Inflation Reduction Act faces daunting challenges

August 24, 2022 4:00 am

Two wind turbines along Highway 20 in northern Nebraska. (Diana Robinson Photography/Getty Images)

The climate war is raging. Will our relentless consumption of energy lead to global catastrophe? How much will the Earth warm?  How fast will it happen? How much more can we take before life on Earth perishes? On the other hand, will human resilience blur the process into one of deliberate adaption and change? So many questions, so few answers.

President Joe Biden has signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which, among other things, makes the largest taxpayer investment in combating climate change in U.S. history. These investments are intended to increase capacities of wind and solar generation and other emissions-reducing technologies. Three separate studies have shown that if the intent of the bill is fulfilled in a timely manner, carbon emissions in the U.S. could be reduced by as much as 40%.

But these reductions could easily be little more than empty political promises. Nebraska is at the forefront of this pending reality.

Bold Nebraska and the Sierra Club have been working with activists and farmers in Nebraska to oppose any efforts to build the pipelines that are needed for carbon capture projects. The Sierra Club has called carbon capture “greenwashing” by the fossil fuel industry.

Apparently, Congress doesn’t share Bold Nebraska’s or the Sierra Club’s vision of this technology.  The Inflation Reduction Act relies heavily on such measures to reduce concentration of the greenhouse gases.  Nearly 20% of the emission reductions would come from carbon capture methodologies.

The collision of “Train Farmer” and “Train Climate” is coming soon to a court near you.  If Keystone XL provides any meaningful lesson, litigation in Nebraska, Iowa and elsewhere will undoubtedly delay development of carbon capture as well as other renewable energy facilities.

Litigation is only one obstacle facing the timely implementation of the new law and achieving its emissions goals. Meeting “net-zero” goals could require America to build as much as one new wind farm and one new solar farm each day, every day, for the next 10,000 days.  That’s over 80,000 acres per day removed from food production. U.S. manufacturing, at its present levels, cannot remotely meet the requirements to build that many new renewable facilities that fast.

Where will industries get all of the raw materials needed for fabricating wind turbine and solar panels? Not in the U.S., which lags far behind the rest of the world in minerals production for clean technologies.  Copper, the most frequently used metal, is predominantly mined in Chile and Peru; cobalt comes from the Congo; and over 80% of the rare-earth elements, critical to wind technology, comes from China. In short, our ability to build wind and solar depends on the stability of foreign governments and U.S. foreign policy. Could Chile or Indonesia become the next Kuwait?

To produce such results would require unprecedented investments in minerals and resources, in construction technologies and in local, state, and federal institutions responsible for permitting such developments. Perhaps, most importantly, these investments would require a prolonged societal commitment, also unprecedented, that has heretofore been absent in the face of any sort of controversy. Even enthusiasm for the “War on Terror” after the 9/11 attacks waned after a few years.  Climate goals span three decades.

If we view climate changes as our enemy, we will always be defeated. Our climate has changed in the past and will continue to change in the future, regardless of man’s good intentions. Carbon dioxide from the production of electricity is a real problem, but it’s only a piece of the climate story. What might matter most is not our carbon policies, which are too often subject to the whims of the political cycle, but whether we invest in adaptive strategies that can serve us well when change inevitably arrives at our threshold.

The Inflation Reduction Act might, in time, prove to be an important piece of climate legislation.  But for now, the optimism for its success must be tempered with the reality of resolving the challenges it faces.

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Barry Butterfield
Barry Butterfield

Barry Butterfield is a civil engineer who worked in the public and private sector for over 40 years. He has done energy-related projects in Colorado, Texas, Minnesota, Iowa and Connecticut. He also worked on two of Nebraska’s more controversial projects, including the Central Interstate Compact Low-Level Radioactive Waste facility near Butte, Nebraska, and the Keystone XL pipeline. He has also done extensive environmental analysis on freight rail projects in Wyoming, Illinois, Texas and Kansas. He has published papers for the American Nuclear Society and Energy Research and Social Sciences, and is an emeritus member of the American Nuclear Society.