Senators Held a Bizarre Hearing About How to Solve Climate Change With More Fossil Fuels [Updated]

It’s good for the climate, actually.
It’s good for the climate, actually.
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

Update, 8/12/20, 2:00 p.m.: This post has been updated and revised to clarify that the pipelines Angielski called for were to transport captured carbon dioxide, not pipelines for new oil and gas development. We regret the error

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The Senate Energy Committee held a hearing on Tuesday that was ostensibly about lowering carbon emissions to curb climate change. But they didn’t say much about reducing the amount of carbon spewed into the atmosphere. In fact, some witnesses called for more fossil fuel infrastructure.

The hearing, led by committee chair Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and ranking Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, was convened to “examine the development and deployment of large-scale carbon dioxide management technologies,” collectively referred to as carbon capture, utilization, and storage, or CCUS. That includes tech-based carbon capture and storage (like machines to scrub carbon out of the atmosphere, which haven’t been shown to work at scale), nature-based carbon capture (like planting trees, which is not by itself a solution), and so-called carbon utilization (like schemes to keep extracting coal to use for products outside the energy market).

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These kinds of fixes provide cover for polluting industries by allowing them to feel like they can just keep polluting, which is why the fossil fuel industry loves them so much. In this hearing, senators and witnesses didn’t call to phase our fossil fuel energy out of use and replace them with clean energy. Instead, they called to build new infrastructure, like pipelines to transport captured carbon dioxide, to deal with its emissions.

“It is how we manage the carbon dioxide produced from the use of fossil fuels that will determine whether we are able to cost-effectively achieve midcentury emissions reduction goals and simultaneously enable all nations to benefit from economic growth and energy security,” testified Shannon Angielski, the executive director at Carbon Utilization Research Council.

Angielski called for more pipelines to transport carbon captured from fossil fuel infrastructure to where it can be stored underground, and more storage facilities.

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If you’re looking to preserve the climate, this is all a bit absurd. Rather than deploying more technology to deal with emissions from polluting infrastructure, it seems it would make more sense to focus on building new, clean infrastructure which doesn’t spew out greenhouse gases in the first place.

But maybe Angielski isn’t as interested in halting climate change as she is in preserving the interests of the fossil fuel industry. After all, her group represents utilities that rely heavily on gas to produce electricity and manage (surprise) plenty of pipelines. For the past two years, she has also lobbied for Phibro, which was once the largest independent oil refiner in the U.S. and has a “deep expertise across commodities, including oil and oil products, natural gas, natural gas liquids” among other things. Angielski is also a member of the National Coal Council, which represents an energy source that has future in a climate-constrained world absent CCUS.

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The same goes for the hearing’s other witnesses and participants. For instance, Ernest Moniz is the former Secretary of Energy under President Barack Obama and now runs the Energy Futures Initiative. He testified in support of CCUS, but as DeSmog reported earlier this year, Moniz sits on the boards of utility company Southern Company, which has ambitions of deploying large-scale carbon capture technology (it’s also a member of Angielski’s group). Meanwhile, committee chair Lisa Murkowski has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry over her career, as has ranking member Joe Manchin.

From their compromised positions, maybe these senators and advocates can’t see that CCUS comes with huge risks. Carbon capture and storage technology is super energy intensive and not anywhere close to feasible at scale. It also nothing to combat the local impacts of fossil fuel extraction from pollution to ecosystem destruction. Scientists aren’t sure we’ll even be able to safely sequester the carbon already in the atmosphere safely, let alone more of it.

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Planting trees at the scale needed would also be hugely risky. It would require a truly massive amount of land and could lead to horrendous environmental injustices. One World Bank and United Nations carbon offsetting forestation program, for instance, led to thousands of indigenous people being forced away from their ancestral homes.

And carbon utilization schemes, which aim to turn fossil-based carbon into low-carbon hydrogen, as well as other products like roofing material, are also hugely problematic, because they could give coal producers an excuse to continue extracting the most polluting fossil fuel on Earth.

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Angielski said she was at the hearing throwing her support behind CCUS because “international authorities recognize that fossil fuels will continue to be used.”

That’s only if you assume the world continues on its current path, though. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on limiting warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) goal that would protect island nations, coral reefs, and much of the world shows that the pathways to limit warming mean an end to fossil fuel use.

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It’s senators like the ones Angielski stood before at the hearing who could pass legislation to rapidly usher that world into existence. Yet there wasn’t much talk of reducing U.S. fossil fuel production. But again, that only makes sense if your goal is taking on the climate crisis, not profiting from it. And that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Update, 7/29/20, 9:15 a.m.: An earlier version of this story stated Sen. Joe Manchin was a Republican. He is officially a Democrat even if he sometimes acts like a Republican. We regret the error.

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Staff writer, Earther

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DISCUSSION

dnapl
Dense non aqueous phase liquid

There seems to be two things in discussion here: 1) oil and gas infrastructure which is presumably lease site processing, pipelines, refineries, terminals, etc and 2) carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS). It sounds like those interested in number 1) are using number 2) for marketing.

God only knows, but possibly a pipeline could cut emissions somewhat. For example, the Bakken in North Dakota and Permian in Texas/New Mexico shale/tight rock fields are in need of additional gas pipelines. Reportedly there’s a lot of venting and flaring of gases going on at the lease site (well field) due to limited pipeline takeaway capacity to bring gases to the market. The focus (the money product) of these well fields has been/is liquid hydrocarbons (i.e. crude oil).

BTW, this gas (methane + hydrocarbon gas liquids) is called associated gas. It’s associated with liquid hydrocarbons coming out of a well.

With that said, there’s probably still no really good reason to development ANWR or other new fields at the inevitable decline phase of the fossil fuel economy.

We’ll need CCUS or something like it in the near future. Something a lot more robust than just tree planting and emissions cuts. The world goes through about 100 million barrels of oil a day, plus a fuckton cubic feet of natural gas and a shitload short tons of coal. That can’t just stop tomorrow. So as the world weens itself of fossil fuel we should engineer methods to manage CO2 emissions and suck CO2 out of the atmosphere real good, real quick. 

Muniz seems to be a pretty smart and pragmatic dude. Sometimes pragmatic folks can be unappealing to college sophomores and activists.