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America’s global energy and climate leadership needs carbon capture

By Rich Powell
Real Clear Wire

The world is in the throes of a complex energy landscape as we recognize the unprecedented demand for affordable and reliable energy combined with our shared goal to decrease global carbon dioxide emissions. These twin realities create parallel challenges: producing more, while simultaneously deploying clean energy technologies that will reduce emissions.

The U.S. must lead in meeting both challenges. Domestic natural resources — oil, natural gas, coal and critical minerals – are prolific. Recent global instability has demonstrated just how crucial it is to decrease our dependence on hostile regimes like Russia, China and Iran. As the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, America’s seat at the table is clear.

Advancing U.S. leadership can’t stop with natural resources, we must also lead in low-carbon technologies.  Financial incentives and policy support are accelerating the development of solutions like carbon capture and storage (CCS), which the International Energy Agency has said will be “necessary to meet national, regional and even corporate net-zero goals.”

The U.S. already has a competitive advantage with CCS. A recent report from the Global CCS Institute shows that the U.S. “dominates” the global CCS landscape with the U.S. facility count increasing by 73 in the past year alone. This is no surprise: the technology enjoys vast bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats, environmentalists and industry alike, and is widely thought to be a crucial piece of the puzzle in decreasing emissions.

Wood Mackenzie emphasizes “we need a huge amount of carbon to be captured out of our industries and the power sector to decarbonize the last miles that can’t be easily reached by green electrification or alternatives.”

Indeed, CCS is essential for hard-to-abate sectors like steel, chemicals and cement production. These are among a set of heavy industries that account for nearly 20% of global CO2 emissions and for which there are no economical alternatives to fossil fuels in their operations.

Unfortunately, critics of CCS – who ironically have been some of the loudest in calling for climate action – are ramping up their efforts to raise doubt about this technology in the lead-up to the COP28 climate conference. Some are arguing that fossil fuels should be taken completely off the table to hasten the “energy transition,” while activist groups have called CCS efforts a “dangerous distraction” that is being used to “justify climate inaction.”

Advocating for eliminating carbon dioxide emissions but against the technology to do so is the definition of hypocrisy. Now that some of the largest energy and technology companies are investing billions in CCS as a viable solution – one that even the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has endorsed – detractors are moving the goalposts.

We always say that fossil energy is not the problem, the emissions from burning them are. Using reliable energy, and eliminating the emissions, should be a win-win for everyone. Yet climate activists are standing in the way of the fossil energy industries' climate efforts. That's the definition of irony.

Continued U.S. investment in CCS is critical because the stakes are high. Thankfully, the U.S. is in the lead, but China is advancing CCS with major investments planned. If we cede this leadership role to China, we will be transferring even more power and control over to Beijing.

U.S. industry is announcing investments, but we also need permitting reform to translate words into action. The Biden administration’s bureaucratic backlog of CO2 storage well permits – more than 170 pending today  – is a massive barrier to scaling CCS at the pace we need. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also needs to grant more states regulatory control over these wells – known as “primacy” – to ensure safety and accelerate permitting.

It takes the EPA years to permit CO2 storage wells, but states like North Dakota – who have primacy – can do it in five months with just as stringent environmental and safety precautions.

The U.S. can ensure progress on low-carbon and reliable energy – and not starve the world of necessary resources with a hasty phase-down of fossil fuels – by putting the focus on deploying climate solutions like CCS. We can do this without detrimental impacts to global energy security, and we can do this right now.

American energy innovation has delivered significant benefits here at home and around the world. With CCS, we can ensure the next generation of global energy is also American-led.

Rich Powell is CEO of ClearPath, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that develops and advances policies that accelerate innovations to reduce and remove global energy emissions.

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