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Candidates For Montana U.S. Senate Seat Campaign On Carbon Capture

Colstrip power plant
Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
The Colstrip Steam Electric Station seen from the Rosebud mine property on Oct. 2, 2020.

For years, Montana’s political leaders have been advocating for technology that traps carbon at power plants and other industrial sites. So far, carbon capture has seen a slow start. The two candidates facing off for a Montana U.S. Senate seat in the upcoming November election recently highlighted their carbon capture initiatives.

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette toured both the Colstrip coal-fired power plant and Rosebud mine this month. He came at the invitation of Sen. Steve Daines, who told reporters that carbon capture has great potential in Colstrip and Montana.

"It’s a proven technology, it’s worked in other places around the country," Daines said. "And it’s going to take a partnership, because it’s capital-intensive, between the federal government, the State of Montana and the operations here.”

Carbon capture is the extraction of carbon dioxide emissions from industrial activity, thereby preventing the carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. For example, a coal power plant could extract carbon from its emissions and transport it to be stored underground.

While there are pipelines to transport carbon and operations centered on other types of industrial activities, there aren’t any commercial-scale carbon capture operations currently active at coal power plants in the United States.

Colstrip coal-fired power plant operator Talen Energy says it’s evaluating the potential use of carbon capture technology at the plant’s two remaining units, and there are a number of technical, economic and regulatory issues to resolve.

Daines is backing several bills aimed at tackling some of those barriers.

"We’ve got to create a leveler playing field," he said.

One of the bills Daines signed onto would require the Department of Energy to research and analyze carbon sequestration, carbon use and storage, on top of forming a demonstration project in the U.S. It loops in a requirement for the DOE to develop new technologies that make natural gas and coal resources more efficient, affordable and sustainable.

Another bill Daines co-sponsored aims to accelerate the permitting process for infrastructure like carbon dioxide pipelines.

It would also direct the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a program that would put money and research into direct-air capture technology that may produce commercial products, like fuel, from carbon in the atmosphere.

While Daines strives to dedicate more federal funding and manpower to carbon capture research and development by signing onto legislation, his opponent in his race for reelection, Gov. Steve Bullock, is trying to rally states together behind the goal of building out more infrastructure in the United States.

On the same day that Daines toured Colstrip, Bullock announced Montana will join a coalition of other states in a memorandum of understanding to create a carbon capture action plan within a year from October 2020.

Tom Kaiserski with the Montana Department of Commerce is the current project lead in Montana. He says the memorandum of understanding is still in development.

"They’re trying to bring more states onto it right now, so they’re still working on that, and each state is trying to put together sort of a plan for the deployment of transportation infrastructure. So, time will tell how that plan all develops," says Kaiserski.

This is one of multiple carbon capture groups Bullock has been involved in.

In 2015, Bullock formed a carbon capture and enhanced oil recovery work group with representatives from 14 states. It studied barriers to implementation and supported a federal tax incentive for carbon capture. While Congress passed that updated tax credit as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, the Internal Revenue Service only released initial guidance for it this year.

Bullock’s office says the states who sign onto the memorandum of understanding would collaborate to put resources into developing large-scale infrastructure like pipeline networks that carry carbon away from its capture site and toward a secure storage area underground.

The memorandum of understanding includes plans to support carbon capture in Congress and through state-level policy. States that have already expressed interest include Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

Texas-based consultant and geological engineer Steve Melzer advises regulators and members of the oil and gas industry on carbon-based industrial activities like carbon capture.

From a policy point of view, Melzer says accelerating the permitting process could be helpful.

He also says there's a need for more carbon transport across the United States, and a CO2 pipeline in the southern part of Montana is a start.

“And so, you’ve got a grand advantage right there in that a lot of the technology’s been addressed that is needed," he says. "The next step would be to try to interconnect that pipeline with some other underground fields in Montana that could store CO2.”

Melzer says cost is the biggest barrier to implementation. Carbon capture and storage is a pricey business. That extends to the up-front costs of installing the technology infrastructure and the continual cost of extracting carbon.

Melzer says direct air capture, which Daines supports funding and researching through legislation, is one of the more expensive mechanisms.

"The economics of moving all of that air past the capturing compounds is a real, real economic challenge," he says.

Melzer says direct air capture companies could make their operations work if a state provides a large enough incentive, like California has done with its low carbon fuel standard credit. Melzer says the federal tax credit, which offers incentives to companies to capture carbon and store it permanently underground, helped make carbon capture more economically feasible.

He also says the oil and gas industry is financially stressed right now, and companies are looking for longevity and stability in projects they pursue.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.