By Graciela Chichilnisky
On January 28th, United States Senators John Barrasso (R-WY) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) successfully passed an unprecedented bipartisan amendment to an energy bill which aims to clean the planet’s atmosphere. It comes as a complete surprise to many, including myself, as I have advocated many years for what the bill aims to achieve. The bill encourages and offers funding to use carbon capture technology to reduce the CO2 already present in the atmosphere, and relocate it in order to clean the planet’s atmosphere.
A bipartisan bill in today’s political climate seems almost unthinkable, particularly in the area of climate change, especially since this bill encourages radical innovation. Carbon capture technology is very different from the now dead CO2 “capture and sequestration” (CCS. While it worked to remove CO2 as it was being emitted by industrial chimneys, it did so in a heavy handed and impossibly expensive way. The old technology attempted to "sequester" the gas into natural cavities, which can produce dangerous “burps.” The amendment favors an entirely new method of CO2 capture that takes CO2 directly from clean air, resulting in less CO2 in the atmosphere than before. This is called carbon negative technology™, which is significantly less expensive than established technologies since it does not bury the gas, but sells it for commercial purposes. In reality, CO2 is a valuable gas that is in high demand by many industries for: beverages like Coca Cola, dry ice to freeze hamburgers at McDonalds, the desalination of water, the production of polymers, the carbon fibers that replace metals in most automobiles, and building materials. Right now, there are companies in Silicon Valley, such as Global Thermostat, whose technologies can profit from cleaning the atmosphere.
The astonishment caused by the Barrasso-Schatz Amendment is because the U.S. Senate has been the most resistant political body in the world in accepting climate change as a reality. For years - and until last month in the COP21 global climate negotiations in Paris - the U.S. Senate rejected any notion of mandatory controls for U.S. emissions of CO2. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the removal of carbon directly from the atmosphere, as proposed in the Senate Barrasso-Schatz Amendment, is now necessary to avert catastrophic climate change. Is this human progress? Is this a complete turnaround of long-held and somewhat dated positions? If not, what does it all mean?
In reality, the bill is mixed with traditional self-interest from a coal-rich state like Wyoming, where Barrasso is a Senator. There is a popular notion that if we can clean the atmosphere of the noxious CO2 emitted by coal plants, we can remove the pressure to eliminate dirty coal and other fossil fuels as sources of energy. This is erroneous, since averting climate change requires both reducing emissions and removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Regardless, this would not be the first time that something good happens by mistake. Perhaps these days, in such a bitterly divided Congress, good things only happen by mistake.
The situation in which a Senator from a coal state encourages the removal of CO2 from air is reminiscent of the coalitions that emerged in the U.S. when President Lincoln abolished slavery. To analogize, slaves were then a critical source of energy in the South, and fossil fuels are a critical source of energy in the U.S. today. U.S. historians compared the two situations and argued that the value of the assets at stake is similar. The value of the stranded fossil fuels that would not be used if we abolish fossil fuel energy is similar to the economic value of slaves a century and a half ago. If this analogy has merit, history indicates that we may be in for a long and bitter battle of two forces, neither of which will easily yield. This would result in significant economic volatility. The historically low price of gasoline today is a pawn in the global economic chess game.
In any case, how does the Barrasso-Schatz bill work? It is a clean-air-technology amendment (S.A. 3017) to the Energy Policy Modernization Act, creating a prize system to encourage innovative technologies that will remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and permanently set it aside on earth. The program proposed in the new Senate bill would be established by a federal commission under the Department of Energy. The commission, appointed by the president, would be comprised of physicists, chemists, engineers, business managers and economists. Awards will go to public and private entities that design technology to remove and permanently sequester carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. Once the technology is developed, the United States would share the intellectual property rights with the inventor.
This amendment encourages American ingenuity and innovation. It makes sense to look for alternative approaches for removing and permanently sequestering excess carbon dioxide.
By providing a financial incentive to cut carbon pollution, we can encourage the innovation of new, affordable technologies and protect our environment. We all know that climate change is the challenge of our generation, and this amendment can help create one more tool to use in the fight against it.
Another historical analogy seems applicable here. Historically, prizes have been used to spur all types of technological development to solve problems. For example, Charles Lindbergh was competing for the Orteig Prize when he flew in the Spirit of St. Louis non-stop from New York to Paris in 1927. Cleaning the planet’s atmosphere is a much more important goal than flying planes, but air flight has been a transformative force in the world economy.
Currently, we are beginning to see political volatility on this issue. Recently, the Supreme Court took an unprecedented action that opposes the Senate’s new bill: it stayed President Obama’s EPA Clean Power Executive Order to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants. Such an act has never happened before, as the issue is currently being actively considered by several states. The threat of more volatility continues, as the stay order is most likely to return to the Supreme Court after an appeals court considers a challenge from several states and corporations.
Economic and political volatility are unpredictable and costly to the energy industry, as they present difficulties in determining which practices to pursue. But volatility is the rule, not the exception: it brings about change. When there is a regime change, it is always manifested by oscillation between the old and the new. There is no other way.
Welcome to the world of change.
Graciela Chichilnisky is Professor of Economics and of Statistics at Columbia University, Visiting Professor at Stanford University, the author of the Kyoto Protocol Carbon Market, and CEO of Global Thermostat. Visit her website www.chichilnisky.com and you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.