It seems the mainstream narrative is that the IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) is a big step toward addressing the climate crisis while the side deal is a step backwards, but we may not be able to stop it. I disagree; from my perspective, the giveaways to the fossil fuel and nuclear industries in the IRA make it most likely a net negative for the environment.
Renewable energy has been outcompeting fossil fuels in most places; they are much cheaper than nuclear power everywhere. Won’t giving subsidies to all three help the previously losing industries most? In any case, subsidies for buying outsize electric vehicles, and for expanding renewable energy will not reduce emissions.
These projects will require mining, usually connected to environmental injustice, and much burning of fossil fuel to power the construction, transportation and installation, so in the short run they will increase emissions. They do not automatically replace fossil fuels; so far all the renewable power added to the grid has only been on top of undiminished fossil fuel use. Adding 10 gigawatts of renewable power does not subtract 10 gigawatts of fossil fuel power.
And then there are the mandates for new oil leasing on federal lands and in federal waters, including the requirement that before any renewable project is permitted on federal land, a lease sale to oil companies must have been held within six months.
But at least the IRA has a lot of good stuff in it, which might outweigh the bad in some reckoning. Not so the so-called side deal, or permitting reform, which is usually described as Manchin’s price for supporting the IRA. He and his cronies point out that greasing the way for fossil fuel projects, which is what permitting reform does, will also help renewable projects deploy sooner.
This is not a good bargain for those concerned about leaving a livable planet for our children, or for the frontline communities impacted by existing and proposed projects. Even solar or wind projects should have the free, prior and informed consent of the communities in which they’re placed, after all. And what we desperately need is reduced fossil fuel use, not more energy of all kinds.
My concerns about all this were amplified by information from Paul Blackburn of Bold Alliance, on a webinar for the VOICES Coalition. Because, it turns out, much of what this is about is the push for CCS/CCUS—that is, carbon capture and sequestration, or the critical U for Usage. The notion of capturing carbon dioxide from smokestacks, and sequestering it deep in the Earth, has been around for years and there are quite a few pilot projects—but none so far has succeeded in capturing as much of the CO2 as projected. As to whether it really stays forever in its earthly prison, that’s hard to assess as 95% of the CO2 collected so far has not been sequestered, but used–for Enhanced Oil Recovery, or EOR.
Blackburn says there hasn’t been much CCS work because the subsidies, under 45Q of the tax code, weren’t sufficient. Adding capture equipment, and pipelines to a destination for the captured CO2, is very expensive; and it’s expensive in energy terms as well as dollars, necessitating something like 30% more fuel burned for the same power output. But the IRA raised those subsidies mightily, to the point where for many entities it will more than cover the entire cost, and thus become a windfall, cancelling tax liabilities for very profitable industries.
Furthermore, the IRS is not ready to monitor these claims—they have no online data collection, no standard form, and are not equipped to track physical evidence of supposedly collected and directed CO2. EPA is supposed to be in charge of the technical aspects, but is not going to be up to snuff on tax questions. Add in that these tax credits can be divided and sold, and that tax information is private so the public can’t find out who claimed what, and we have the recipe for a massive boondoggle, including plenty of outright fraud.
But the key is that, according to Blackburn, the oil industry is looking to Enhanced Oil Recovery in its old depleted fields for its next source, as the shale fields are depleting—they’ve already pretty much exhausted the sweet spots. And they can get as much oil out by ramming in CO2 as they got originally, potentially doubling an old field’s productivity. Even if the CO2 used for this EOR process remains permanently in the well, the oil it pushes out, when burned, is likely to emit twice that much CO2. Clearly, this is not “green.”
It gets worse. The industry is running out of naturally occurring sources of carbon dioxide, so they need this new source. What IRA does in effect is arrange for taxpayers to pay the tab for the new equipment needed to collect and pipe the stuff to the oilfields. IRA and 45Q pay less for EOR than for permanent sequestration but the oil companies will pay for the CO2—and will IRS really check to see where the captured CO2 they grant tax abatement for has gone?
In either case, doing this will require a massive network of new pipelines for carbon dioxide–and if you think there will be less opposition to these than to gas and oil pipelines, you need to read the Huffington Post piece on what happened in Satartia, Mississippi when one ruptured. Also note the fights already going on in and around Iowa over the attempts to build the first CO2 pipelines connected to ethanol plants.
So. What happens when corporations propose pipelines? Fierce opposition from landowners, communities and environmentalists; lawsuits; delays.
Enter the side deal! If this goes through, it will remove the teeth from bedrock environmental law like NEPA, thus removing the tools activists have used to block pipelines, and granting corporations the right to expect a quick rubberstamp of their plans. This will be disastrous for the climate, as well as the frontline communities that will be saddled with yet more pollution and health hazards. Claims that IRA will greatly reduce emissions depend on the notion that CCS will be permanently sequestering 90% of emissions, not being used to extend the oil industry and redeem all its underground assets.
I live in West Virginia, so the two senators pushing these schemes—Manchin, and now Capito for the Republicans—are “my” senators. I consider it extremely important to frustrate their pipe dreams. Mostly the press on this issue has focused on the Mountain Valley Pipeline in particular, and other sacrifice zones all over the country—but if one of these “permitting reform” laws passes, the sacrificed communities will be all of them.
Photo: An action initiated by the Otway Climate Emergency Action Network (OCEAN) at the CO2CRC AGM and Symposium (Carbon Capture and Storage Conference) in Torquay, Australia (November 2021). By Matt Hrkac via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Protest_Against_Carbon_Capture_and_Storage_(51697301719).jpg