Bennet’s carbon capture bill: Bipartisan solution or industry subsidy?

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet introduced legislation this week to help power plants and industrial facilities with the purchase of carbon capture equipment.

The bill would allow projects that capture, transport and store waste CO2 from sources like power plants and oil and gas production facilities to be financed with tax-exempt bonds. Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio joined Bennet in introducing the bill.

Captured carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is typically stored deep underground in geological formations, where it remains out of the atmosphere and thus does not contribute to global warming.

On his website, Bennet says the bill will accomplish three main goals: Make carbon capture more economically feasible, boost oil production while reducing emissions and provide greater energy security in the 21st century.

The senator cites positive feedback for the bill from energy policy analysts and groups such as the Utility Workers Union of America and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Calling it “proof that Democrats, Republicans, labor unions, industry, and environmentalists can come together to advance policies that will protect our planet and create good-paying jobs,” Bennet says on his website that the bill will boost Colorado’s clean energy economy and keep the air clean.

Hunter Lovins, a longtime advocate for sustainable energy and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, feels differently. “This is a very sweet subsidy to the oil and gas industry,” she says bluntly. She mentions a 2015 International Monetary Fund working paper, which estimates that the  fossil fuel industry receives nearly $2 trillion in subsidies each year.

“Why does Exxon need my tax dollars?” Lovins asks.

Lovins’ Longmont-based nonprofit, Natural Capitalism Solutions, works to find profitable solutions to sustainability. It also took over the Colorado Carbon Fund, set up by former Gov. Bill Ritter, after Gov. John Hickenlooper removed it from state management.

Tax breaks should be given to companies working in the public interest, Lovins says. “How is helping the oil industry suck more oil out of the ground manifestly in the public interest?”

David Hawkins, director of climate programs at the National Resources Defense Council, said that carbon capture can make important contributions “as a complement to critical actions to use energy more efficiently and to switch to renewable energy sources.”

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association declined The Colorado Independent’s request for comment.

Lovins acknowledges that carbon capture reduces the carbon intensity of fossil fuel extraction, but says that carbon capture is something the oil industry is going to do — and should be doing — anyway. Rather than giving them a tax break, she says, “We should be putting a tax on them, i.e. a carbon tax.”

She notes that while capturing and storing CO2 from oil and gas facilities reduces the carbon footprint of production, it has no impact on the fossil fuel’s ultimate use, such as being burned as fuel for automobiles. The transportation sector accounted for more than a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2014.

She says, “If you want to subsidize something, subsidize the electric car industry.”

Photo by Corey Hutchins

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