The Joe Biden administration not only wants to reduce emissions from energy use — it is also aiming to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere. Last week, it announced two major “carbon removal” programs meant to capture carbon and bury it safely underground.
The first program, approved by congressional appropriations last year, deploys $35 million to “establish a competitive purchasing pilot program for the purchase of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere or upper hydrosphere.” The second, part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, is a larger $3.5 billion program to develop “direct air capture” (DAC) facilities across the country. Of that total, the recipients of $1.2 billion were announced, with roughly half going to the oil and gas company Occidental Petroleum and most of the rest going to a partnership of companies including Battelle, Climeworks, and Heirloom.
As the Financial Times explained, the aim of this latter program is to kick-start the direct air capture industry: “The White House hopes the grants will help commercialise the air capture process, driving down costs and spurring a buildout across the country.”
While scientists are clear that we need some level of carbon capture and storage to avoid the worst effects of climate change, it is less clear why the government should pay capitalists — let alone oil companies — to do it. Of course, some carbon dioxide can be captured and sold as inputs for a variety of uses (soda production, refrigeration, welding, and so on), but most of it has no market whatsoever. Like much “waste management,” the disposing of carbon should be a public service not a for-profit business.
While “Bidenomics” has so far mostly involved using the fiscal power of the state to shower money on the private sector (and “de-risk” investments), the challenge of carbon removal could be an opportunity to rebuild state capacity and reinstantiate the role of the public sector in making visible investments in socially useful work and environmental restoration.
Do We Even Need Carbon Capture?
There are few topics more controversial on the climate left than carbon capture and storage (CCS), a variety of technologies aimed at capturing carbon dioxide and storing it (usually in geological depositories). Most climate justice organizations fiercely oppose the technology as, at best, an unproven “false solution” or, at worst, a cynical ploy by the fossil fuel industry to justify continued operations for decades to come.
The problem with environmentalist opposition to carbon capture is that climate scientists agree we probably need a lot of it to avoid a catastrophic level of warming above 2 degrees Celsius. That is because of two material realities. First, we’ve emitted so much carbon already that even if we stopped emissions tomorrow, we would still need to deal with the already massive amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Second, there are some forms of emissions — scientists call them “residual emissions” — for which there are no clear technological pathways to mitigation. For example, making cement creates a byproduct of carbon dioxide (the industry itself is estimated to be responsible for around 7-8 percent of global emissions), and applying nitrogen fertilizer to soil creates greenhouse gas emissions. Assuming we want to live in a society with cement and fertilizer, we need either to find a way to capture the emissions at the source or to compensate for them with direct air capture.
In fact, you could say the Biden administration’s plans for carbon removal are woefully insufficient compared to what is required. James Temple points out:
By some estimates, nations may have to collectively pull down some 10 billion tons a year by midcentury to have a good shot at keeping the planet from warming beyond 2°C. . . . It would take 10,000 DAC hubs with the capacity of the ones funded on Friday to reach it.
A political bonus of accepting the scientific necessity of carbon capture is that labor unions strongly support scaling up the technology as a means to maintain and expand industrial jobs with historically high levels of unionization (e.g., pipeline construction for CO2 and power plants with CCS).
The Left is currently split between environmental organizations who typically advocate a narrow technical vision of decarbonization (solar, wind, and batteries) and unions who see their interests in a much broader suite of technologies (including carbon capture but also nuclear power). You would think it would be obvious for socialists to align with labor, but the ideological pull of a small-scale, decentralized energy system looms large on the climate left today.
Too much of the climate debate is wrapped up in a moralistic classification scheme wherein some technologies (solar panels and wind farms) are regarded as unequivocally good and others, like carbon capture, are considered totally bad. As Holly Jean Buck recently argued, the climate left is wasting too much energy opposing something that capitalist industry has been reluctant to invest in in the first place; it turns out it’s not particularly profitable to spend money capturing something that has no mass market. Moving forward, Buck says, “the climate left needs to move beyond the question of which technologies are good or bad and focus instead on how we implement them.”
