But environmental activists worry this is the wrong path for trying to remove carbon from atmosphere
by Allen Best
On the first Friday in January, three days before she was sworn in as a new state representative from Denver’s south metro area, Ruby Dickson was part of a tour of relatively new businesses in the Boulder area.
This was not your typical chamber of commerce tour, though. It had been organized by then State Rep. Tracey Bernett, who had taken an extraordinary interest in climate change legislation during her first two years in the General Assembly.
The four businesses had in common the goal of drawing carbon dioxide from the air, in the case of one business through the technique of biochar, or creating new processes that eliminated need for emissions such as exist now with virgin steel-making.
If ebullient during the tour, Bernett was under a storm cloud, accused by the district attorney in Boulder County of falsely claiming residency in Louisville, a part of her old district but apart from her home near Longmont that had been put into a new district. Two days later, she resigned.
In leaving, she handed off an idea for legislation to the incoming representative Dickson.
That bill, HB23-1210, “Carbon Management,” easily passed its first legislative test on March 9, getting approval from the House Energy and Environment Committee in an 8-3 vote.
If it becomes law, the legislation will crack the door open in Colorado for new technologies and practices that many climate change activists insist will be necessary for the state to meet its mid-century decarbonization goals. But many activists who worry just as intensely about the risks of climate change are convinced it’s a misstep.
The bill has two components. One would make “carbon management projects” eligible for grants under the state Clean Air Program that was established by legislators in 2022 with funding of $25 million. Potential applications among the 11 defined in the bill include bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, durable geological carbon sequestration, and direct air capture and storage.
Enhanced oil recovery—a practice that has provoked hurricane-strength opposition in other places—is expressly excluded from potential grant application.
The program requires cash matches to the grants before the program expires in 2028. The first round of grants will become available in spring 2023.
The second major component of the bill directs the Colorado Energy Office to work with a contractor to create a carbon management roadmap in consultation with stakeholders. It is to be delivered to legislators by February 2025.
This proposed roadmap would be an extension of and complementary to the legislative recommendations issued in late February by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. That 67-page document, “Creating Colorado’s Carbon Sequestration Framework,” goes into great detail regarding the questions that Colorado must resolve if it is to find ways to sequester carbon emission from hard-to-decarbonize sectors in decades ahead.
That new report was triggered specifically by Colorado’s landmark legislation in 2019 that adopted sweeping economy-wise carbon reduction goals for 2025, 2030, and 2050.
An economist, Dickson has a master’s degree from Oxford and, according to her LinkedIn profile, seems to speak Chinese. The thesis for her undergraduate degree was an analysis of Chinese citizens’ investment habits.
She’s a researcher for Rethink Priorities, a consultancy that tries to help organizations identify what resources would be most effective in addressing animal welfare, climate change, and other causes.
“A lot of the things I’ve worked on involve climate change,” she said in an interview with Big Pivots several days prior to the committee hearing. “I have worked on carbon management technology from that perspective. That is why I was so eager to work on this when I went into the Legislature this year.”
Told that Sen. Chris Hansen had been engaged in something similar, she went to him to solicit interest in a co-sponsorship.
“It was a pretty easy conversation,” she reported.
Dickson in the interview stressed the stopping of further emissions and then actually removing emissions from the air. “There are a lot of potential solutions here, and we shouldn’t leave any stone unturned,” she said.
When this reporter suggested she expect an 8-3 vote along party lines, the three Republicans on the committee all in opposition, she said she reserved hope. One of her bills, regarding work force transition, had gained unanimous Republican support in its committee hearing, she noted.
In this case, though, she was wrong—although Rep. Ty Winter, a rancher from the natural-gas rich Las Animas County whose district extends from Trinidad to the Kansas border, did tell her that he appreciated her efforts to consider the needs of his rural constituents.
“Respectfully no, but I appreciate you thinking about this stuff,” he said in explaining his vote.
Dickson had said that many of the people who would most benefit from and take advantage of the new technologies would be rural people “and people whose jobs are being affected by the transition away from fossil fuels.”
In her opening pitch to the committee, Dickson emphasized both the emergency and the opportunity.
“We really need to set our sights on a net-zero goal very soon,” she said. Colorado, she went on, has an abundance of resources to achieve this, both solar and wind, but potential geologic reservoirs, underground geological formations where carbon emissions can be stowed with some confidence that they will not find their way to the surface. The Canon City Embayment is the most prominent such geological formation in Colorado, but there are others.
Dickson also talked about Colorado’s highly-educated demographics but also the workers being disrupted by the new energy economy. This bill, she said, recognizes the need for guardrails to consider environmental justice. She talked about extensive conversations with environmental and labor groups, and the potential to create well-paying jobs.
This will not pose a cost to Colorado. “I also think there is something to be said for doing our part for the climate crisis and because it’s the right thing to do.”
Where this will go, she acknowledged, is unclear.
