The Audubon Society, one of the oldest and largest American environmental groups, showed leadership last month when it took a simple step that shouldn’t be controversial, yet still is: It joined a political coalition to support “carbon capture.”
Carbon capture typically means filtering the carbon dioxide out of the flues of coal- or gas-burning power plants, or from other industrial emitters of greenhouse gases like ethanol refiners or concrete factories. The waste gas is then either used or pumped back underground so that it will stay out of the atmosphere. The technology has been available for decades and is currently used at coal-fired power plants in Texas and Saskatchewan, an ethanol refinery in Illinois, a
liquefied natural gas plant in Norway, and a tiny handful of other sites.
According to the United Nations, it’ll be impossible to avoid the worst impacts of climate change without far wider deployment of carbon capture. But the technology has faced headwinds.
With no price on carbon and few commercial uses for captured carbon dioxide in most parts of the world, emitters haven’t had much incentive to install carbon capture. Two developments may change that. First, earlier this year Congress enacted tax credits for carbon capture, which should make it economical for ethanol producers and possibly some power plants; the credit works like a carbon tax in reverse, rewarding companies for capturing carbon rather than penalizing them for emitting it. Second, a company in Texas has invented and is now testing a type of gas-fired electrical power plant that produces pure carbon dioxide, eliminating the need for the costly and energy-intensive filtering process and, potentially, making carbon capture much more price competitive.
But carbon capture implies a future for fossil fuels — an ideological nonstarter. Some environmental groups, including Greenpeace, opposed the tax credit and the idea more generally. The Boston-based Clean Air Task Force is the only other environmental group currently in the Carbon Capture Coalition.
The insistence that greenhouse-
gas-emitting power plants be replaced solely by renewables is a nice goal, but as a rigid policy doctrine it’s starting to show its limits. In places like Germany, which has poured money into renewables while also closing its nuclear industry, such nostrums have become an outright obstacle to reducing emissions.
“While some may be holding out for a perfect solution to climate change, we know that it will take an array of approaches to reduce planet-warming pollution,” said David Yarnold, president and CEO of National Audubon Society.
He’s right. And when a household name like Audubon bucks perfect-is-the-enemy-of-the-good thinking, it’s a hugely positive sign.