July 17, 2017

Time to Wake Up: CCUS, Carbon Fee, and Miners

Mr. President, there was an interesting press conference earlier today in which I joined with Senator Heitkamp, Senator Capito, and Senator Barrasso on a common piece of legislation that will help address climate change. That does not happen often, so it was a good sign.

This is not a comprehensive solution. It may not even make much of a measurable difference, but it will make some difference. It will help drive America’s technological edge, and it will help, as it gets implemented, reduce our carbon emissions. It was very good to be working with those Senators.

The fundamental problem we face with carbon capture and utilization and the reason so little of it now happens is economics. There is a flaw in the market economics related to carbon capture utilization and sequestration. Here is the flaw: There is no business proposition for stripping out the carbon dioxide, and in a market economy, if no one will pay for something, you don’t get very much of it.

 Lindsey Graham and I flew up to Saskatchewan to see Boundary Dam, a carbon capture plant at a coal-powered electric generating facility where they are removing the carbon dioxide by running the exhaust from the plant through, essentially, a cloud of amines. They are able to sequester closing on 80 percent of the carbon, and they use it to pump out and into nearby oil fields to pressurize the oil to facilitate extraction. Up in Saskatchewan at Boundary Dam, they have proved that the technology works, and where they are, with a little financing help from the Province, the economics work also.

Unfortunately, not every coal-burning plant is on an oil field where the carbon dioxide can be used for extraction. Other than the facility in Saskatchewan, there is not a lot going on, on this continent. The Illinois facility collapsed, the facility in the South just collapsed, and there is one in Texas that is going on. But the bill the four of us got together on—which would be to create a tax credit paid for each ton of carbon that is captured and utilized or sequestered—could really make a difference. Knowing those credits are out there is the kind of reliance industry needs in order to invest in the technologies to make this happen.

Of course, a real market for carbon reduction technologies ultimately requires putting a price on carbon emissions. We can fiddle around with payments for reduced carbon, but ultimately a price on carbon is the sensible economic solution. I think that is pretty much universally agreed by economists. Everyone agrees that carbon dioxide emissions are not a good thing. Everyone also agrees that carbon dioxide emissions are free to emitters now, so we get a lot of them.

A harmful thing that is free to the emitter is called, in economic terms, an externality. It is an externality because the cost of the harm is external to the price of the product. A basic tenet of market economics is that the cost of a harm should be built into the price of the product that causes the harm.

It is basically an economic version of being polite. If you throw your trash over into your neighbor’s yard instead of paying for your trash collection, well, your neighbor has to clean up your mess and you are being really rude—a bad neighbor.

In essence, that is what the fossil fuel industry has been doing with their carbon dioxide emissions for years—not paying to clean them up, dumping them all into our common atmosphere and our common oceans, making their neighbors pay because they don’t want to pay for their own waste.

Like that bad neighbor, they have come up with various excuses: Oh, it would be too expensive for us to pay for our trash collection. Or, our trash is actually good for your yard; it kind of composts it a bit. You will love it. It is better for you to clean it up.

Then there is my personal favorite: If you make us take care of our own waste, we will beat you up—politically, at least, which is why the fossil fuel industry spends so much money on politics, just to be able to make that threat credible. And around here, boy, is it credible. It explains virtually fully our failure as an institution to address this patently obvious problem that our own home state universities are telling us is real. From Utah to Rhode Island, the universities we support and root for, know and teach climate science.

Anyway, I have a carbon price bill that would cause a technological boom in carbon capture and carbon utilization because, at last, there would be a reason to pay for it, and the free market could get to work. American ingenuity could get to work. With that market signal and with funding from revenues that the fee would generate, we could actually extend the life of existing coal plants being shuttered by competition from natural gas, by stripping their carbon dioxide emissions so that they actually didn’t do the damage that they are doing now, they stopped throwing their trash into their neighbors’ yard, and they paid for trash collection. The technology needs to be there and the economics need to be there, and then it can be done.

We really ought to pass the carbon fee bill. I would add that the carbon fee bill also creates a lot of revenue. We, I think, have agreed that revenue ought not go to fund the government—not to make Big Government—but there are other things we can do with it that would be very helpful. One would be to make coal country whole for the economic losses coal country has sustained.

Remember Huey Long’s old slogan: ‘‘Every man a king.’’ We could make every miner a king—with a solid pension, retirement at any time, full health benefits for life for the family, a cash account based on years worked, a voucher for a new vehicle, a college plan for their kids. It all becomes doable if we pass a carbon fee and use the revenues to help coal country. Otherwise, nothing will change.


Coal country will just keep suffering as natural gas keeps driving coal out of the energy market. There is no mechanism now to remedy that inevitability. People will suffer. There is a remedy right there—a carbon fee—that can help fund and encourage the development of the technologies so that we can strip the carbon dioxide out of the emitting power plants and so that we can go into these coal countries where pensions and benefits have been stripped by bankruptcy, by the collapse of this industry, and make those folks whole again.

Give them their dignity. Let them retire now. It is not their fault that the coal industry has collapsed. They worked hard. They did dangerous work. They went down in the mines. They worked big equipment. It is a dangerous occupation to be a coal miner, and it is entitled to respect. Retire any time, full health benefits for you and the family, a cash account to help, a new vehicle voucher, a college plan for the kids, to make sure they are well educated—you could do a lot of those things. You could help those people pass a carbon fee and make every coal miner a king.

In the meantime, I am willing to find funding to flip the social cost of carbon—the way we did in our bill, announced today—and create a positive fee, a tax credit for carbon capture and carbon utilization. I am willing to work with Republican colleagues to find a way to pay our nuclear fleet for the carbon-free nature of its nuclear power.

It is crazy to be closing safely operating nuclear power facilities just because they get zero economic value for the carbon-free nature of their power. The carbon-free nature of their power has value. The carbon-free nature of power has significant value. That is why we are offering in our legislation a tax credit of $30 to $50 per avoided ton of carbon dioxide emissions. That implies that an avoided ton of carbon dioxide emissions is worth $30 to $50.

If nuclear power avoids that, I am willing to work with my Republican colleagues to figure out a way so that our nuclear fleet can enjoy the actual economic advantage of the carbon-free power they produce.

We close a nuclear plant so we can open a natural gas plant which pollutes more than the nuclear plant because the economics are so fouled up that the nuclear plant gets no value for carbon-free power and the natural gas plant pays no costs for the harm of its carbon emissions. It is economic madness.

We know that carbon-free nature has value. We know that the carbon-free nature of nuclear power has value. We just will not pay for it, and plants close due to that market failure, and jobs are lost, and power is lost, and new investments have to be stood up in polluting plants to make the difference. It is crazy.

In closing, the Heitkamp-Whitehouse-Capito-Barrasso bill, the FUTURE bill, to provide a tax credit for carbon capture utilization and sequestration in power plants, in factories, and in a variety of applications, is small. It is in some respects a gesture, but everything begins with small steps and small gestures. I am proud to be a part of it, but I want to remind my colleagues that there are also big win-win ways that we can solve the larger problem. I look forward to working together to accomplish just that.

I yield the floor.