Biden signs Inflation Reduction Act: Its climate promise relies heavily on carbon capture, meaning thousands of miles of pipeline

·2 min read

President Joe Biden signed a sweeping climate, energy and health care bill on Aug. 16, 2022, that contains about US$370 billion to foster clean energy development and combat climate change, constituting the largest federal climate investment in history.

Several studies project that its climate and energy provisions could enable the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by around 40% below 2005 levels by 2030. That would be a significant improvement over the current projections of around 27%, and it could put the U.S. within hailing range of its pledge under the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions by at least 50% by 2030.

Notably, one linchpin of the new climate provisions is a set of incentives to substantially expand technologies that capture carbon dioxide and either store it underground or ship it for reuse.

So far, the uptake of carbon capture technologies has been slow. The costs are high, and these technologies can require miles of pipeline and vast amounts of underground storage, both of which can trigger local backlash. A recent study projected that the U.S. would have to construct 65,000 miles of carbon dioxide pipelines to achieve net-zero emissions in 2050, a whopping 13 times the current capacity.

I’m the former founding co-director of the Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy at American University. While the new law, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, has many provisions designed to jump-start the carbon removal sector, it’s far from certain that the industry will be able to move quickly.

One-sixth of all emissions cuts

The Inflation Reduction Act includes two primary types of carbon capture.

Carbon capture and storage entails capturing carbon dioxide generated during power generation and industrial processes, such as steel and concrete production, and transporting it for storage or use. The most common use to date has been for enhanced oil recovery – injecting the gas into oil and gas reservoirs to extract more fossil fuels.

It also seeks to drive deployment of direct air capture technologies, which can pull carbon dioxide out of the air.

A Princeton University analysis estimated that pertinent provisions of the legislation “would increase the use of carbon capture 13-fold by 2030 relative to current policy,” with only a modest amount projected to come from carbon dioxide removal. This could translate into about one-sixth to one-fifth of its projected carbon dioxide emissions reductions.