on when wind and solar couldn’t provide it.

Some conservatives balk at the idea of using subsidies and tax breaks to encourage carbon capture. That’s a valid concern, considering how much money the government has wasted on failed green energy projects. But with plans like the Green New Deal gaining popularity, McCarthy’s proposal is the most fiscally responsible option lawmakers have.

Many lawmakers want to take action on climate change, but they need to realize that eliminating fossil fuels doesn’t make sense. Carbon capture is a reasonable, bipartisan climate plan that both recognizes fossil fuels’ importance for economic growth and national security, while actually reducing atmospheric carbon levels.