Overall, energy experts say that the nation’s focus has to be on shifting funding to renewables, rather than sustaining coal and petroleum with taxpayer handouts. “When we’re talking about stimulus, we should be talking about clean energy,” says Leah Stokes, a political scientist who studies climate and energy policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “And that’s not what’s happening under the Trump administration by any means.”
“The Trump administration has been more focused on bailing out fossil fuel industries than focusing on clean energy,” Stokes adds. Billions in Covid-19 relief money, for instance, have gone to the oil industry. “These are companies that were doing very poorly financially before the Covid pandemic began,” she continues. “And you sink money into it. It doesn’t really go to keeping people employed. It doesn’t really go to innovation and growth. What it does is it pays down debt. Maybe it pays corporate executives right before they declare bankruptcy.”
Should Biden push for a green stimulus similar to 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, it might pump money into the obvious renewable industries, like solar and wild power, but also some up-and-comers. “I would say that a sort of new emerging technology that we didn’t have back in 2009 is carbon capture,” says Snyder. Biden’s clean energy plan, as outlined on his campaign website, “will double down on research investments and tax incentives for technology that captures carbon and then permanently sequesters or utilizes that captured carbon.”
That would include retrofitting existing power plants and industrial buildings with technology that captures their carbon emissions, known as conventional carbon capture and storage (CCS). “Conventional CCS is important for industrial sectors that are really hard to decarbonize,” says Snyder. “For instance, the production of some plastics, hydrogen, ethanol, and ammonia. CCS may also be important for places that have coal or natural gas plants that are difficult to replace without negatively impacting grid reliability. That is, carbon capture can buy time for renewable penetration to increase.”
Another form of carbon capture is known as carbon dioxide removal, or CDR. This kind of technology sucks in air—independent of any power plant or factory—and filters out the CO2. That makes it a carbon-negative technology, because it’s actually decreasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. And that could be critical for the fight against climate change, because humanity can only decarbonize its energy infrastructure so quickly. “When the Paris Agreement set a goal of 1.5 [Celsius] of warming, people started asking, ‘How is that possible?’” says Snyder. “It turns out that without removing some CO2 from the atmosphere, it won’t be possible unless we decarbonize at an implausible rate.”
The tricky bit about carbon capture is that it costs money not only to develop the technology, but also to run the machines to sweep CO2 out of the air. On top of that, it’s hard to then sell a gas that not many people want, so operators often pump it underground. It’s like buying an expensive car and locking it in your garage forever. But with redoubled government financial support—2015’s Freedom Act, signed by Obama, included a tax credit of $50 per ton of captured and sequestered carbon—the cost of carbon capture could continue to fall, which would help pull CO2 from the atmosphere while we work frantically to green up our energy infrastructure.
But while Biden’s plan calls for sequestering carbon, it doesn’t call for the end of fracking—the practice of injecting pressurized liquid deep underground to extract oil or gas—which helps fossil fuel companies pull more carbon out of the earth. In fact, during last night’s debate, Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly insisted that Biden wants to ban fracking, prompting Harris to say emphatically: “I will repeat—and the American people know—that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact. That is a fact.” This is not music to climate activists’ ears: Not only does fracking free up yet more carbon for us to burn and put in the atmosphere, but the process releases methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. Fracking also contaminates drinking water and releases toxic compounds into the air.