With the strongest climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act sacrificed to appease Joe Manchin and the Republican Party, it is up to the Biden executive branch to deliver unprecedented shifts in public policy to change our climate future. Unfortunately, one of the many constraints here is simply the projects for which Congress has already allocated funds, and which the President is moving forward on. To illustrate, let’s look at one of the most controversial (for good reason) aspects of the executive branch’s climate policy: its support for carbon capture technology (CCT).
Much of the executive branch’s CCT work flows through the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Climate Management (FECM). Brad Crabtree is President Biden’s pick to run this office as an Assistant Secretary of Energy, though he hasn’t yet been confirmed by the full senate. This position heads up a component of the Department of Energy dedicated to research and development of technologies used in the production of fossil fuels. Crabtree would head the office that helped invent technology to facilitate fracking, deep sea drilling, and ‘clean coal’. The other main responsibility Crabtree would have is managing key federal oil reserves.
Crabtree is currently the director of the Carbon Capture Coalition, a group of nonprofits and energy corporations advocating for carbon capture technology. He is also a vice president at the Great Plains Institute, a nonprofit focused on bringing state governments, non-profits, and energy companies together to tackle energy efficiency and diversification of midwestern states. He is not only a staunch supporter of CCT (also known as carbon capture, utilization, and storage, or CCUS), but also favors using captured carbon to increase domestic oil production through a process called enhanced oil recovery (EOR). In EOR (which FECM also helped pioneer), CO2 is pumped into oil deposits to force remaining oil to the surface when it is too deep for traditional drilling methods.
Eventual carbon removal is a necessary part of meaningful climate change mitigation; there is too much CO2 in the atmosphere already. But CO2 removal is different from carbon capture—the former removes already existing CO2 emissions from the atmosphere, while the latter captures ongoing emissions from a smokestack such as one in a coal plant and is intended to allow fossil energy to continue to be developed. Biden’s reconciliation bill, if it passes, subsidizes coal plants for precisely this reason, acting as a life preserver for coal plants that would otherwise be close to death. The process of enhanced oil recovery that Crabtree champions is even more dangerous. Aside from the considerable economic and scientific barriers to scaling the technology up, discussed below, the model of the CCT Crabtree supports rests on an unethical premise: that decarbonization should be profitable for Big Oil.
From their well-documented cover-up campaigns about the severity of anthropogenic climate change to their successful lobbying and campaign efforts to stop government support for renewables, oil companies have continually stood in the way of minimizing the harms the world faces from using its product. In fact, in recent congressional hearings, oil company executives would not commit to refrain from using their resources to lobby against policies that tackle climate change. If the world has dug itself into a hole thanks to fossil fuel, then the industry keeps handing out new shovels. Now, to allow them to make more money through mitigation half-measures targeted at extracting even more oil which, almost as an externality, will maybe help fight climate change a little bit is unconscionable.
Consider the simple implementation problems. Even at near perfect efficiency, fossil fuel based processes will still continue to emit more carbon emissions. Additionally, despite the technology existing, there are significant hurdles to scaling CCT up effectively without a stringent carbon price. Carbon becomes both far more expensive and more technically difficult to capture at the rates needed to make emissions negligible. When carbon is fairly abundant in the air being cleaned, it is comparatively easy to capture a good bit of it, but as the concentration gets lower, each additional particle becomes harder to catch. All of this means that no matter how good the technology gets, it will still allow for increasing levels of carbon in the air unless paired with other policies that create large scale reductions in emissions. A coal-burning power plant will never be carbon neutral or carbon negative. Even with CCT, decarbonizing the energy sector will be necessary to actually combat climate change.
