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The Inflation Reduction Act and its impact on carbon capture, explained

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Can the Inflation Reduction Act change the world? Some supporters of the massive bill that passed in the Senate early this week hope so for its plans to slow global warming. Now, this bill has not yet passed the House. But with more than $300 billion toward climate programs, it would mark the largest federal clean energy investment in U.S. history. And one piece of that puzzle involves carbon capture technology. Some scientists say it could be one of our biggest defenses against the climate crisis by reducing emissions, but there are other scientists and activists who aren't happy with this part of the bill. We're going to talk about all of that with Jamil Farbes. He is a principal at Evolved Energy Research, which is a consulting company focused on carbon reduction strategies. Jamil, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JAMIL FARBES: Thanks, Juana. Happy to be here.

SUMMERS: Happy to have you.

So I know that this is just one part of a complex process. But in simple terms, can you help us understand what carbon capture means and how it works, specifically as it relates to climate goals?

FARBES: So the concept behind carbon capture is really as simple as it sounds. It's the idea of capturing CO2 before it gets into the atmosphere. I mean, and there's some nuance in other applications where that might change the definition slightly. But generally, you look at big industrial processes, so it could be burning coal to produce electricity. It could be a cement kiln used in making concrete, or it could be producing ethanol for a biofuel. And all of those things are going to produce CO2. And the idea of carbon capture is, as that CO2 gets produced, we try to remove the stream of CO2 out of the other gases so we can do something with it - either use it for industrial processes or to make fuels or potentially sequester it underground.

SUMMERS: I want to turn now to the Inflation Reduction Act - that big bill that passed the Senate earlier in the week. When you learned about the amount of money that is included in this bill - not just for carbon capture, but for all of the climate provisions - what went through your mind?

FARBES: I think excitement 'cause it's really the biggest movement we've seen this country do towards mitigating climate change. It's really a major investment both for renewable energy, but also around these nascent technologies that we need to get more experienced deploying at scale, which - I very much consider carbon capture to be in that bucket.

SUMMERS: There have been carbon capture and sequestration projects for years now. But, generally speaking, they have been over budget, closed down or even just ineffective when it comes to making a difference in emissions in a cost-effective way. What makes this moment different?

FARBES: I do think that that's true, and it's important to recognize that this proposal right now would be for, effectively, 10 years of guaranteed incentives, which is really going to help developers. I think the other piece is that the urgency factor is a little bit clearer now. And, you know, the U.S. has had a hard time taking federal action on climate change. I think, as it's becoming clearer what's necessary to get to net zero emissions by 2050 - right? - we have a better idea of what solutions are needed for that. So I think, particularly for the realm of carbon capture, power generation with carbon capture is one piece of the solution. But we expect, after sort of the, like, target of the bill - so in the time frame of 2040 and beyond - carbon capture is going to have a critical role to play to help produce clean fuels.

SUMMERS: I'm wondering if you could help us understand. Why is carbon capture technology seen by some as a concession to oil companies - a concession that climate activists and even some Democrats who were supporters of this bill were not happy about?

FARBES: Well, I think the key piece is that carbon capture potentially presents a solution where oil and gas production can look a lot like it does today if the technology works as we expect it to. It doesn't do anything about all the production, so I think there's some concern that this could just be a delaying tactic - that it's not actually a viable solution, but it's something that oil and gas producers want to champion because it helps them have a role in this decarbonized future.

SUMMERS: What do you say to environmental justice advocates who say that this technology will not do enough to help the communities that are most impacted by pollution from oil companies?

FARBES: I think that that's a real concern. The analysis that we do - we recognize that it has limited things to say about real localized impacts from just energy use in general, but particularly from fossil fuel production and use. So my hope is that, while this investment is coming - assuming this bill passes through the House - that we come up with better and more robust planning processes to really capture the level of concerns about continued fossil fuel use like this and try to come up with more durable solutions that help the climate, but also address pressing environmental justice concerns.

SUMMERS: Jamil Farbes of Evolved Energy Research, thank you so much for helping us understand this all a little bit better.

FARBES: Thanks. Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.