In a few weeks, a new president and a new Congress should bring a much-needed shift in our fight against climate chaos. But before Joe Biden was even inaugurated, Congress passed a massive spending bill that will funnel billions of dollars into fossil fuel pet projects and dirty energy development.
With the approval and celebration of Democratic leaders like New York Senator Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congress pushed through a raft of provisions that benefit dirty energy. What’s worse, many lawmakers portrayed this package as good news for climate and clean energy.
The omnibus spending bill was hundreds of pages long and negotiated behind closed doors, with members of Congress and the public barely getting a day to review the legislation before it passed.
Carbon Capture Funding = Fossil Fuel Giveaway
The legislation lays out a spending roadmap that is highly favorable to the fossil fuel industry. Over $6 billion will be spent on further development of carbon capture utilization and sequestration (CCUS). Carbon capture is expensive, ineffective technology that just so happens to be popular with politicians and failing fossil fuel companies.
Part of the systemic build out of CCS infrastructure is federal funding for carbon capture projects planned for at least five coal plants, along with money to study how to safely store and transport captured CO2. Right now that is something the industry is unable to do, even if they could effectively capture the CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels, which they cannot.
The problem is that we don’t need to keep throwing money at carbon capture in the hopes that one day it might work. Decades of experience tell us that it is nothing more than a dirty energy delaying tactic, a ploy to look like the industry is cleaning up its act even though it has been a colossal failure. The only functioning examples of ‘successful’ carbon capture take captured CO2 and use it to extract more oil from existing wells. That is not climate progress — but the fossil fuel industry will gladly keep playing this delaying tactic, and politicians will keep claiming that carbon capture is good news for the climate fight.
Other Winners: Nukes, Petrochemicals and Big Ag
The legislation also extends — and slightly tweaks — an Energy Department loan guarantee program intended to support projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The new language would also apply to projects that seek to “utilize” CO2, which could be a sneaky way to support fossil fuels. For the past few years, there has been a push to build a massive petrochemical project in the Ohio River Valley; the Appalachian petrochemical storage hub would be a central location for fracked gas liquids used as feedstock for plastics manufacturing. These storage proposals have been slow to develop due to financing troubles, so this change could lead the Biden administration to approve loans for these petrochemical projects.
Not to be outdone, Big Ag won a provision that prevents the Environment Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from factory farms, or even requiring these operations to report their emissions. This industry loophole not only helps support the development of factory farms, but allows the industry to push manure digesters as so-called net zero emissions technologies that produce what is falsely labeled ‘renewable natural gas.’ Utility giants and corporate agriculture are working together to push the dangerous myth that factory farm manure is a clean energy breakthrough, and that these mega-polluters can be considered ‘net zero.’
The nuclear industry is also getting a big boost, with billions of dollars to encourage the commercial expansion of nuclear reactors. Even without factoring in the unavoidable problems with nuclear energy safety and long term waste storage, existing nuclear energy sources are so expensive that states are handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to keep existing plants online. There is also the inconvenient fact that nuclear power plants can take up to a decade to build — an awful bet when we need to build energy sources that can quickly replace fossil fuels.
Another big winner is hydrogen. While it might be helpful in dealing with intermittent energy production from solar and wind, and we can create hydrogen sustainably with renewables, the major source of hydrogen production today is methane, the highly potent greenhouse gas that is the main component of fracked gas. This legislation will support more infrastructure for the production of methane-derived hydrogen, as well as demonstration projects to create hydrogen using nuclear energy. This means more fracking, more pipelines, and more nuclear energy — and all the public health and environmental impacts that come along with them.
While this seems bleak, the reality is we have a real opportunity to turn things around in 2021. Joe Biden campaigned on a climate agenda that included an end to fossil fuel subsidies, and we need to hold him to that commitment. While Congress is responsible for passing an appropriations bill that lays out spending priorities, President Biden can demand that Congress send him an appropriations bill that ends these subsidies.