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America needs more Class VI wells
Net zero needs carbon capture, and carbon capture needs someplace to put the carbon
Last week’s dust-up over banning gas stoves illustrated something we’ve talked about quite a bit here at Slow Boring: public support for action on climate change is broad in one sense, but extremely narrow in another, with most Americans vaguely in favor but very strongly disinclined to be personally inconvenienced in any way for the sake of the issue.
Indeed, that’s almost certainly how we wound up having that conversation in the first place — activists know that climate considerations alone aren’t enough to motivate people to ban gas stoves, so they hype up overstated research about the health hazards of gas stoves. Even so, overt discussion of bans prompted immediate backlash and back-pedaling. This doesn’t mean that electrification of home cooking is a bad idea, but I think climate-left activists continue to be remarkably unreflective about the assumption that noisy public discussion of the climate issue is necessarily good for the cause. Once everyone forgets about this latest argument, progressive jurisdictions (where the vast majority of gas stoves are) can go back to the work of banning new natural gas hookups, which is politically feasible specifically because it doesn’t put anyone out. Then on a parallel track, they can work to convince climate-conscious celebrity chefs to put induction ranges on their shows. But by turning this (temporarily) into a big story, Richard Trumka Jr. almost certainly set the cause back.1
The larger point, however, is that even though there’s a politically feasible plan in place to phase out gas stoves, it won’t move quickly enough to help achieve the goal of reaching net zero by 2050. A gas range lasts 15 years on average, and of course the building stock as a whole turns over much more slowly than that. So even if New York bans new gas hookups this year, people will still be buying new gas appliances 15-20 years from now and those appliances will still be running 30-40 years from now. And even if progressives win this fight over the long run, what happens in New York this year and New Jersey next year won’t come to Minnesota or Wisconsin or even Virginia or Colorado for a while.
In other words, even though environmentalists have a pretty solid plan, it’s very unlikely that the country will have zero gas stoves by 2050.
Stoves themselves are pretty trivial, but this is the general situation. California is planning to ban the sale of new internal combustion engine cars in 2035. But that won’t make all ICE cars vanish in 2035. I always liked the Honda Element, a commercial failure that was discontinued back in 2011. Because I like them, I tend to notice Elements driving around, and plenty of enthusiasts are hanging onto them. There are tons of old-ass Elements for sale still.
This is just to say that even if California goes through with this, ICE cars will still be on the road in 2050. And even if environmentalists succeed and push ICE cars out in other states, most of them will probably lag behind California by quite a bit. And that’s before you get into the really tough decarbonization sectors like industry, air travel, maritime shipping, and agriculture. Indeed, people forget this, but the early Green New Deal FAQ that was widely interpreted as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calling to ban hamburgers actually said the opposite, that “the Green New Deal sets a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions” because they weren’t going to ban beef, and there is therefore no obvious way to eliminate cow-related greenhouse gas emissions.
So what do you do? Well, you need carbon capture. And after you capture the carbon, you need to put it somewhere underground, rather than in the atmosphere. A big hole in the ground designed to store carbon dioxide is known to the American regulatory apparatus as a Class VI well. And to achieve any kind of reasonable climate solution in the medium term, we’re going to need the EPA to start licensing some.
The most boring part of carbon capture is important
The “hole in the ground” part of carbon capture technology is clearly not the interesting part. What’s interesting is the efforts to capture carbon dioxide in the first place.
These efforts take essentially two forms. The first is carbon scrubbing at the emissions source, which could be useful for industrial purposes. Capturing industrial emissions at the source is obviously going to be more expensive than not capturing them, but at the moment, all the different visions for industrial decarbonization involve something expensive. Using renewable electricity to make hydrogen and then burning the hydrogen could work, for example, but that’s also more expensive than just burning gas. In the future, some applications will hopefully make use of nuclear microreactors as their source of industrial heat, but that technology doesn’t currently exist. The internet is full of fanatical partisans of various hypothetical technologies, but I think the wise course of action is to be agnostic and open-minded. It might be that the cost of hydrolysis falls a lot and that becomes the go-to solution for industry. Or it might be that carbon capture falls a lot and that becomes the go-to solution. We need to try both paths.
