The Future of Carbon Capture

Carbon capture is a term used to describe a group of technologies that either remove carbon directly from the air or scrub it from waste gas as fossil fuels are burned.  In either case, the carbon “captured” is buried or used in the manufacture of other products.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change includes carbon capture as one of many methods that must be employed if the world is to limit temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The U.S. does not have a dedicated research program for carbon capture.  Funding has been piecemeal.  But in the $3.5 trillion infrastructure legislation under consideration in Congress, advocates see an opportunity to change that.  The first funding for carbon capture came in the 2005 Energy Policy Act.  Now several bills have been proposed to amend that Act to strengthen the research funding and tax credits for carbon capture projects.

The carbon capture method eventually supported by Congress is important to West Virginia.  Removal of carbon directly from the air remedies harmful carbon already released, while capture during the burning of fossil fuels does not reduce the carbon in the atmosphere, it merely prevents the release of additional CO₂.  Further, the “scrubbing” method continues our reliance on those fuels versus renewables.  West Virginia coal interests are lining up behind removal from fossil fuel gasses for obvious reasons.

But the truth is that neither method of carbon capture and storage is feasible now at the scale necessary to make even a tiny improvement in the climate change monster.  Currently, around 40 megatons of CO2 are captured and stored annually worldwide, equivalent to about 0.1 per cent of our emissions. Funding carbon capture projects is a bet on the future.

Many, although not all, environmentalists oppose carbon capture.  They worry that carbon sequestered underground will still find its way to the surface through leaks, pipeline spills and geologic activity.  They also rightly argue that carbon capture employed in the burning of fossil fuels does not wean us from these harmful fuels.  The entire mining, drilling and pipeline infrastructure would still be present and require capital investment that could otherwise be spent on renewables.

Perhaps more to the point, environmentalists argue that carbon capture generally does not work.  FutureGen Alliance, backed by the U.S. Department of Energy, attempted to demonstrate carbon capture at a coal-fired power plant in Illinois.  After spending $1.65 billion, DOE suspended the project in 2015.  More recently, Chevron conceded that it has fallen short of its carbon capture targets after spending $3 billion on a project in Australia.  Throughout this period, the cost of solar and wind projects has plummeted.

Undeterred, a bipartisan group of legislators recently sent a letter to House and Senate leadership outlining a legislative program for breathing some life into the carbon capture concept.  Many of these legislators hail from oil and coal-producing states, including David McKinley who represents West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District.

The letter proposes a “targeted suite of carbon management policies,” including the buildout of regional CO₂ transport and storage networks, enriching the tax credit available for carbon capture projects, and “robust funding” for commercial scale carbon capture pilot projects.  They urged Congressional leaders to pass several pending bills that would amend current law to achieve all these goals.

Notably these legislators also urge reforming the law to incentivize utilities to retrofit existing coal-fired units with carbon capture technology.  I am certainly no expert, but these bills seem to dress up carbon capture in virtuous language, while really aiming to bolster the coal and other fossil fuel industries.  Rep. McKinley has proposed one of these, called the “Net-Negative Carbon Dioxide Baseload Power Act.”  This bill would have the Secretary of Energy begin a retrofit program for existing coal-fired plants that use at least 70% coal.

Perhaps friendlier to the environment overall is the direct air capture method for removing carbon.  The technology for this has existed on a small scale for many years – it is what enables air inside a submarine to be reused.  One recent venture in Iceland will use a chemical called sorbent to capture carbon contained in the air circulating through.  Once it is fully operational, the project will capture 4000 metric tons of carbon each year.  The size of this experimental operation will soon be eclipsed by one in the Southwestern U.S.

The ultimate question is whether the cost of capturing a ton of carbon by direct air capture can be brought down to around $100.  This will be a difficult target to meet – the cost incurred by Climeworks, the company building the Iceland project, is expected to be around $500 per ton.  But if costs can ultimately be reduced to around $350 per ton, these experimental projects may reveal enough promise to attract the funding necessary to improve the technology and drive costs down.

It Is Time to End the Filibuster

To be elected Governor of West Virginia, a candidate needs one more vote than his opponent.  This is majority rule at its most basic.  Majority rule is also a bedrock principle in our federal system.   Accordingly, a bill in the U.S. Senate brought to a vote needs only 51 votes out of 100 Senators to pass.  But today the legislative process in the Senate – indeed in all of Congress — has ground to a halt.  We cannot address the compelling issues of the day in a way that a majority of voters demand.  What has happened to us?

The answer is painful.  We have allowed the filibuster, a procedural rule not found in the Constitution or any law, to require proponents to have a supermajority of 60 votes before most legislation in the Senate can pass.  This means that those opposing action need only a minority of Senators to block progress.  And since any bill passed by the House of Representatives also requires passage by the Senate to become law, the minority that rules the Senate rules the Congress.  While the filibuster has existed in the Senate since the mid-19th Century, only in the 21st Century has it been converted to a tool of relentless obstructionism in the entire Congress.

