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What Is Carbon Capture Technology? It Has A Complicated Place In The Infrastructure Bill

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Billions of dollars in the new infrastructure agreement are targeted for a technology that would gather carbon dioxide emissions and bury them underground. It's part of President Biden's response to climate change. But some progressive environmental groups say so-called carbon capture just delays ending the use of fossil fuels that are driving global warming. For more, I'm joined by Nick Kusnetz of Inside Climate News. Welcome to the program.

NICK KUSNETZ: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So for people who are not familiar with this technology, what exactly does carbon capture mean?

KUSNETZ: So carbon capture and storage refers to technologies that pull carbon dioxide emissions straight out of smokestacks or even pull carbon dioxide from the air and then stores it deep underground or, in some cases, turns it into products like fuels or materials.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, so what would the money slated for this in the infrastructure bill actually pay for?

KUSNETZ: One piece of it would look to solve kind of the infrastructure piece. So the carbon dioxide has to be captured in a smokestack and then shipped, you know, in a pipeline, say, to somewhere where it's going to be stored underground and also sort of create markets for it because you're going to need people and companies that want to buy the carbon dioxide in order to get companies to capture it. There's also a few billion dollars that would go towards hubs where companies would try to pull carbon dioxide straight out of the air. So this is technology that's getting increasing attention, I'd say, as there's more of an awareness that we're getting so close to sort of dangerous tipping points in the climate system. We're going to need to pull carbon dioxide out of the air.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This carbon capture plan has been supported by the oil and gas lobbies. Clearly, the administration supports it because it's in the legislation. But more than 500 environmental organizations signed an open letter basically saying that supporting this technology is kicking the can down the road. Can you explain what their objections are?

KUSNETZ: Yeah, so carbon capture has created a bit of a split in the environmental community. And a lot of the groups, mostly progressive groups and a lot of local groups that focus on environmental justice, are concerned that carbon capture and storage is really going to be used as an excuse to continue building fossil fuel infrastructure. I think one of the big concerns is that currently, the limited amount of carbon capture that there is - pretty much all of that carbon dioxide is then sold to oil companies that use it to squeeze oil out of depleted reservoirs. And the concerns of that, again - this is really just going to be another tool for the fossil fuel industry to continue business as usual.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But I take it some mainstream environmental groups did not sign that letter of protest. Why not?

KUSNETZ: So I think there's increasing attention and sort of realization that we're going to need pretty much every tool we can get to address climate change. And so a lot of the more mainstream environmental groups either support carbon capture or have sort of taken an agnostic position saying, look. This is a technology that we could need decades from now. And it's worth putting government investment into today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What kind of impact could it have?

KUSNETZ: So a lot of the supporters of the technology are pretty enthusiastic about what's in the infrastructure bill. They've sort of likened it to what happened with solar power and wind power a couple of decades ago when solar, in particular, used to be extremely expensive. But there were tax credits and R&D spending and support from the government to drive that cost down. This is where I think one of the biggest criticisms for carbon capture comes in, which is that we have renewable energy sources that are competitive with natural gas and coal for power today. And they can make a huge difference now. And if you look at what's happened with carbon capture currently, the few times it's been used in power plants - the vast majority of those have not worked out. They've just been too expensive. So it hasn't been able to make a big dent in emissions. And I think it would be a long, long time before it could.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Nick Kusnetz of Inside Climate News. Thank you very much.

KUSNETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.