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Is Joe Manchin Aware That His Favorite Climate Technology Is a Total Bust?

The conservative Democrat is insisting that Biden’s Build Back Better Act include funding for carbon capture projects. But even the fossil fuel industry admits the tech is a nonfactor in fighting global warming.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Senator Joe Manchin has insisted for months that he won’t support President Biden’s Build Back Better Act unless it subsidizes a largely unproven and expensive climate technology. Democrats are now bending to the conservative Democrat from West Virginia: The multitrillion-dollar reconciliation bill being debated in the Senate is likely to include generous tax credits for coal, oil, gas, and other industrial companies to capture their massive greenhouse gas emissions and bury them underground.

But carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is light years away from doing anything to help climate change. That’s the conclusion of a new report written not by a climate group but rather by some of the technology’s biggest corporate defenders.

The 43-page report, released earlier this week by the Global CCS Institute, reveals that even with substantial financial support from governments and thousands of advertisements from oil companies touting the potential of CCS, the actual climate-fighting capacity of such projects in operation or in various stages of planning worldwide is slightly lower than it was a decade ago. “Despite unprecedented growth in the CCS project pipeline for the last 12 months, there remains a massive gap between today’s CCS fleet and what is required to reduce global anthropogenic emissions to net zero,” explains the institute, whose members include Chevron, Exxon, General Electric, Occidental Petroleum, Southern Company, and dozens of other top industrial climate polluters.

The report says that CCS projects would need to be capturing the equivalent of 5,600 million tons of carbon dioxide in order to keep global temperatures below two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the threshold beyond which scientists warn our climate system could spin dangerously out of control. Today, however, the technology is capturing 40 million tons. That’s a climate rounding error when you consider that atmosphere-altering emissions from Exxon’s oil and gas products alone were 1,300 million tons in 2019.

“The technology works great,” Matt Bright, a spokesperson for the Global CCS Institute, wrote in an email to The New Republic. “Yes, it’s feasible, it’s just difficult. Going to the moon wasn’t feasible in 1960. Then JFK said ‘We’re going to the moon in this decade,’ made it feasible, and we got there in 1969.”

Climate advocates have a much different interpretation of the report. “The world is finally having a reality check on CCS,” climate activist Tzeporah Berman tweeted in response. “No progress in a decade despite billions in investment.”

Even the most advanced carbon capture facilities are failing to deliver. Chevron acknowledged this summer that its $54 billion Gorgon gas project in Australia, considered to be the largest use of CCS technology in the world, was only capturing and burying 30 percent of the operation’s emissions. It was supposed to be 80 percent. Exxon is proposing an even bigger CCS project near Houston that would cost $100 billion, with much of the funding coming from U.S. taxpayers.

Manchin has acknowledged disappointment in CCS’s progress (or lack thereof). “I’d love to have carbon capture, but we don’t have the technology because we really haven’t gotten to that point. And it’s so darn expensive that it makes it almost impossible,” he said earlier this month. But he is nonetheless adamant that carbon capture play a starring role in the Build Back Better Act. In a July memo made public in September, the senator proposed cutting the package from $3.5 trillion to $1.5 trillion, which necessarily would require major cuts to the bill’s climate spending. But at the same time, he insisted the bill be “fuel neutral” and that carbon capture on coal and natural gas “can feasibly qualify” for a portion of the remaining money.

Manchin seems to be betting that even if Biden is successful in shifting 80 percent of the power grid to clean energy within the next decade, coal and natural gas will still be required to provide the remainder. If those fossil fuel plants are able to bury their emissions, they could potentially stay open for decades. “For someone whose biggest priority is keeping coal plants open, this offers a longer-term lifeline than just the status quo,” one person close to the talks told E&E News. (Manchin’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment from TNR.)

“We’re deeply concerned that a scaled-back climate portion of the package will be funding false solutions like carbon capture instead of actual solutions like building more wind and solar and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies,” Mitch Jones, policy director for the environmental group Food & Water Watch, told me.

But Democrats don’t have much choice other than to negotiate with Manchin. Either they get his vote in a Senate with the slimmest possible Democratic majority, or there’s no climate spending package at all. In that sense, some federal support for carbon capture could be worthwhile, said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University. “They could usefully spend some money on demonstration projects to show that maybe it can be done right,” he said. “But really, it’s a political decision to keep Joe Manchin happy and the people he represents.”