How Green Is Biden’s Industrial Decarbonization Plan?

The Biden administration wants to fund carbon capture, a technology favored by fossil fuel companies.

Environmental air Pollution dumping into the sky above
Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

The White House’s plan to decarbonize the industrial sector could undermine the fight against climate change because it aims to kickstart a carbon capture industry that could prolong our dependence on dirty fossil fuels.

In principle, President Joe Biden’s scheme to “reinvigorate” manufacturing sounds like good news in the fight against the climate crisis because it will direct funds to boost low-carbon production of steel, aluminum, and concrete—all of which are needed to produce electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels. 

“By helping manufacturers use clean energy, efficiency upgrades, and other innovative technologies to reduce emissions, the Administration is supporting cleaner industry that can produce the next generation of products and materials for a net-zero economy,” the White House said in a statement.

The plan will also encourage companies to source low-carbon goods made in the U.S. amid an expected construction boom following the approval of Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package in November.

The administration’s efforts to decarbonize the industrial sector, which accounts for about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, have been applauded by business groups and environmental advocates alike.

“This plan can cut climate pollution while creating jobs and making us more competitive on the world stage,” wrote Sasha Stashwick, an industrial decarbonization expert at the Natural Resources Research Council.

Serious Caveats

But some critics argue that the plan has some serious caveats because it supports “clean hydrogen” from natural gas and aims to advance a carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) industry that could do more harm than good.

CCUS projects capture carbon dioxide from power plants and industrial facilities and either store the gas underground or use it for something else—like enhanced oil recovery. The technology has been around since the 1970s but it has not become mainstream because it is expensive and, according to critics, it is inefficient and does not tackle many of the environmental problems associated with fossil fuels. 

However, under pressure to slash emissions, energy producers and factories within the so-called "hard to decarbonize sectors"—which include cement, iron, steel, and chemicals—plan to build more than ​​100 new CCUS facilities worldwide in the coming years.

The White House already allocated $12 billion in the infrastructure bill for CCUS projects and last month issued guidelines to ensure that the technology is deployed “in a manner that is environmentally sound and that cuts cumulative pollution in nearby communities.”

The fossil fuel industry says that CCUS “will help achieve climate progress” and Exxon even envisions building a $100-billion CCUS hub in Texas but some activists argue that the technology is just a decoy that will allow oil and gas companies to pocket government funding while continuing to pollute the environment.

According to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), federal agencies have spent around $1.1 billion on 11 CCUS projects that have mostly failed or been canceled. Large-scale CCUS projects in Texas, Canada, and Australia have reportedly missed their targets and a 2020 study by University of California San Diego researchers found that approximately 80% of CCUS projects ended in failure.

In a recent Twitter thread, Nikki Reisch, the director of the climate & energy program at the Center for International Law described carbon capture as “a technology with a track record of over-promising & under-delivering.”

She wrote that the White House is ignoring the CCUS’ “track record of failure & industry abuse,” while “extending more handouts to oil & gas companies” and “doubling down on the fossil fuel economy.” 

On top of that, some recent studies indicate that existing CCUS projects often lead to higher emissions because the technology is energy-intensive and that energy is mostly produced by burning fossil fuels — and yes, renewable energy is growing but not fast enough to significantly reduce emissions from the power sector.

Environmental advocates say the U.S. should focus all its efforts on promoting renewable energy instead of CCUS, a technology that will allow fossil fuel companies to continue selling coal, oil, and gas while receiving additional government funding—and substantial tax credits.

View Article Sources
  1. "Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions." United States Environmental Protection Agency.

  2. Sekera, June, and Andreas Lichtenberger. "Assessing Carbon Capture: Public Policy, Science, and Societal Need." Biophysical Economics and Sustainability, vol. 5, no. 3, 2020, doi:10.1007/s41247-020-00080-5