“We don’t know what it will look like over the next couple of decades. It could end up being a serious positive for our economy here. We have so many advantages.”
And her takeaways:
“This is the first step in making Colorado the national and even global leader in carbon management,” she said.
“We need to push down the cost curve by learning by doing,” she said, anticipating one counterargument.
Dickson’s bill did get pushback, primarily from the hardest-core environmental activists who, in an unusual way, found common ground with the Legislature’s most ardent climate change denier.
Rep. Ken DeGraaf, who is from Colorado Springs, used the occasion to again suggest that carbon dioxide is not a problem to human health until it gets to be something like 12,000 parts per million. And, he suggested when quizzing witnesses, wasn’t this an extravagant cost for Colorado to attempt to trim emissions when it would make very little difference anyway on a global scale?
Morey Wolfson, who has been in Colorado’s environmental trenches for about 50 years, had testified that carbon removal is extravagantly expensive.
“Here’s the math,” he said. To reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, now at 420 parts per million, by just one part, will require removal of 8 billion tons at a cost of $100 per ton. That, he said, will cost $800 billion. “Your state budget is $42 billion.”
“There are so many inexpensive ways to not put carbon into the atmosphere in the first place,” he said.
Jan Rose, from the Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate, warned that the bill lacked the guardrails needed when moving carbon dioxide around in a gaseous form. She also suggested room for missteps. “I see red flashing signs that say Solyndra,” she said,
referring to California solar company that filed for bankruptcy in 2011, defaulting on $535 million in federal loans.
Leslie Glustrom, testifying on behalf of Clean Energy Action, urged amendments to recognize risks. “If your pipeline breaks, your local concentrations are high enough to kill you,” she warned.
“Prioritize public health and safety first” before enabling companies to chase the Q4 tax credits delivered by the Inflation Reduction Act, she said. The IRA provides tax credits designed to encourage innovation of carbon-removal technologies.
Glustrom also warned against “group think behavior”—a statement again seized upon by DeGraaf, who reporting seeing a “large degree of group think” in play.
Wolfson, too, warned of the “bandwagon effect.”
“Those who support carbon dioxide removal and carbon capture and sequestration, 99% have not done the math that I am talking about,” he said. “I have read thousands of articles, and only 1% of the articles ever tell you that removing 1 ppm will cost you $800 billion.”
Several other witnesses pushed back. Christopher Neidl, who describes himself as a carbon removal evangelist from Austin, Texas, downplayed the the threat from leaks from pipelines.
“They’re not exactly an enormous health threat,” he said. He urged approval of the bill so that “Colorado is in the front of the line instead of being a taker of the technology when it comes.”
Individuals from a new organization called the Signal Tech Coalition also testified. “We are not going to meet our climate goals without carbon removal technologies,” said Quinn Antus, the co-founder and executive director.
The Polis administration has also endorsed the bill’s contents. Keith Hay, the senior director of policy at the Colorado Energy Office, called it an “important first step” to reduction of emissions from economic sectors of Colorado’s economy that will be particularly difficult to decarbonize.
“It sends a signal to the marketplace that Colorado is serious about creating a marketplace for the technologies and that jobs that come with it,” he said. He also noted a “number of Fortune 500 companies that are looking to move into a state with carbon capture technologies.”
Representatives from the Blue-Green Alliance; Healthy Air Water Colorado; Boulder County; Colorado Communities for Climate Action; and Xcel Energy also testified in support. The Xcel rep said that this was among the technologies that it is monitoring and evaluating.
Dickson wrapped up her case by citing a study by Lazard, the consultancy, that found solar prices had dropped 99.5% between 1975 and 2019. ($115/watt to 27 cents/watt). On-shore wind dropped 70% from 2009 to 2021.
The cost of this large-scale drawdown, she said can’t be known now. “But I would guess—and I think a lot of the data show—that the more we try, the cheaper it is going to be.”
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As the votes were taken, there was one interesting additional interplay.
McGraaf dismissed the value of such work. He also said he was “just not a fan of government interference in the market, as was brought up with the Solyndra example that was cited. I am not a fan of government picking winners or losers.”
Rep. Mike Weissman had a lengthy response. He addressed the roadmap and the “very broad spectrum of potential technologies,” and suggested there will be “downstream policy choices and investment choices that we could make.”
Then he addressed the idea of markets free of policy choices. “Frankly, we never have had a free market for energy policy in this country in a couple of key perspectives. We have never adequately internalized the cost of pollution with anything we do, and that’s why we are here today. We have also made policy choices, from the very earliest phase of our country in terms of subsidizing different things.”
Weissman then went on to describe various policies from the opening of federal lands for coal extraction beginning in 1840 to the Energy Act of 2005 that all, in some way, subsidized fossil fuel extraction and use.
“And on and on and on and on,” he continued.
“The question is not whether policy has something to say what about how the market works and energy, but what we say.”
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