The Constitution Requires Only a Simple Majority to Pass a Bill

The Articles of Confederation, which existed before the Constitution, were a failure in large part because they required a supermajority of nine states out of thirteen to take any significant action. As a result, the federal government could not finance itself or make critical decisions for the nation’s defense and development.  Our Constitution was intended to remedy the deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation.

While the Framers of the Constitution disagreed about many things, the importance of majority rule was not one of them.  The requirement of a simple majority is not expressly spelled out in the Constitution, but two principles of construction support it.  Article I, Section 7 establishes that a bill becomes law when it is “passed” by the House and the Senate and signed by the President.  In 1789 majority rule was already established in the British Parliament.  Those who ratified the Constitution would certainly have understood “passed” to mean passed by a majority vote.  In Federalist 22, Hamilton called majority rule the fundamental maxim of republican government and argued that minority veto power would lead to “tedious delays, continual negotiation and intrigue and contemptible compromises of the public good.”  This is an apt description of today’s Senate.

During the Constitutional Convention, a proposal was made to require a supermajority for the passage of bills in Congress.  It was rejected.  The only exceptions were for special circumstances, such as impeachment and overcoming a Presidential veto.  Obviously, the Framers knew how and when to impose a higher bar for action when they felt it advisable.  Their silence on the number of votes necessary to “pass” normal legislation is telling.

A Short History of the Filibuster 

The Constitution bestows on the Senate the right to make its own procedural rules.  From 1789 to 1806 Senate rules allowed debate to be ended by majority vote on a motion called “the previous question.” In 1806 – by mistake – the Senate omitted that rule from its procedures, leaving no way to cut off excessive debate.  It was not restored in subsequent years because Senators favored full debate without limitation.  But there was always an understanding among Senators that when debate had been fully aired a vote would be taken and a simple majority of votes would prevail.

The original filibusters involved a Senator holding the floor continuously, much as in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  But talking a bill to death did not begin until the 1840s.  There were few of these filibusters compared to today and they were limited to issues of high passion and import, mainly slavery.  In 1917 opponents of entering WWI filibustered legislation permitting the arming of merchant ships.  The public was outraged, leading to adoption of Senate rule 22 allowing debate to be closed by a vote of two-thirds of Senators present on the floor.  It now requires three-fifths of the entire body (60 votes).  In this way a minority of 41 Senators can kill a piece of legislation.  Routinely this minority of Senators represent a minority of the population.

The Filibuster Became the Favorite Tool of Slave Owners, Racists and Opponents of Civil Rights

The filibuster’s soiled reputation is primarily the result of its shameful use by Southern Senators to protect the institution of slavery, then to protect Jim Crow laws and practices in the South, then to oppose civil rights legislation.  Today it is being used by much the same group to oppose voting rights legislation.

Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was the intellectual architect of the notion that a minority should have a veto over the will of the majority.  In 1828 he developed the concept of nullification by which individual states could decide which federal laws applied to them.   In the 1840s he merged the previously rare filibuster with his argument for protecting minority rights.  He then employed this to oppose any measure that even remotely threatened slavery.  In Kill Switch, author Bruce Jentleson described Calhoun succinctly.

Calhoun was the foremost political leader of the closest thing America had to an aristocracy, deriving his power from the support from the planter class of the antebellum South.  By using that power to protect slavery he prolonged the suffering of the most oppressed minority imaginable.

But the racially oppressive use of the filibuster didn’t end with the abolition of slavery.  In 1922 Southern Senators filibustered and killed legislation making lynching a federal crime.  This was the start of their calculated obstruction of all civil rights bills.  Thereafter Southern Senators organized themselves into a bloc that would regularly meet to map out filibuster strategy.  They successfully filibustered anti-poll tax bills four times in the 1940s.  They blocked fair employment practices legislation in the 40s and 50s.  Their opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act led to a two-month filibuster.  This is a short list – there is much more.

Those Senators who defend the filibuster today with high-sounding principles are the heirs of this disgrace.  Their justifications are based on a false alternative history.   In truth the filibuster exists now solely to benefit the minority of the population who elect this minority of Senators. 

Defenders of the Filibuster are Wrong

There are many reasons given by defenders of the filibuster.  Here are the major ones. The Senate has the Constitutional right to make its own rules, even a rule that requires a supermajority. The filibuster is a tradition of the Senate, preserving free speech and debate.  It protects small states from being overwhelmed by large ones.  It protects minority interests from being overwhelmed by the majority.  It permits tempering of hasty, ill-advised legislation sent over from the more democratically elected House.  And finally, it promotes bipartisanship.  All are unpersuasive and easily exposed.

