A crucial climate technology provokes fears in oil country

The result, according to both environmental officials and carbon capture experts, is that many of the projects are likely to face either serious delays while waiting for safety assessments or — worse — be waved through with less than thorough scrutiny.

The EPA said Tuesday that any states, tribal governments and territories that want to oversee carbon storage permitting must meet “stringent federal regulations” and that the agency will first “evaluate the effectiveness of the proposed program.”

Some climate activists — who’ve long claimed that carbon capture is merely a way to perpetuate a fossil-fuel economy — say the lack of regulatory apparatus is a sign of rushed decision-making. And they say it could put low-income residents and communities of color at risk, despite the Biden administration’s pledges to address historical disparities in how environmental burdens are distributed.

“For the most part leadership in both parties is aligned around trying to deploy as much [carbon capture] as possible, despite what the potential environmental justice impacts will be and despite considerable concerns about the technology and accountability, safety and security concerns,” said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at the progressive consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

Even government officials trying to get these projects to fruition are a little unsure about how this will play out given the lack of bodies behind the relevant desks.

“It’s tricky because this happened in a way that we weren’t super prepared for in a federal policy perspective,” said Shuchi Talati, who until last April was chief of staff in the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, which is handling billions of dollars for carbon capture grants and subsidies. “I hesitate to call it a bottleneck. It’s just going to take some time.”

Funding a technology that’s unproven at scale may be a massive gamble, though it’s one that only the U.S. government has the wherewithal to make, said Samantha Gross, who was director for international climate and clean energy at the Energy Department’s Office of International Affairs during the Obama administration.

“There’s some risk associated with the investment, but I think it’s a risk that’s totally worth taking,” said Gross, who now directs the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “You want to take some risk — that’s the point. It’s a technology that we need.”

A huge bet

The money Congress approved is staggering. The bipartisan infrastructure law funded $6.5 billion for technology to capture carbon, pull it from the air or store it underground, another $3.5 billion for carbon capture demonstration projects and $2.1 billion to build pipelines to transport CO2. All that would go into an industry that research firm Allied Market Research estimates as having only $2.1 billion in global market capitalization.

Those are just the direct subsidies. Just as importantly, the Democrat-passed Inflation Reduction Act strengthened a key tax credit that expanded carbon capture’s viability across many sectors, including cement and steel.

The technology is advertised as being able to scrub carbon dioxide and other pollutants from industrial processes before they can reach the atmosphere and trap the heat raising the Earth’s temperature.

Carbon capture may be the only real way to cut emissions at heavy industry sites, where switching to renewable energy is not yet an option. But while the underlying technology has been used for years, it has yet to take off at a huge scale. Only 13 commercial carbon capture sites are in operation in the U.S., said Jessie Stolark, executive director of the Carbon Capture Coalition, a group of oil and gas, tech, environmental and policy groups that back the technology.