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Virus Stimulus Bill Mandates Pointless Pollution Study

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The new coronavirus relief bill, which has been coupled with an omnibus bill for the budget to make a gargantuan mess of congressional spending, includes a provision mandating that the Department of Energy issue a report in six months on how much carbon must be removed from the atmosphere by 2050.  This seems to be a waste of time and money that will result in nothing but headlines. It will only serve to mislead and confuse debates over pollution. 

The bill, which Congress passed on Monday, reads, in part, “The Secretary of Energy… shall prepare a report that estimates the magnitude of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that will need to be removed by 2050 to achieve net-zero emissions and stabilize the climate.” In other words, this provision requires the Department of Energy to:  

  1. Measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere;  
  1. Attempt to forecast how much carbon dioxide will be added in the next 29 years;
  1. Attempt to forecast how much carbon dioxide will naturally go away in the next 29 years;
  1. Determine a baseline amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for a “net-zero” standard and to reach a conclusion about “excess” carbon dioxide; 

  1. Determine how much carbon dioxide can be in the atmosphere to “stabilize the climate;” 
  1. Publish all of this in a report that sounds authoritative. 

Such a report, rushed in only six months, would do nothing but confuse Americans and provide headlines, presumably about a need to take drastic steps. The time limit—only six months—is a clear sign that this report will be a political project and not a scientific analysis. Congress is not looking for a full analysis in which scientists observe actual phenomena and record data. Instead, Congress is looking for a timed news story. This report will be completed by the end of June, so its conclusions will be available at least for peak hurricane season a couple of months later. 

Another issue with this report is the section about identifying the “magnitude of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that will need to be removed by 2050.” What does Congress mean by that? This is a vague and meaningless statement and it is doubtful any legislators even know. As Senator Rand Paul pointed out, Congress was tasked with voting on the bill the same day its members received it, even though it would take an average American more than 77 hours to read. 

Perhaps the report is intended to be used to garner support for new funding for carbon capture initiatives. Carbon capture and storage technology does exist, and is in use, to some extent. However, most of the successful carbon capture plants don’t remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but rather capture the emissions from industry before they are emitted. Many are actually built and used by the oil industry for enhanced oil recovery. In this process, CO2 is captured from industrial plants and is then injected into oil reserves to help recover more oil.

Direct air capture technology is pioneered by companies like Carbon Engineering in Canada, which counts investors such as Bill Gates. It is a process of scrubbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. A timeline for effective, large scale commercialization is unknown.

Maybe Congress believes that carbon capture technology will be improved by 2050? Or maybe Congress intends to plant millions of trees that will naturally intake carbon dioxide. More importantly, how can the United States be in charge of removing carbon dioxide from the world’s atmosphere while several other countries—in particular, China—increase carbon emissions rapidly. 

 There is a need to study pollution, and the United States government has been doing that for years in a variety of agencies. However, nothing about this provision or this rushed report promises new knowledge or realistic solutions. It will likely produce a few good headlines, though.

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