What really motivates Senators who defend the filibuster these days is political power.  In their important book Politics or Principle? Filibustering in the United States Senate, Sarah Binder and Steven Smith show convincingly that filibuster Senators are not motivated by bipartisanship, protecting minority rights and free speech, or any of the other neutral principles commonly asserted.

Senate rules protecting Senate debate have lasted . . . because the rules serve as a foundation of senators’ personal political power. Senators’ positions on procedural reform follow predictably from their political interests.

The current filibuster Senators enhance their political power by satisfying their constituency’s negative partisanship – stopping what their Democratic opposition wishes to accomplish.  The voters represented by these Senators, while a minority nationwide, are the strongest opponents of social change in the nation – the same political profile owned by Calhoun’s antebellum constituency.  In Kill Switch, Jentleson cites research concluding that the “voters and interests on whose behalf Republican senators wield power represent a reactionary faction far to the right of the American mainstream” and that they are “one of the farthest right factions in any modern democracy worldwide.”

It is true that the Senate can make its own procedural rules, but this cannot mean that in so doing it can nullify other Constitutional principles.  For example, the Senate could not adopt a procedural rule that says states with fewer than 2 million inhabitants (West Virginia included) can only have one vote in the Senate on major legislation.  The Senate could not adopt a procedural rule that only bills passed by the House with substantial bipartisan support will be considered by the Senate.  A procedural rule is only that. It cannot shift the substantive balance created by the Constitution.

The argument that the filibuster protects free speech and debate is laughable.  Perhaps once filibustering Senators who read the phone book on the Senate floor as part of their debate might make that argument.  Now the filibuster protects no debate – it prevents debate.  To commence a filibuster a Senator merely must send an email indicating he intends to filibuster.  He is not required to show up or speak a single word on the Senate floor.  He is not required to persuade anyone of the merits of his views.

Supporters of the filibuster claim that it protects smaller states from being swamped by the power of states with larger populations.  The Framers of the Constitution considered this risk and their solution was to give each state two Senators regardless of population.  That was it.  This already gives small population states an outsized power in the Senate.  For example, a vote from a Senator from Wyoming is cast on behalf of only 573,900 people.  A Senator from California casts a vote on behalf of 39,467,000 people.  And empirically it is not true that small state Senators use the filibuster disproportionately to protect their states from the power of larger states.  In a 70-year period studied by the authors of Politics or Principle? small state Senators voted to cut off filibusters as often as large state Senators.

Finally, there is the canard that retaining the filibuster somehow promotes bipartisanship.  Senator Kyrsten Sinema has recently said that the way to fix the Senate is to “fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior.”  Whose behavior?  The Republicans certainly aren’t changing theirs while the filibuster is in place.  Senator Mitch McConnell told reporters in Kentucky that “one hundred percent of our focus is stopping this new administration.”  His “bipartisanship” apparently has nothing to do with whether a majority of voters – Democratic, Independent and Republican – favor a bill.  Bipartisanship in this age of the filibuster amounts to the minority party requiring huge concessions from the majority if there is to be legislation at all.

The Sad Case of Senator Joe Manchin

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is a good man in a tough spot, but he has painted himself into a corner and made it much worse for himself.  Manchin, who vows to protect the filibuster, is one of its poster-child victims — he among all others should know the corrosive effect the filibuster has on democracy.

In 2013 Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey co-sponsored a bill in response to the Newtown, Connecticut massacre of first graders.  The bill set up a reasonable system of background checks for gun purchases, which nine out of ten Americans supported.  Manchin and Toomey lined up broad bipartisan support from 55 Senators.  But there was no great debate on the Senate floor, just quiet failure in an empty chamber.  The bill was defeated by 45 Senators, who represented just 38% of the American public.    In a democratic system that functions, this bill would have passed.  More recently, Manchin reacted in anger when 45 feckless Republican Senators killed the January 6 Commission bill.

In a June 6 op-ed piece, Manchin offered two basic reasons why he will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.  One is based in the principle that the filibuster prevents abuse by the majority party.  “The Senate, its processes and rules, have evolved over time to make absolute power difficult while still delivering solutions to the issues facing our country and I believe that’s the Senate’s best quality.” But the Senate filibuster most certainly did not evolve for this high purpose and, as for delivering solutions, ask the parents of the murdered Newtown children.  Not even Manchin can argue that legislative action in the Senate is robust and effective.

Manchin’s second reason is not principled.  He points out that the Democrats who now want to eliminate the filibuster sought its protection when Republicans controlled Congress and the Presidency.  More than a claim that Democrats are hypocritical, the argument is that if we do it to them now, they will do it to us later.  This is, of course, true to some extent but we need to look ourselves in the mirror and decide whether this is a democracy or not.  If it is, then the remedy for Republican overreach is defeating them at the polls, not with some bogus Senate procedural rule.

