New federal guidelines could boost US carbon capture

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On Tuesday, the Biden administration issued new guidelines to federal agencies on how to assess proposals to capture and store carbon dioxide pollution. The new directive outlines steps that could encourage the “widespread deployment” of a controversial form of climate technology, as well as the network of pipelines and other infrastructure that accompanies it.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last fall included more than $12 billion for carbon capture, use and capture (CCUS) projects. The US will likely need such technologies to meet Biden’s climate goals, the new guidelines say. But the technologies that extract CO2 from chimney emissions or the ambient air are a divisive strategy to slow down 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 the polluters to continue functioning and could negatively impact nearby communities.

Guidelines issued today by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) appear to address some of those concerns by telling federal agencies how to conduct thorough environmental assessments of proposed CCUS projects. While CCUS typically refers to technologies that remove CO2 from emissions before escaping power plants or industrial facilities, the White House also adds emerging “direct air capture” technologies that remove CO2 from the ambient air into its definition. Both technologies depend on similar infrastructure, including pipelines that take 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 considerably – requiring careful planning and oversight to ensure implementation is safe, equitable and environmentally sound,” says a statement released today. White House fact sheet.

The CEQ’s new guidelines, open to public comment until March 18, include recommendations for streamlining federal decision-making on proposed CCUS projects. Any project—whether it’s a direct air capture facility or a CO2 pipeline crossing multiple jurisdictions—may need approval from several agencies. And there may be multiple environmental regulations that developers must comply with, such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, just to name a few.

“If I were an investor or a property developer I would look at this and say, great – the government is serious about getting it” [permits] in a fair and efficient manner,” said Matt Bright, carbon capture policy manager with the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force who advocates for policies that promote carbon capture.

The Environmental Quality Council has also made recommendations to engage with the public about projects that may affect them. Agencies should communicate early and often with nearby tribes and communities about the potential impacts of a proposed CCUS project, the guidelines say.

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

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

These risks make CCUS unsustainable for some environmentalists. “Living next to these technologies means living next to dangerous new pipelines that have been constructed on an unprecedented scale and carry profound and poorly understood risks,” said Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law.

For Muffett, community safety appears to be an afterthought in the CEQ’s new guidelines. He says the emphasis on streamlining federal decision-making could actually weaken environmental assessments. “That language of facilitating and speeding up regulatory review is always what leads to cursory assessments, to major oversights, to relaxation of guidelines,” he says.

Apart from regulatory approvals, there are other obstacles that have largely prevented the realization of CCUS projects. Until now, the technologies were too expensive to deploy on a large scale. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars have already been spent on projects in the US that ultimately failed, according to a December report from the watchdog Government Accountability Office.

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

The new CCUS guidelines are part of a broad set of actions the Biden administration announced today to address the industrial sector’s hard-to-reduce emissions. That includes $8 billion to develop regional hubs to produce hydrogen fuels for industrial use, including cement and steel production. “Clean” hydrogen can be made with renewable energy or by combining natural gas with carbon capture. The White House also shared plans to source building materials with a lower carbon footprint and work with the European Union on trade policies that restrict imports of the dirtiest steel.

According to the EPA, the industrial sector produces about a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions in the US. These industries often emit CO2 as part of a chemical process or require super high temperatures that cannot be easily achieved with renewable energy. Reducing pollution from this sector could be one of the trickiest parts of President Biden’s plan to virtually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

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