President Joe Biden wants to combat climate change by taking carbon dioxide out of the air and burying it underground. But some environmental activists on the left are working to stop him.
The activists say a focus on carbon capture would give industry political cover to keep polluting instead of reducing emissions, and their argument is gaining traction in communities across the country. They convinced the New Orleans City Council to pass a resolution opposing underground carbon storage last year. Elsewhere in Louisiana, they’re trying to delay the permitting of a pipeline that would carry carbon to storage facilities.
The growing opposition is threatening to delay the full rollout of billions of dollars in new federal spending on carbon capture — and it’s showing the difficulties the Biden administration faces in trying to prioritize both industrial carbon removal and disadvantaged communities.
“The developers of carbon injection projects are not going to get environmental justice advocates on board,” said Jane Patton, campaign manager for plastics and petrochemicals at the Center for International Environmental Law. “There is no environmental justice to be found in the injection of carbon under the ground.”
The Biden administration has made communities that are located near industrial facilities a focus of its climate policies. The White House pledged in 2021 to make sure at least 40 percent of climate and clean energy spending benefits disadvantaged communities. Biden signed an executive order last month emphasizing “that the pursuit of environmental justice is a duty of all executive branch agencies.”
But activists are alarmed by the sheer volume of funding for carbon capture, which includes $3.5 billion for direct-air capture “hubs” and another $2.5 billion for six carbon capture facilities. They say it implies the administration is prepared to override environmental objections.
“As long as that enormous amount of money is being rapidly pushed out by the federal government, that undermines any attempts to engage with or have conversations with environmental justice communities,” Patton said.
The Energy Department has been holding community workshops around the country, including one in California’s Central Valley in March. Its application process for the direct air capture hubs requires applicants to submit a community benefits plan that addresses how the project will boost the local workforce, advance diversity, equity and inclusion, and engage labor and communities. DOE has also asked advocates to help review applications.
“It’s a very fraught piece of the puzzle and one that we are committed to getting right but know that it’s definitely a marathon, it’s not a sprint, and we’ve only run the first miles,” said Noah Deich, deputy assistant secretary for DOE’s Office of Carbon Management.
Environmental groups are fighting new projects spurred by the promise of federal support, as well as projects that have been on the drawing board for years. Their opposition is rooted in worries about the potential hazards of more pipelines, but it’s also ideological, based in longstanding objections to focusing on carbon dioxide to the exclusion of the conventional pollutants that often accompany it.
Two environmental groups, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and the Alliance for Affordable Energy, helped persuade the New Orleans City Council to pass a moratorium on underground carbon storage in June 2022. Three months later, nearby Livingston Parish passed a similar ban, prompting a lawsuit from Air Products, a company planning a $4.5 billion hydrogen plant and pipeline to send captured carbon to storage wells under nearby Lake Maurepas.
Air Products has been trying to quell local opposition through question-and-answer sessions at town halls, said Art George, a company spokesperson.
“We’re trying to be very transparent in our approach and explain the technology and what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Activists have also been slowing projects down at the state level. Louisiana had waited for two years for EPA to decide whether to allow the state to handle permitting for its CO2 wells before receiving preliminary jurisdiction in late April.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) blamed the delay on environmental justice groups’ opposition.
“That was what was holding it up,” he said in an interview.
Carbon capture opponents plan to continue protesting, regardless of whether the state or federal government takes the lead on permitting.
“Who issues the permits is not the key problem here,” Patton said. “The permits being issued is the key problem here.”
Nicole Parra, a former state lawmaker working with California Resources Corp., a petroleum company that’s seeking a federal grant to build a direct-air capture system in California’s Central Valley, is trying hard to win activists over.
Parra is director of the California Renewable Energy Laboratory at the Kern Community College District, which is partnering with CRC on the project. She said she carries around a 16-point list of demands from a coalition of groups that are worried about the project’s potential impact on local residents.
“Literally, it’s in my hand right now,” she said. Among the demands: a minimum distance of 10 miles between projects and disadvantaged communities; and a requirement that projects not increase air, water, noise or light pollution.
One of the activists whose organization compiled the list, Dan Ress, an attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, said they don’t think CRC’s project is well suited to the region because its geology is too porous, pockmarked from decades of oil and gas production.
“I’m very skeptical that Kern County is actually a good candidate for this, given that we have 100,000 holes in the ground,” Ress said.
Parra acknowledged their opposition but said it shouldn’t determine the project’s fate. “Will we have the environmental justice endorsement of the grant at this time? No,” she said. “I don’t think any group, whether it’s industry, EJ, community, academia, should have the ability to kill projects if they meet the requirements that the president has outlined.”