I have heard the lament that if Democrats eliminate the filibuster and pass the For the People Act and other progressive legislation, Republicans will simply repeal them with a majority vote when they take power again.  Obamacare has shown this is easier said than done.  But I would suggest that it is better to have legislated and suffered a repeal than never to have legislated at all.  In Federalist 22, Hamilton wrote that requiring a supermajority for legislative action might give us the false sense that nothing bad will be done, but “we forget how much good may be prevented, and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering that which is necessary.”

Bullying Nature

It is a bright spring day in Shepherdstown and I am gazing out my window at my self-inflicted folly – the swimming pool in my back yard. Nature wasn’t on board with the original happy plans behind this water-filled hole. Instead, nature wants to use it to grow all sorts of bacteria and algae, and allow mosquitos, toads and any other interested party to lay eggs and spawn their young. Ah, but we have the answers for nature, right? Engineering, pumps and chemicals. Every summer with much effort and money thrown at the problem, we win – temporarily. But let up a moment and nature inexorably overcomes our efforts. A swimming pool is a fool’s errand to push a large rock up a hill.

A swimming pool is an apt metaphor for what I am trying to say in this piece. Humans are the most intelligent animals ever to walk the earth. But at some point we got a little too impressed with our abilities and began to bully nature into doing what it didn’t want to do. That’s when the trouble started.

Most of our attempts to bully nature have involved water.  Although essential for life in the right amounts, water has developed a bad reputation.  It has the nasty habit of accumulating in huge amounts and sweeping away everything in its path. English and American common law alike have declared water a “common enemy.”

When our engineering know-how and the power of our machines reached a certain level in the 19th century, we engaged water in what amounted to an arm-wrestling match. This contest has not been without its fits and starts, its wins and losses on both sides. But we have begun to realize that when we overcome nature with brute force, there is always an unexpected price to pay.

I just returned from a short trip to the Everglades in southern Florida. The Everglades are really nothing more than the overflow from Lake Okeechobee, which flows in a sheet down a very slight grade to the Gulf of Mexico. Early Florida pioneers saw immediately that if the Everglades could be drained, thousands of acres of rich land would become available for cultivation.

The 19th century saw one failed scheme after another to drain “the swamp.”  But it looked like success was at hand until 1928 when a hurricane filled the Lake and caused it to burst through a dike, drowning 2500 people. Corpses were stacked and burned by the roadsides. The Army Corps of Engineers then changed the rationale for draining the Everglades from reclamation to flood control. The Hoover Dike was constructed, which cut off Lake Okeechobee from the northern Everglades. This solved the flooding problem but created many others.

What once was a swamp dried out and became like a desert. The absence of fresh water allowed salt water to invade the water table, ruining farms. The stress of low water wreaked havoc on the food chain. Sawgrass invaded water-lily sloughs, while other species invaded parched sawgrass marshes.  Populations of wading birds rapidly declined. Then in 1939 one million acres caught fire and burned. Now conservationists and environmentalists have a seat at the table and a serious effort is underway to restore the Everglades.

The April 1, 2019 issue of The New Yorker chronicled a similar example. For millennia, the Mississippi River has over-flooded its banks and deposited silt and soil debris all over southern Louisiana, building up and extending the land in all directions. Because these floods had obvious harmful effects for humans, we built levees along the river for hundreds of miles. Now there are few catastrophic floods that breach the levees. This is a good thing, right?

Well, yes and no. The problem is that there are no further soil deposits to build up the land. The land that was formerly deposited through flooding has begun to compact and subside, allowing the Gulf to retake large areas. At present southern Louisiana seen from a satellite is nothing more than the snake of the Mississippi bounded by levees and a few hundred acres of land on either side.

Believe it or not, the current solution to this problem is more engineering on a massive scale to be paid for with mountains of tax money. One part of this solution is to dredge up silt from the bottom of the river and use massive diesel pumps to redeposit it into areas that would otherwise subside into non-existence. Another part is to cut holes in the levees and during flood periods allow water and silt to inundate areas that have heavily subsided.  The New Yorker piece rightly concludes that humans have so altered nature in an attempt to take control that now we are attempting to take control of our efforts to take control.

All this says to me that when we consider the so-called problems that nature creates, we need less hubris and more wisdom.  We need fewer brute force solutions and a more harmonious approach that doesn’t struggle so much with the way nature works. Maybe through taxation and other policies we could encourage the depopulation of places like New Orleans and Phoenix, where people simply cannot be protected from nature. Brute force may succeed in the short run, but at a huge cost with harmful consequences to environmental balance. And because of entropy and our human fallibility, the brute force solutions always fail in the long-run.

But what could I possibly know? I’m the one who built a swimming pool. Could you excuse me while I go empty the skimmers?