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New federal guidelines could boost carbon capture in the US

The Biden administration says the US will ‘likely’ need controversial carbon capture tech to meet climate goals

The smoke stacks at American Electric Po
The smoke stacks at American Electric Power’s (AEP) Mountaineer coal power plant in New Haven, West Virginia, October 30, 2009. In cooperation with AEP, the French company Alstom unveiled the world’s largest carbon capture facility at a coal plant.
Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Biden administration issued new guidelines for federal agencies on how to assess proposals to capture and sequester carbon dioxide pollution. The new guidance lays out steps that could encourage “widespread deployment” of a controversial form of climate tech, as well as the network of pipelines and other infrastructure that come along with it.

The bipartisan infrastructure law passed last fall included more than $12 billion for Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Sequestration (CCUS) projects. The US will likely need such technologies to reach Biden’s climate goals, the new guidelines say. But the technologies, which draw CO2 out of smokestack emissions or the ambient air, are a divisive strategy for slowing climate change. Proponents say CCUS is needed to clean up hard-to-decarbonize industries like cement and steel. Critics, on the other hand, warn that the CCUS projects allow polluters to keep operating and could have negative consequences for nearby communities.

The guidelines issued today by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) seem to address some of those concerns by telling federal agencies how to conduct thorough environmental reviews of proposed CCUS projects. While CCUS typically refers to technologies that remove CO2 from emissions before they escape power plants or industrial facilities, the White House also lumps emerging “direct air capture” technologies that draw CO2 out of the ambient air into its definition. Both technologies depend on similar infrastructure, including pipelines that move the captured C02 to places where it can be stored underground or used in commercial products.

“While CCUS can be an important tool in tackling the climate crisis, the benefits and impacts of potential projects vary significantly — requiring careful planning and oversight to ensure deployment is safe, equitable, and environmentally sound,” says a White House fact sheet released today.

The CEQ’s new guidelines, which will be open for public comment until March 18th, include recommendations for streamlining federal decision-making on proposed CCUS projects. Each project — whether it’s a direct air capture plant or a CO2 pipeline that crosses over multiple jurisdictions — might need to receive approval from several different agencies. And there could be multiple environmental regulations that developers have to comply with, like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, to name a few.

“If I were an investor or a project developer, I would look at this and say, great — the government is serious about getting [permits] out in a fair and efficient way,” says Matt Bright, carbon capture policy manager at the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force that advocates for policies that promote carbon capture.

The Council on Environmental Quality also included recommendations for engaging with the public about projects that might affect them. Agencies should be in communication with nearby Tribes and communities early and often about the potential impacts of a proposed CCUS project, the guidelines say.

One of the concerns with devices that remove CO2 emissions from power plants or factories is that those facilities might continue to pump out other pollutants that make the air unhealthy to breathe. The new guidance recommends that the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency study how CCUS projects affect pollution other than greenhouse gas emissions and stipulates that projects should avoid adding additional “burdens” on communities.

Another concern is that pipelines carrying captured carbon dioxide can rupture, releasing CO2 in concentrations strong enough to suffocate wildlife and make people sick. The world’s first CO2 pipeline explosion hospitalized dozens of residents of a small Mississippi community in 2020.

These risks make CCUS untenable for some environmental advocates. “Living alongside these technologies means living alongside dangerous new pipelines built out at a scale that is unprecedented, that pose profound and poorly understood risks,” says Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law.

For Muffett, community safety seems to be an afterthought in the CEQ’s new guidance. He says the emphasis on streamlining federal decision-making could actually weaken environmental reviews. “That language of facilitating and accelerating regulatory review is is always what leads to cursory reviews, to significant oversights, to relaxations of guidelines,” he says.

Regulatory approvals aside, there are other obstacles that have largely prevented CCUS projects from coming to fruition. So far, the technologies have been too expensive to deploy at scale. According to a December report by the watchdog Government Accountability Office, hundreds of millions of federal dollars have already been spent on projects in the US that ultimately failed.

But that report also found that projects attached to industrial facilities have generally fared better than carbon capture devices attached to power plants. Industrial facilities, such as those that make cement or fertilizer, might be more cost-effective applications of CCUS because they can produce more concentrated streams of CO2.

The new CCUS guidelines are part of a wide set of actions the Biden administration announced today to address hard-to-cut emissions from the industrial sector. That includes $8 billion to develop regional hubs to produce hydrogen fuels for use in the industrial sector, which might include cement and steel manufacturing. “Clean” hydrogen can be made using renewable energy or by pairing natural gas with carbon capture. The White House also shared plans to procure construction materials with a lower carbon footprint and work with the European Union on trade policies that limit imports of the dirtiest steel.

The industrial sector produces about a quarter of US greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. These industries often release CO2 as part of a chemical process or require super high temperatures that can’t be easily reached using renewable energy. Cutting pollution from this sector could be one of the trickiest parts of President Biden’s plan to virtually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.