Republicans love this one climate change plan -- but can it save us?

What if our smokestacks could help us clean up the air?

What if our smokestacks could help us clean up the air? Associated Press

Senator Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat, went to Washington in part because of her ability to build bridges. That goes literally for her dogged work in the wake of the I-35 bridge collapse in 2007, and figuratively when it comes to reaching across the aisle to work with her Republican counterparts.

One of the sticking points between Democrats and Republicans has been how to address climate change -- and, indeed, if we should address climate change and whether climate change even exists. But Smith is now championing a new climate change mitigation bill even a Republican could love.

It’s all thanks to two magic words: carbon capture.

Our climate is changing in large part because we keep belching carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every time we use, say, fossil fuels. The hope is that we can “capture” some or all of that carbon before it reaches our atmosphere at all.

How do we do this? Well, there are old-school methods, trees being the oldest method of them all. They absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and release oxygen as a byproduct. We could always plant more trees to offset some of our emissions, but more recently, we’ve developed technologies that can capture carbon dioxide before it even exits a smokestack, and store it in rock formations several kilometers below the surface of the earth. Over time, it turns to stone.

This bill -- the Carbon Capture Modernization Act -- is designed to make that prospect more attractive to people who own smokestacks; namely, with tax credits. In fact, tax credits for big businesses’ carbon capture projects already exist, but for the last decade, the expense of carbon capture technology was so prohibitive that businesses weren’t really biting.

“It’s technically feasible, but it’s not widely commercialized,” Minnesota Rural Electric Association CEO Darrick Moe says. There are a few carbon capture projects already in place in Minnesota, and Minnkota Power Cooperative – which owns eight co-ops in the state – is interested in developing a carbon capture program it’s calling “Project Tundra.”

These days, some direct-air carbon capture systems -- which pull carbon right out of the air -- cost as little as $100 to $200 per ton of carbon, which is still pricey, but not untenable. Now that the technology is a little cheaper -- and the language of the new bill makes it easier for smaller businesses to get a piece of the action, too -- Smith’s office is hoping more people will get on board.

That could spell good news for the battle against climate change. If businesses somehow rapidly adopted these new policies, Smith’s office says, the carbon offset would be the equivalent of taking about 7 million cars off the road.

Which is exciting. Until you remember that there are nearly 300 million cars zooming around the United States today, not to mention around a billion worldwide. Then it seems like small potatoes.

So Smith’s office wants to be clear: Carbon capture is not a silver bullet. It’s just one of “a thousand flowers” that must bloom in tandem if we’re going to see our way out of our climate crisis. What makes it so attractive to Smith is its bipartisan appeal.

Republicans have been quietly supporting measures like carbon capture for a few years now, Forbes reports. Carbon capture, as they see it, is the key to keeping the fossil-fuel industry alive in a post-climate change world. The Republican-controlled Congress even slipped a carbon capture tax break -- better known as 45Q -- into the folds of the 2018 budget bill. If there’s a way to support the oil and gas industry and get brownie points for saving the planet, Republicans are generally into it.

There’s some cautious optimism in Smith’s office. The bill isn’t a done deal yet -- it still needs a sponsor in the House before it gets anywhere, and it’s difficult for anything to get anywhere in Congress these days.

But even one flower blooming in a thousand is better than none.