The second and more exciting form is cost-effective direct air capture — like artificial trees that suck carbon out of the air.
If direct air capture (DAC) existed at scale, it would be useful for a bunch of stuff:
There’s a certain amount of emissions associated with activities like grilling that the economy clearly doesn’t “need” but that you also really can’t substitute away from. People just enjoy cookouts.
We are almost certainly, per the introduction, going to overshoot IPCC target emissions levels and want to have some ability to call backsies.
As Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò argues, there’s a pretty strong case for “climate reparations.” Burning fossil fuels has been net beneficial to humanity, but the people who’ve benefitted so far are largely not the people who are most at risk from climate change. Direct air capture is one of the most practical ways of doing restoration/repair.
It’s great! And DAC does exist at a small scale. Indeed, 5 percent of Slow Boring revenue goes to purchase carbon capture via the Stripe Climate program. Right now it’s too expensive to solve these huge problems, but the hope is that just as solar costs fell over time thanks in part to the spending by highly-motivated early adopters, DAC can be brought down the cost curve in a similar way. Beyond that, a big issue with DAC is that it’s very energy intensive. This is one reason I’m so focused on maximizing zero-carbon energy rather than minimizing fossil fuel use. If you manage to unlock enough clean energy, you can use it to clean up dirty stuff. It’s tragic that the Green New Deal point about net vs. gross zero ended up getting so mangled, but it’s a really critical ecomodernist insight that I wish the left was running with.
At any rate, we do not yet have scalable carbon capture technology. But the Inflation Reduction Act created significant financial incentives to deploy it, which is helping to spur a minor investment gold rush in carbon capture companies. Just last week, “the world's first company to successfully absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and permanently store it underground for a paying customer has announced success.” The part where you store it underground is much less technologically interesting than the part where you absorb it. But the whole thing is pointless without the storage. And that means that to continue the virtuous cycle of investment and deployment, we need to make some storage facilities. This is what is known to the EPA as a Class VI well, and they can either be licensed by the EPA or else the EPA can agree to “state primacy” in a given state, where regulating the wells would become primarily a state rather than federal matter. The upshot is that to unlock the potential of the IRA with regard to carbon capture, the EPA needs to either move on licensing these wells or else move on creating more state primacy deals.
At the moment, only Wyoming and North Dakota have primacy and there are no federally licensed wells, so even though there’s booming interest in this technology, we don’t really have places to store captured carbon.
Carbon capture and environmental justice
You’d think it would be a no-brainer for the Biden administration to move ahead aggressively with the regulatory implementation of the Biden administration’s signature legislative initiative. After all, though the Inflation Reduction Act as passed differed in very significant ways from the White House’s original Build Back Better proposal, this is not something that changed during the legislative process at all — Congress passed essentially the same carbon capture ideas Biden has supported all along.
Alas, life is not so simple, because carbon capture has been controversial for years in the environmental community.
Many environmentalists just want to put fossil fuel companies out of business by any means necessary and carbon capture might not do that, so they don’t like it. This now tends to come dressed up in the rhetoric of environmental justice which holds that it’s specifically bad for Black and Latin people to allow fossil fuel burning to continue. The broad idea that environmental policymakers should make certain they aren’t just brushing off the concerns of marginalized people is important, but it really is worth keeping in mind here that it’s upscale liberals who are most willing to accept higher costs in exchange for climate progress, while lower-income Democrats were very upset about rising energy costs last year.
It’s the degrowth, New Left vision of scarce and expensive energy that violates the spirit of environmental justice more than anything else.
