Why capturing carbon is an essential part of Biden’s climate plans

President Biden’s early climate efforts prioritized popular actions: rejoining the Paris agreement, purchasing clean energy and vehicles, and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. But the administration’s strategies to drive the nation toward net-zero emissions also lean heavily, if less obviously, on a touchier area: capturing or removing huge amounts of the carbon dioxide driving global warming.

In July, the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy tacked “and Carbon Management” onto its name, signaling a distinct shift in an agency traditionally focused on developing more efficient ways of extracting fossil fuels and converting them into energy. Now, the central goal of the office, backed with around 750 federal employees and nearly a billion-dollar budget, is to develop better, cheaper ways to clean up climate polluting industries.

Shuchi Talati, chief of staff at the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management.

COURTESY PHOTO

New priorities include: advancing technologies and techniques that can prevent CO2 from escaping factories and power plants, remove it from the atmosphere, turn it into new products and store it away forever.

The office placed several researchers focused on these issues into leadership roles, including naming Shuchi Talati chief of staff. She’ll oversee many of the changes in the agency alongside Jennifer Wilcox, the principal deputy assistant secretary. Talati was previously the deputy director of policy at Carbon 180, a proponent of carbon removal and recycling, and a fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

President Biden’s agenda is also playing out in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which the Senate already passed. It provides billions of dollars to develop direct-air capture plants that can suck CO2 out of the air, pipelines to move it around, and sites where it can be buried in geological formations deep underground.

Many in the climate movement argue that carbon capture is a distraction from the core mission of eliminating fossil fuels as quickly as possible. And the field is littered with failures, including a variety of Department of Energy-backed boondoggles like the nearly $2 billion FutureGen clean coal project.

But research finds it will be far harder and more expensive to eliminate emissions and prevent dangerous levels of warming without carbon capture and removal, particularly in heavy industries where few other options exist. And the number of successful commercial projects is growing around the globe, curtailing the emissions from steel, hydrogen, and fertilizer plants.

In the interview that follows, I asked Talati what role carbon capture should play in our response to climate change and how the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management is working to accelerate progress in the field.

The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why was it important to shift or expand your office’s mandate?

When it comes to climate goals, especially net zero, carbon management has an increasingly important role to play. That means not only dealing with our continued emissions, but recognizing that for every type of fossil fuel that’s burned we have to manage the carbon that comes with that.

Ensuring that those two were connected in the name of our office is important to how this office does its work and how it’s perceived. Because we don’t want to do any work on fossil fuels that is not related to mitigating the environmental impacts associated with it.

How does the Department of Energy see carbon capture and storage specifically fitting into the broader effort to accelerate decarbonization and address climate change?

Where we can transition to renewables, we want to make those choices. But where we can’t, CCS [carbon capture and storage] has a really important role to play. With industries like cement, we know that CCS is absolutely essential to capturing those emissions.

We can capture not only the emissions from the actual energy that’s needed, but the emissions released during the production process, where there are no other mechanisms to prevent that CO2. CCS is just an incredibly versatile way to capture emissions from a lot of these hard-to-decarbonize sectors.

When it comes to the power industry, looking at natural gas, especially, there are a lot of natural gas power plants that are not scheduled to retire until after 2035, which is after our 100% clean electricity goal. That represents over 200 gigawatts that is going to continue operating with natural gas. So to enable that to be clean, CCS is really the only option.

I want to say too, for natural gas, we’ve never actually demonstrated this technology before. So if we really want to understand the true costs and what commercialization will really look like, we need to first invest in demonstration. That’s really what our office could do.

Many climate activists consider support for carbon capture akin to granting a social license for the fossil fuel industry to continue operating. How do you respond when you hear people raise those concerns?

I understand where a lot of these critiques are coming from. This has not been an industry that has been necessarily straightforward. And I think the fact that it’s coupled to the fossil fuel industry is really challenging, and that’s something that we are grappling with.

But I think when it comes to the committed infrastructure we have, and especially looking at the industrial sector—where it’s not necessarily about the fossil fuel industry, but about creating products that we know we’re going to continue to need, like concrete—we have to think about what that means for emissions, and getting to zero. There really are no other options.

The role of our office, and the role of the federal government, is to ensure that we’re doing this properly and creating an industry that is responsible and building the environmental safeguards around this technology that might not have existed in the past. 

You mentioned the role carbon capture can potentially play for natural gas plants that are going to continue operating for decades. But do you anticipate carbon capture playing a role in the building of new electricity generation energy going forward?

Honestly, I think that’s really dependent on the market and how private companies are viewing their investments.

We are only supportive of abated fossil fuels, so when it comes to building new natural gas, our support is very dependent on whether that CCS infrastructure is there. And I think a really important component of that, too, is reliable storage. Right now, a lot of CO2 is used for enhanced oil recovery [freeing up remaining oil from wells] and we want to make sure that we are helping to build a durable storage infrastructure, around geologic reservoirs and around CO2-to-products that have long duration storage, like building materials.

