In early October, President Joe Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V) reached a deal to expand a tax subsidy for fossil fuel companies and heavy-emitting industries that invest in carbon capture technology in the Build Back Better bill. Weeks later, Biden announced his compromise framework for the legislation, which omitted the Democrats signature climate policy: The Clean Electricity Performance Program, which would provide subsidies to utility companies for switching to renewable energy sources and penalties for those that did not.
While this compromise, which will subsidize the fossil fuel companies that are heating up the planet to invest in expensive and speculative carbon capture technology, seems to have come from Manchin, there’s also evidence that the Biden administration appears to share Manchin’s view that carbon capture could provide a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry even as the president claims to be tackling climate change.
In September, as Congress was hammering out the details of the infrastructure package, Biden quietly nominated Brad Crabtree, a coal ally and longtime carbon capture advocate to serve as the Department of Energy’s Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy and Carbon Management.
The Wall Street-friendly think tank Third Way was elated at the news that Crabtree would be taking a prominent position within the Biden administration. Crabtree has served as an advisor to the National Coal Council since 2014 and is the Vice President for Fossil Energy at the Great Plains Institute, an opaque pro-fossil fuel group that has been lobbying in DC for funding for carbon capture technology. Crabtree is also the director of the D.C.-based Carbon Capture Coalition, whose members include fossil fuel companies like Shell, NRG Energy, and Valero — and, incidentally, Third Way.
Utility companies have made substantial donations to Third Way: Between 2015 and 2019, Entergy gave $125,000 to Third Way, the Public Service Enterprise Group gave $50,000, and PG&E gave $175,000, according to data from the Center for Political Accountability.
With Congress set to allocate more than $8.5 billion to carbon capture in the bipartisan infrastructure bill alone — and with even more generous subsidies promised in the larger Build Back Better spending plan released recently — one of the key positions at the Department of Energy will soon be occupied by a man who shares Manchin’s view that the speculative technology is a way to sustain the fossil fuel industry in a net-zero world.
“With this nomination, Biden is legitimizing a false solution to climate change and locking in needless pollution, warming, and further destabilization of the planet and the people who are harmed by the fossil fuel industry,” Dorothy Slater, senior climate researcher at the Revolving Door Project, an advocacy group which scrutinizes executive branch appointments, told The Daily Poster. “For Biden to put someone like Crabtree in this role is for him to contradict his own goals to address climate change and environmental justice, and sadly is another indication that his climate plan relies on words and empty promises rather than needed action.”
“All Sides Win”
Crabtree has long championed carbon capture technologies as a way to continue burning fossil fuels.
“The most carbon-intensive sectors in our economy also happen to have some of the highest-paying blue collar jobs remaining in our economy, so this is a really important strategy for retaining high-wage jobs,” he said about the need for carbon capture during a slide presentation in April 2020.
“All sides win,” he told the Los Angeles Times this summer about carbon capture technology. “You significantly reduce carbon emissions, but you can also maintain those industries that are the lifeblood of different regions of the country.”
In North Dakota, where Crabtree is from, that industry is lignite coal. Crabtree has spent much of the past two decades working to sustain it through the development of carbon capture technology.
He started at the Great Plains Institute in 2002, where he pioneered carbon capture policy in the midwest through collaborations with state officials, industry groups, and nonprofits. In 2010, Crabtree announced he was running for a seat on the North Dakota Public Service Commission. After losing the race, he ran again in 2012 and lost for a second time.
During the 2010 race, Crabtree pitched the development of carbon capture technology as a way to save the state’s coal industry if federal climate legislation passed. “If we do not demonstrate conclusively that we can capture CO2 at scale from an existing power plant, then we start to lose, over time, all these other lignite power plants and all the jobs and tax base they provide," he told the Bismarck Tribune.
“Our Vision Has Changed”
The idea of drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or limiting the amount being emitted by power plants has long been proposed as a potential strategy to mitigate the escalating climate crisis. The fossil fuel industry has latched onto the concept as a way of delaying or outright stopping the transition to greener energy sources.
But while there are currently several types of carbon capture, none of them have so far proven to be a silver bullet for tackling the climate crisis. The machinery required for direct air capture is large and requires a lot of space, the technology to do so is expensive, and there is a question of where and how to store the captured carbon. Today, much of the captured carbon is used for enhanced oil recovery, a process by which these emissions are used to drill even more oil — a procedure that Crabtree supports.
Moreover, developing and installing carbon capture technology on existing fossil fuel infrastructure will be far more expensive in the long term than replacing fossil fuels with renewables. And at the moment, the technology does not currently function at the scale needed to address the climate crisis.
According to the Global CCS Institute’s 2019 Status Report, the U.S. emitted more than five billion metric tons of carbon in 2018, but just 40 million metric tons of CO2 were captured from plants or construction projects and stored per year. Meanwhile, globally, there were only 51 large-scale capture facilities in operation or under construction. Just 10 of those were in the U.S.
Despite these limitations, carbon capture has received major support in Washington from administration to administration.
President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocated roughly $3 billion for carbon capture and sequestration projects. Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency also required new coal-fired power plants to incorporate carbon capture technology. While Trump’s EPA scrapped the rule, his administration also embraced carbon capture. During his term, President Trump signed the Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies Act, which was meant to encourage carbon capture research and eliminate regulatory issues surrounding it. Among other things, the bill extended corporate tax credits for carbon sequestration which had been adopted in 2018.
With Biden in the White House, carbon capture is still a major priority — demonstrated by the fact that the division within the Energy Department Crabtree has been tapped to lead added “carbon management” onto its name over the summer.
“This change signifies that our vision has changed: The Biden-Harris Administration recognizes that to meet our climate goals, we have to manage the carbon that comes with the legacy and continued use of fossil fuels,” said a department press release announcing the name change. “Our job is — above all — to limit the climate and environmental impacts of fossil fuels.”
That position stands in contrast with what climate scientists and the International Energy Agency agree, which is that the only way to prevent the worst-case climate scenarios is to end the use of fossil fuels altogether.
Ken Alex, director of Project Climate at Berkeley University, has mixed feelings about the Biden administration’s emphasis on carbon capture. While he admitted the process has “quite a lot of promise” and “has really had a lot of technological advance[ment] in the last decade,” he wishes government incentives for the technology was part of a far more ambitious federal plan to tackle climate change.
Under the House’s draft of Biden’s Build Back Better framework, coal plants that capture their carbon emissions could be eligible for a tax credit of $85 per metric ton captured, which represents a significant increase from the $50 under today’s law. According to The Sierra Club, the increase could extend the life of the nation’s coal-fleet and result in a single 1,000 megawatt coal plant receiving as much as $6 billion in payouts over the next 12 years.
Crabtree’s nomination was advanced by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by Manchin, on Nov. 2 and is now headed to the full Senate for a confirmation. Manchin said in his opening statement at Crabtree's nomination hearing, “Our reliance on coal to meet our energy needs and support the national welfare remains and will continue for decades to come. That is why research and development on fossil energy and on carbon management is now more important than ever.”
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