The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. Credit: amyashcraft / Flickr / Creative Commons

State Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat from Philadelphia, thinks incentives for carbon capture and storage could win over unions and Republicans.

A Pennsylvania lawmaker thinks carbon capture and storage could be the key to curbing emissions while sustaining the state’s politically important fossil fuel industry. 

“If we’re going to be serious about addressing the existential threat that climate change presents, we can’t just talk about good ideas,” said state Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat from Philadelphia. “We have to put forth legislation that can be implemented and supported by a broad-based coalition.”

In 2004 Pennsylvania passed what was at the time considered an ambitious clean energy law. It required that 18% of the state’s electricity come from “alternative sources” by 2021, including 8% from so-called Tier 1 sources, such as wind and solar. 

But as 2021 approaches, Pennsylvania can no longer claim to be a clean energy leader. Renewable portfolio standards now exist in most states. Many — including California, New York, Maryland, and New Jersey — have set standards to reach 50% renewable energy or higher by 2030.

It’s why Sharif plans to introduce a bill to place carbon capture and storage as a major component of updating Pennsylvania’s renewable portfolio standard. 

Critics note that the technology is expensive — that’s why it has not been widely adopted. But it is technically possible to remove carbon dioxide at power plants and industrial facilities and store it underground or process it into products. Sharif wants to create a new tier of alternative energy within Pennsylvania’s law to “include carbon capture, and some nuclear power,” he said. “We’re also looking to create incentives for both artificial geological sequestration and incentives for natural sequestration” — that means planting lots of trees. Sharif said his plan would also “probably” include some expansion of Tier 1 sources like wind and solar, too. 

“I thought we needed to find a way to address the problem, recognizing it’s unlikely we’ll be able to go 100% no-emissions in the near future,” he said. “I wanted to get us close to net zero as soon as possible.”

‘A bridge’

The idea of incentivizing carbon capture technology has support from unions, whose leaders see it as a way to preserve dwindling coal jobs. Compared to other climate initiatives promoted by Pennsylvania Democrats, it could also get a warmer welcome from Republicans who control the state’s legislature. The state’s decade-long expansion in natural gas production has at times strained the historically friendly relationship between unions and the Democratic Party — with tensions over the job opportunities versus the environmental costs of building new natural gas power plants and pipelines.

Shawn Steffee is executive board trustee and business agent for the Boilermakers Local 154, a union representing approximately 1,500 industrial workers in the Pittsburgh region.

“We are bipartisan,” Steffee said. “I do think carbon capture could be a bridge between Republican and Democrat — progressive and far-right. Cleaning up our environment and keeping our abundant resources alive with coal and gas, we could move forward and maintain being a leader in electricity generation.”

He added the COVID-19 pandemic only serves to highlight the need for onshoring energy-intensive manufacturing.

“Moving forward, after this virus, we know manufacturing will be more important than ever. We’re going to have to bring manufacturing back to this country,” he said. “I’m talking about medical equipment, face masks, and pharmaceuticals. We shouldn’t be relying on another country for products we need.”

Last year, the nuclear power industry tried and failed to amend Pennsylvania’s renewable portfolio standard, sparking an intense political battle over the role of subsidies and the future of the state’s shifting energy landscape. Meanwhile, the federal coronavirus stimulus passed by the U.S. Senate last week does not contain any major provisions for the energy industry. Sharif said he is working to assemble a broad coalition within Pennsylvania to support his carbon capture bill.

“There are folks in organized labor that recognize jobs can be created by moving forward with a clean energy strategy,” Sharif said. “There are folks in the traditional fossil fuel industry that recognize that carbon capture is a technology they’d like to employ. Environmental groups also recognize that climate change is an existential threat.”

Pennsylvania conducted an extensive analysis on the feasibility of large-scale commercial carbon capture and sequestration in 2009 and found the potential to store roughly 300 years’ worth of the state’s emissions.

John Quigley directs the Center for Environment, Energy, and Economy at Harrisburg University. He helped lead the state’s carbon capture analysis when he was secretary of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“The big showstopper for carbon capture is the cost,” Quigley said. 

The 2009 analysis envisioned a large-scale network of carbon capture, which would initially have included retrofitting six coal-fired power plants in central and southwest Pennsylvania. The report put the preliminary capture cost at $43 to $69 per ton of carbon, depending on the technology used, which would have been “competitive compared to both proposed and existing international CCS projects,” according to the report.

The analysis also outlined hurdles, including issues around insurance, the ownership of mineral rights, and legal access to underground storage space. Quigley said the challenges are real, but not insurmountable.

“As it is deployed at scale, cost curves will come down. That’s the history of any technology,” he said. “We concluded a carbon network was feasible. It can be done safely, and Pennsylvania had all the resources it needed to establish that network.”

He said the efforts never materialized because “the clock ran out” on the administration of former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, who Quigley worked under. Rendell’s Republican successor, Tom Corbett, questioned the scientific consensus around climate change.

Quigley is hopeful a renewed conversation around carbon capture could bring together the current Democratic administration, led by Gov. Tom Wolf, and the Republicans leading the state legislature.

“From a policy standpoint, it’s a good idea,” he said. “We are running out of time to avoid catastrophic climate change. Having a serious conversation about decarbonizing the economy is long overdue in Pennsylvania.”

Marie Cusick is a multimedia reporter based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She has covered energy and environmental issues for public media stations in Albany, New York and Pennsylvania since 2011.