CCT has existed for decades but has never been widely adopted, mainly because CCT is expensive while polluting is cheap and there is a lack of a market for it aside from fighting climate change. Of course, the second issue is what enhanced oil recovery is meant to fix. The general idea is that EOR will make capturing CO2 emissions profitable for polluters — by using captured carbon to pump up even more oil, polluters are supposed to have an incentive to clean up after themselves (at least long enough to make even more of a mess.) While Crabtree and other proponents of EOR claim that it is a carbon neutral, or even carbon negative, form of energy production, the science behind this is mixed. One study which conducted a dynamic lifecycle analysis, effectively accounting for how oil production would be impacted across the entire timeline of an EOR project, found that EOR starts out carbon negative but then becomes carbon positive as the remaining oil dwindles. To an extent, this is intuitive; as the reserves become emptier and the remaining oil lies deeper, it is more difficult and resource-intensive to eke out the remaining oil. In fact, this is a facsimile of how oil production works in general: at the beginning it is very easy to produce large quantities but the marginal returns decrease as extraction must go deeper.
The obvious counter argument here is that being carbon-negative in the short term is still reason enough to deploy EOR. However, that ignores two significant issues. First, EOR would require significant upfront capital investment to develop pipelines to carry captured CO2 — as shown in one of Crabtree’s own presentations. It is unclear that EOR is carbon-negative enough to produce returns on investment to the same extent as investing in renewables upfront, particularly since they remain carbon negative indefinitely.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, this major investment would further increase the capital that is already sunk into the oil industry, which makes it harder for competing renewable energy sources to break into the market, and signals that oil companies are free to continue to profit off of the climate change that they created. Additionally, if policy makers insist on using carbon capture, there are many other ways of using carbon that can actually keep more existing carbon in the ground, rather than use it as an excuse to keep digging out more oil — and with it humanity’s grave. Coca-Cola is even using CCT to carbonate some of their drinks. There are industries that could utilize CO2 without the unique harms of continuing a dangerous dependence on oil like EOR would.
There is also a worrying pattern— exemplified in the utter failures of the Kemper project in the U.S. and the Gorgon project in Australia— of fossil fuel companies taking investments in CCT and delivering projects that run over cost, are poorly constructed, and do hardly anything to actually reduce emissions. The global inability to implement carbon capture led to a review by the Australia Institute, which found that CCT projects had missed, and were on track to keep missing, almost every meaningful target set for the technology. In short, carbon capture technology exists and can work to reduce emissions, but it carries with it a horrendous track record and has tremendous barriers to being implemented at scale. Attempts to actually implement it at any meaningful scale have failed, and it has often led to investments being diverted away from other technologies like renewables. Funding instead flows towards projects that, while promising, wind up serving more as industry cash cows than as effective climate change mitigation.
As is mentioned in Crabtree’s committee testimony, the money for prioritizing research into CCT and EOR has already been allocated by Congress and signed off on by the Biden administration. In fact, during that committee hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was very enthusiastic about the potential that these technologies had for allowing Alaska to continue to produce oil in the long run, saying “I believe that CCUS is going to be the key for us to be able to continue to be producers.” This is what makes the situation all the more dire: there is little that can be done. Between the support from Republicans for EOR and the potential to continue producing fossil fuels being alluring to representatives from coal and oil producing states like Murkowski and Joe Manchin (D-WV), removing funding from the energy agenda may prove politically difficult, particularly with Democrats not having a majority without Manchin in a 50-50 Senate.
Brad Crabtree himself is well positioned to lead FECM in prioritizing CCT and EOR projects. But what should be very concerning is that the administration has signaled a commitment to such initiatives via his nomination. Biden could have nominated someone committed to using FECM to aid a rapid shift away from fossil fuels, but instead the administration has committed to a status quo approach through increasing oil production that may well preclude a much more meaningful investment in alternative energy sources. It’s also the case that Crabtree himself cannot direct resources of his Office toward ending fossil fuel production if he is confirmed—he can only execute on fossil research plans designed by Congress and the administration —and the commitment to EOR as a policy priority is not up to Crabtree. The cause for concern is less about the nominee himself, rather what the pick reveals about the administration’s plans for fossil fuel policy.