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Carbon Capture is a Policy Problem, Not a Technology Problem


The Green New Deal has ignited a theatrical debate in Congress, from posters of a velociraptor-riding President Reagan on the Senate floor to press briefings of hamburger-eating legislators. But the proposal has also generated sincere conversations on climate policy, including calls to invest in technology that captures carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion and puts them back in the ground.

Carbon capture is a necessary bridge to transition to a carbon-neutral economy, says Howard Herzog, an engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who directs the Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage Center.

“A lot of proponents of the Green New Deal think we can do it in 12 years, we can do it with just renewables,” Herzog said. “They don’t really understand how difficult it is to massively change our energy systems.”

Part of that transition could come from capturing carbon emissions from the fossil-fuel power plants already in operation. That technology has actually been around for decades, used to clean the air in submarines and spaceships.

Yet carbon capture is only deployed in two coal-burning power plants in the world: the Petro Nova plant in Texas and the Boundary Dam Power Station in Saskatchewan, Canada. Together, the two facilities have captured almost 4 million tons of carbon, or the equivalent in emissions of close to 700,000 cars driven in a year. But that has only been possible with government financial support.

“The big problem is money,” says Herzog. “It will always be cheaper to put CO2 in the atmosphere than to capture it and store it underground.” The plant in Texas had a price tag of nearly $1 billion, and the Canadian project cost close to $1.5 billion.

Herzog says carbon capture is just one facet of changing how we produce and consume energy, and it’s not an either-or choice between renewables and carbon capture.

“We're going to need every technology we have,” he said, “including things like nuclear, carbon capture and storage, along with renewables, energy efficiency, and the list goes on.”

Only policy action will motivate those changes, he says. 

“Until there is policy that restricts the amount of CO2 we can put in the atmosphere, either by setting limits on it or by pricing it,” Herzog explained, “it's going be very hard for CO2 capture projects to proceed.”

Web content created by Lexi Krupp.

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.