In their efforts to combat the Green New Deal, various Republicans now say that they're crafting their own conservative climate plans. Some commentators are encouraged to see the GOP joining this national conversation. But once you take a look behind the curtain, you'll see that these GOP plans are utterly insufficient to address the breadth of the problem. In most cases, their main effect would be to bolster the fossil fuel industry.
Not surprisingly, most Republican plans shy away from regulating carbon emitters and instead focus on free-market "solutions" to the climate crisis. In particular, Republicans are talking almost exclusively about "innovation" in clean energy and the utilization of carbon capture. The top proposal in Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander's "New Manhattan Project" is "American innovation" in the realms of nuclear, natural gas, and carbon capture. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming last year wrote an op-ed, titled "Cut Carbon Through Innovation, Not Regulations," in which he suggested that carbon capture and direct-air capture "hold keys" to reducing carbon emissions. And Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska recently co-sponsored a bill (introduced by Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin) establishing a Department of Energy program that would fund carbon-capture research. All three GOP senators are involved in crafting an upcoming Republican climate bill, according to Bloomberg.
Innovation is a crowd-pleasing concept; invoking innovation is an easy way to telegraph, in a non-committal way, that you support progress without threatening to take away people's cars. (Mainstream American thought also fallaciously associates innovation with capitalism.) According to the innovation gospel, competition leads to innovation, which will lead to clean energy beating out fossil fuels—someday.
"We keep hearing this buzzword: innovation. It's basically code for, 'Let's let the fossil fuel industry and other carbon-intensive industries figure this out. Government shouldn't get involved,'" says Jesse Bragg, media director at the non-profit Corporate Accountability. "Innovation, in that sense, is the status quo."
Investing in research is still essential going forward, Bragg says, but progress will be slow and meaningless without legal mandates that force fossil fuels out of our energy mix.
Republicans, though, aren't advocating for cutting fossil fuels so much as for (supposedly) cutting carbon. That distinction is important, since current uses of carbon capture technically cut carbon emissions, but they certainly don't help diminish our reliance on fossil fuels. The most common form of carbon capture—and what conservatives are referring to in their climate plans—is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), also known as carbon capture and storage, a process that prevents carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere via a chemical reaction that isolates the molecule at the point source. (In this piece, I use "carbon capture" to mean CCS; in other texts, "carbon capture" may also refer to direct air capture.) In the case of CCS, the point source—the place where pollution originates—is usually a coal or natural gas plant.
There are myriad social and political reasons why a widespread application of CCS as a climate solution would be problematic. The most pressing reason, however, is that carbon capture and related geoengineering technologies are "touted as solutions to climate change, but primarily serve to further entrench fossil-fuel interests, rather than help the transition away from fossil fuels," says Steven Feit, a lawyer at the Center for International Environmental Law.
A 2019 report that Feit co-wrote for CIEL finds that "CCUS [carbon capture, use, and storage] is valuable to the fossil-fuel industry in three key ways: It expands oil production, provides a lifeline to a declining coal industry, and further entrenches the overall fossil-fuel economy." The only two coal plants in North America with CCS technology use the carbon they capture in a process called enhanced oil recovery, which helps oil companies recover more oil from depleted wells by injecting the carbon dioxide and forcing the oil to the surface. In this way, Feit tells me, CCS enhances and adds to existing fossil fuel infrastructure, making it harder to roll back that infrastructure later.
Of course, fossil fuel companies are amply aware that CCS helps them from both a technological and a public relations standpoint. Nearly every big oil company, including Shell, BP, and Chevron, has invested money into CCS research at universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and the University of Texas—money that can help shape the science and discussion around carbon capture. Exxon Mobil directly points to its investments in CCS as evidence that the company is fighting climate change in-house. These same companies continue to exercise influence with politicians, especially Republicans, and, accordingly, oil companies and GOP message-makers are embracing the same line on climate: Let industry sort it out.
We'll never know how much of Congress' emphasis on carbon capture is directly tied to fossil fuel funding and lobbying. But it's uncanny how reliably Republicans will refer to carbon capture and other industry talking points when suggesting climate solutions.
Republican Texas Senator John Cornyn, who has received nearly $3.4 million in his time in Congress from oil and gas interests, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, is currently crafting a bill that he says will fight climate change by funding carbon-capture research. Florida House Representative Matt Gaetz's Green Real Deal says that the government should "position the United States as a global leader in clean energy and carbon-capture technologies" (carbon capture typically already falls under the umbrella of "clean energy," so it's notable that Gaetz singles it out here). During Gaetz's 2016 run for his current House seat, a super PAC supporting him received its largest donation, $100,000, from a Texas oil and gas company. Senators Mitt Romney of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are preparing a Clean Energy Investment Fund to combat the Green New Deal that would fund nuclear and CCS development. Romney has received $7.3 million from oil and gas companies during his time in various Senate offices, and even Graham, who once ran as a green GOP presidential candidate, has received nearly $350,000 from similar companies.
Democrats aren't clean here either: Manchin, who has received $430,000 from oil and gas interests, introduced the carbon-capture bill that Murkowski signed onto, and he continues to argue that CCUS is "critical" to solving the climate crisis, according to the Hill.
In fact, Manchin is in agreement with many climate scientists, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in arguing that carbon-capture technologies will have to be a part of the climate solution. Rob Cowin, director of government affairs for the Union of Concerned Scientists' climate and energy program, says that CCS is "the only non-renewable technology that play[s] a role" in every climate model by UCS. But Cowin views it as more of a back-up technology than anything else, one that can be used to decarbonize "stranded fossil fuel assets" as we approach mid-century. Even the scientist who claims to have first suggested that Bio-Energy With Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), which the IPCC incorporates heavily into its models, could play a role in stopping the climate crisis now says that its potential as a solution, rather than as a risk-management tool, has been overblown.
Cowin also points out that carbon capture is too expensive to be reasonably rolled out on a large scale in the near future. "Many of us who look at the economics of these issues are not worried about CCS technology crowding out renewables," he says, arguing that "renewables are going to win out because of cost." Further, a recent Nature study found that the return on investment is higher for renewable energies like solar and wind than for carbon capture. That carbon capture ends up being more costly than renewables is especially ironic considering that conservatives' biggest gripe with the Green New Deal has been the price tag—which they have deeply misrepresented.
We've long known that conservatives can't be trusted to do anything positive about climate change. Yes, members of the GOP are finally acknowledging that global warming is real and are proposing plans to combat it, but that doesn't justify commentators at outlets like the New York Times and Politico saying that the GOP has shifted its stance on the problem in a meaningful way. Indeed, the fact that Republicans are coming out with "solutions" so carefully calibrated to support the fossil fuel industry represents the opposite of progress. As long as the GOP's climate plans center on free-market innovation and CCS, and as long as they keep letting the fossil fuel industry hold influence through super PAC donations, we should keep looking elsewhere for solutions.
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