Unfortunately, by giving over half a billion dollars to Occidental Petroleum, the Biden administration will only intensify environmentalist opposition to the broad idea of CCS. This is a company whose CEO Vicki Hollub explained in March that carbon capture “gives our industry a license to continue to operate for the 60, 70, 80 years that I think it’s going to be very much needed.” In fact, Occidental has been most known for using carbon dioxide in “enhanced oil recovery” — that is, injecting captured carbon underground to help push up still more oil to be burned. This is hardly a climate strategy.
That both newly announced DAC hubs will be located in oil and gas country — Texas and Louisiana — will only bolster environmentalists’ cynical view that carbon capture is simply a fossil capitalist con.
Carbon Removal Is a Public Good
The administration could have approached this very differently. You could say the climate crisis is at its core a public crisis: it is a crisis of the shared atmospheric commons. As ecological Marxist James O’Connor argued over thirty years ago, capitalists have a structural tendency to undermine the ecological conditions of production.
Rather than trusting these same capitalists to clean up after themselves, Christian Parenti rightly argues we should empower the state to build infrastructures of carbon removal as a public utility. While late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century cities confronted the public crisis of water contamination with what some called “sewer socialism,” we need to approach the climate crisis in a similar fashion.
The decidedly nonsocialist climate-modeling researchers at the Rhodium Group recently proposed the US federal government set up something called the Carbon Removal Administration (CRA). The CRA could be modeled on its New Deal forebears — the Civil Works Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, and so on — which all made highly visible public investments in infrastructure all over the country, and, in so doing, helped build a political majority that lasted generations.
There is one slight problem. When it comes to direct air capture, Robinson Meyer explains, “most [decarbonization] expertise resides in the private sector.” Under capitalism, private capitalists own and control the means of production — and for the time being that includes the means of producing machines that suck carbon from the air.
But instead of paying capital to run the machines, the public sector could simply purchase them and run them itself under the CRA mantle. More radically, the state could expropriate DAC technology altogether, given that the “expertise” is mainly housed in in the same oil and gas industry that is expropriating our atmospheric future.
It is projected that the two DAC hubs the Biden administration is funding will create a total of forty-eight hundred jobs. Imagine if those jobs were under the banner of the CRA and framed in terms of “public works” rather than private profit. These CRA DAC hubs could also hire oil and gas workers to do what Buck calls “reverse engineering” — we’ve spent roughly two hundred years sucking vast amounts of carbon from underground, and it will take roughly the same skill set and workforce to inject in back underneath. These workers and communities would be enrolled in a wider political project, a real “just transition,” where the government is seen as serving the public good through carbon removal.
If there’s one thing neoliberal capitalism has accomplished, it is the evisceration of the very notion of the public good. If neoliberalism is really “over” (a debatable idea), we better have a new vision of public solidarity to replace it.
But, for the most part, Bidenomics has meant injecting cash into capitalist firms rather than rebuilding state capacity. Consequently, those firms carry on their operations with no visible indicator to the public that these “investments” are part of a larger political program of climate action. For those residing in Texas, it’s simply a continuation of an economic model by and for the Occidental Petroleums of the world.
The Green New Deal Is Still a Good Idea We Haven’t Really Tried
While Biden’s climate investments have created enthusiastic excitement among policy wonks and the business press, they are having next to no impact on the wider public. Kate Aronoff explains, “A Washington Post–University of Maryland poll conducted in mid-July found that 57 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of climate change; 71 percent heard ‘a little’ or ‘nothing at all’ about the IRA.”
This is bad news for 2024 (especially since the Right is already planning a frontal assault on Biden’s already modest climate program). The original idea for a Green New Deal was to empower the public sector to build the necessary infrastructure and waste management systems to deal with the crisis and expand the welfare state to reverse decades of austerity and attacks on working-class life.
The idea was that only this vast public intervention could create the kind of political majorities needed to sustain long term decarbonization. Bidenomics — while certainly an improvement over whatever you’d call Barack Obama’s economic program — seems destined to continue the Democratic Party’s long-standing tradition of being 51 percent losers and the seesaw patterns of partisan gridlock and power swaps between parties. The climate crisis, and reviving working-class politics more broadly, requires a much more ambitious approach.