U.S. Senators Held a Bizarre Hearing About How to Solve Climate Change With More Fossil Fuels

These are good for the climate, actually. (Photo: Barry Williams, Getty Images)
These are good for the climate, actually. (Photo: Barry Williams, Getty Images)

The U.S. Senate Energy Committee held a hearing on Tuesday that was ostensibly about lowering carbon emissions to curb climate change. But they didn’t say much about reducing the amount of carbon spewed into the atmosphere. In fact, some witnesses called for more fossil fuel infrastructure.

The hearing, led by committee chair Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and ranking member Republican Sen. Joe Manchin, was convened to “examine the development and deployment of large-scale carbon dioxide management technologies,” collectively referred to as carbon capture, utilization, and storage, or CCUS. That includes tech-based carbon capture and storage (like machines to scrub carbon out of the atmosphere, which haven’t been shown to work at scale), nature-based carbon capture (like planting trees, which is not by itself a solution), and so-called carbon utilization (like schemes to keep extracting coal to use for products outside the energy market).

These kinds of fixes provide cover for polluting industries by allowing them to feel like they can just keep polluting, which is why the fossil fuel industry loves them so much. In this hearing, senators and witnesses said the quiet part loud and actually argued the world needs more fossil fuel infrastructure to test the whole scheme out.

“For CCUS to be successful, it will be necessary to permit and construct additional pipelines,” testified Shannon Angielski, the executive director at Carbon Utilization Research Council.

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If you’re looking to preserve the climate, that’s absurd. More oil and gas pipelines will emit more carbon into the atmosphere. Rather than deploying more technology to suck that carbon up, it would be far simpler to just … not build the pipelines in the first place.

But if what you really want is to leave the fossil fuel industry’s business model undisturbed, it makes perfect sense to call for more pipelines. As ridiculous as this statement is, it makes sense that Angielski would make it. Her group represents utilities that rely heavily on gas to produce electricity and manage (surprise) plenty of pipelines. For the past two years, she has also lobbied for Phibro, which was once the largest independent oil refiner in the U.S. and has a “deep expertise across commodities, including oil and oil products, natural gas, natural gas liquids” among other things. Angielski is also a member of the National Coal Council, which represents an energy source that has future in a climate-constrained world absent CCUS.

The same goes for the hearing’s other witnesses and participants. For instance, Ernest Moniz is the former Secretary of Energy under President Barack Obama and now runs the Energy Futures Initiative. He testified in support of CCUS, but as DeSmog reported earlier this year, Moniz sits on the boards of utility company Southern Company, which has ambitions of deploying large-scale carbon capture technology (it’s also a member of Angielski’s group). Meanwhile, committee chair Lisa Murkowski has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry over her career, as has ranking member Joe Manchin.

From their compromised positions, maybe these senators and advocates can’t see that CCUS comes with huge risks. Carbon capture and storage technology is super energy intensive and not anywhere close to feasible at scale. It also nothing to combat the local impacts of fossil fuel extraction from pollution to ecosystem destruction. Scientists aren’t sure we’ll even be able to safely sequester the carbon already in the atmosphere safely, let alone more of it.

Planting trees at the scale needed would also be hugely risky. It would require a truly massive amount of land and could lead to horrendous environmental injustices. One World Bank and United Nations carbon offsetting forestation program, for instance, led to thousands of indigenous people being forced away from their ancestral homes.

And carbon utilization schemes, which aim to turn fossil-based carbon into low-carbon hydrogen, as well as other products like roofing material, are also hugely problematic, because they could give coal producers an excuse to continue extracting the most polluting fossil fuel on Earth.

Angielski said she was at the hearing throwing her support behind CCUS because “international authorities recognise that fossil fuels will continue to be used.”

That’s only if you assume the world continues on its current path, though. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on limiting warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal that would protect island nations, coral reefs, and much of the world shows that the pathways to limit warming mean an end to fossil fuel use.

It’s senators like the ones Angielski stood before at the hearing who could pass legislation to rapidly usher that world into existence. Yet there wasn’t much talk of reducing U.S. fossil fuel production. But again, that only makes sense if your goal is taking on the climate crisis, not profiting from it. And that doesn’t seem to be the case here.