Even if this can be an effective tool for cement plants or for some element of existing natural gas plants, there’s still a reasonable fear that there could be fudging here. That emissions could leak out more than companies are saying, both from plants themselves or from extraction sites, or because carbon storage sites don’t work as effectively as hoped. How can we ensure that the industry does these things in reliable ways?

I think that’s the role of our office, and I think that’s the role of this administration. I totally agree. I think we need to ensure that reliable storage is actually working. We have experience in terms of the way CO2 has been stored in depleted oil and gas reservoirs, but we don’t have as much experience with saline aquifers [permeable rocks filled with salt water].

We need to do demonstration projects. We need to have [monitoring, reporting, and verification] capabilities that we trust, that are robust, and that work at scale. And that takes investment from the government and really dedicated capacity.

I think, too, our infrastructure has leaks all throughout the supply chain for natural gas. So that is actually one of the priorities we listed in our upcoming budget: reducing methane.

That means changing the way our office has often worked in the past. We want to shift the conversation to having the least environmental impacts possible from the extraction that’s happening.

The infrastructure bill that’s moving forward includes funding for direct-air capture plants. What role does the Department of Energy see carbon removal directly from the air playing in the efforts to address climate change?

It’s incredibly exciting that this is the biggest investment in carbon removal in history. The fact that we are recognizing the need to have focused demonstration funds for direct-air capture is the absolute first of a kind globally. And so [the Department of Energy] plays a really important role in helping to invest in these early technologies, to demonstrate them and to really be able to help private companies leverage the incredible work that they’ve done in this space.

When it comes to direct-air capture, these demonstrations are incredibly expensive. And $3.5 billion dollars doesn’t actually go as far as most people think that it might.

We are incredibly excited about this technology. But there are others that I think merit equal focus, like enhanced mineralization [developing ways to accelerate the natural process by which certain types of minerals capture carbon dioxide].

When we talk about engineered carbon removal, I think enhanced mineralization hasn’t quite had its moment in the sun yet. [Direct-air capture] is the first thing that comes to mind—and we want to change that. Enhanced mineralization has incredible capacity to scale.

How do you feel about the tension, or if there is a tension, between scaling up carbon removal, but also being mindful of the potential limits on our ability to do it?

That’s an incredibly important question.

Carbon dioxide removal should not be applied in cases where we can reduce emissions other ways. For companies, that means reducing their emissions through energy efficiency, or electrification, or whatever those other ways might be. Avoiding emissions first is always the priority. Always. Because it’s going to be cheaper, it is going to be more efficient to do that. Carbon removal is hard. It’s expensive. And the industry doesn’t exist yet at scale.

When we think about [carbon] offsets, the framework in which we think about it is: it’s for those extremely hard-to-decarbonize sectors like aviation, agriculture, shipping; where we don’t have any other mechanisms to be able to abate those emissions today.

As we evolve and as we innovate technologically, my hope is that we’ll be able to avoid all of those emissions without carbon dioxide removal—and it could then be focused on this net negative piece [removing enough carbon dioxide to drive overall emissions below zero to begin reducing the total levels in the atmosphere].  

When it comes to the nature-based pieces [relying on things like forests and soils to remove and store more carbon], I’m deeply concerned as to how that conversation is evolving. Because we don’t have a carbon accounting infrastructure in this country. And that is something that our office is really hoping to help build up in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies like Department of Agriculture that are deeply involved with natural systems around carbon dioxide removal.

Without that really robust carbon accounting infrastructure that’s consistent, that has the weight of the federal government behind it, I’m not comfortable with enabling an offset infrastructure that is not grounded in reality.

Today, we have this patchwork of companies mostly doing the accreditation for offsets protocols, with frankly highly varying levels of quality. What role could the federal government play in setting a common set of reliable standards?

Yeah, I think defining what good quality offsets are, is the role of the federal government. We’ve seen varying types of outputs from private companies in that space. The most recent one was from Microsoft and Carbon Direct, which were actually pretty exciting and something we could build off of. But I think building that infrastructure to where there’s a concerted effort to build that out isn’t quite there yet. But we’re hoping to really pursue that as we start thinking about carbon removal in all-of-government kind of ways.

That didn’t exist under the previous administration, so we’re in the early phases of trying to put that together. But so many agencies have a role to play in that conversation, so figuring out what agencies need to be part of that conversation, where it should live, and how it should be led, are still open questions. But acknowledging that the questions need to be answered, I think, is a really huge first step.

The language on the shifting mission within your office also prioritizes environmental justice. How do those considerations come into play when we’re talking about carbon capture and removal and storage, where we put pipelines, where we sequester CO2, where we do and don’t allow continued exploration and extraction to occur?

Those are questions we’re trying to figure out. We’re extremely focused on ensuring that the harms are not put on disadvantaged communities and also ensuring that the benefits are equitably distributed to these communities from the investments that we make.

For us, it’s not just about being excited about these technologies, which we are. It’s about engaging with communities about whether or not they are. I think it’s about finding places where there’s support; where we know that communities might have jobs and benefits from these particular projects.