And yet even though from the beginning, Biden campaigned with enthusiastic labor union support as the Democratic Party presidential candidate who was most favorably disposed to carbon capture, you can see that decision-making is being to some extent hamstrung by EJ groups’ concerns.
Now it’s absolutely true that carbon capture would not address the full set of pollution concerns that people have about fossil fuels. Particulate air pollution, in particular, is a really big deal and is a completely valid source of regulatory concern. At the same time, we do already have a process for this, and particulate air pollution levels have already fallen a lot as a result. The point about carbon capture is that even in a world where we continue moving at a decent clip toward electrifying cars and home heat while decarbonizing the grid, we are still going to wish we had carbon capture capability. And if carbon capture happens to become cheap enough to make natural gas + carbon capture a cost-effective means of generating zero-carbon electricity, that would be great news. I doubt it will happen and think far and away the most likely use case for carbon capture is in areas where, unlike electricity generation, we don’t have good alternatives. But if it did happen, that would be great! We need every possible zero-carbon energy source.
There’s no perfect way to make electricity
Something that people who care about pollution are going to have to reckon with is that there’s no immaculate source of energy out there. We know the costs of burning fossil fuels. I think the safety objections to nuclear power are largely bogus, but obviously mining the radioactive materials and storing the waste is a non-trivial impingement on nature. Geothermal power seems very promising to me and is much cleaner than fossil fuels, but you are still talking about drilling giant holes in the ground.
But the conceit among certain progressive groups that solar and wind power are virtuous in a way that carbon capture, nuclear, and geothermal are not is blinkered.
To make renewables work at a large scale, we need to build lots more transmission lines. We need a lot of batteries, the batteries need a lot of lithium, and efforts to create big new lithium lines are tied up in NEPA litigation. And renewable projects themselves are very large. Right now I have enough solar panels on my rooftop to generate 105 percent of my household energy use. But we don’t yet have an electric car or a heat pump for the winter. Once we fully electrify, we’ll need net power from the grid — our roof just isn’t big enough. And beyond that, there’s the gross vs. net issue. We export net electricity during the day and import at night. During the summer that adds up to a net surplus across a 24-hour period, but we spend months at a time in deficit during the winter. The daily fluctuations can be resolved with more batteries (meaning more lithium mining), but to work across the winter you just need more panels than can fit on our roof. This is not news to anyone working in the solar industry. All those charts you see about how cheap solar power has become are about utility-scale projects that take advantage of optimized placement and economies of scale.
The upshot of all this is that, as Princeton’s Net-Zero America project shows, when you switch from “electrify everything and use zero-carbon electricity” to “electrify everything and only use renewables,” your land-use requirements explode.
Now I want to be clear about this: I personally do not have a big problem with the idea of consuming huge swathes of land for utility-scale wind and solar projects. I also don’t have a problem with opening lots of lithium mines to build batteries. Or with cutting swathes through a few forests to build transmission lines. But I also don’t have a problem with establishing friendly regulatory environments for nuclear and solar. And to the point of this essay, I’d like to see lots of Class VI wells get regulatory approval. Among other things, as Gavin Newsom has shown in California, having a few state-owned natural gas plants around as emergency backup for a renewables-heavy grid can be a very pragmatic alternative to massive overbuilding of renewables. Even if gas + carbon capture is never cost-competitive with average renewables, it could easily be cost-competitive as blackout insurance.
Once you acknowledge that all the options have some downsides, but all energy has significant upsides, it’s easy to see that there’s no reason to hold all this animus for carbon capture.
That’s especially true because regardless of whether you think an all-renewables grid is feasible, even if we had one we’d still need solutions for agriculture, industry, aviation, and maritime shipping. Carbon capture may not pan out as the solution to those problems, but if it does, we’ll be very lucky. And it would be very dumb to be unable to take advantage of it due to a lack of wells.
Such are the hazards of elevating nepo babies to even second-tier jobs like a slot on the Consumer Product Safety Commission.