New bipartisan legislation seeks to tackle a tough climate challenge: reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. industrial manufacturing sector.
A group of lawmakers in both chambers introduced legislation July 25 to target climate-warming emissions in a broad swath of manufacturing industries—including the production of materials like steel, iron, cement, and petrochemicals, as well as fuels for shipping and aviation.
And the effort already has the backing of major industry trade groups such as the American Chemistry Council that haven’t typically supported climate change legislation. It also has the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers.
“There are fewer obvious solutions in the industrial sector because there are so many differences in the way things are built, powered, transported, and so forth,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the lead sponsor on the bill, told Bloomberg Environment.
But that also means a lot of opportunities for emissions reductions, and “to have the experience at the [Department of Energy] to prowl through that forest of opportunity and find the best ones and help the industry propagate them will yield good results,” Whitehouse added.
Along with Whitehouse, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Mike Braun (R-Ind.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is vying for the Democratic presidential bid, are cosponsoring the bill. Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.), Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), Del. Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-American Samoa), and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), who chairs the House Science committee, are introducing the House companion.
The bill—known as the Clean Industrial Technology Act of 2019—would create a program within the Energy Department dedicated to developing technologies to cut emissions from industrial processes.
That overarching program would coordinate existing Energy Department programs, including research at the national labs, under one hub, as well as provide additional funding for development and deployment.
The measure would also create an advisory committee with representatives from federal agencies, industry groups, labor unions, national labs, and environmental groups that would evaluate the program’s progress every two or three years.
‘Trickiest to Address’
Lawmakers and the bill’s supporters say the legislation would be a critical step toward achieving the deep greenhouse gas emissions cuts scientists say are required to stave off the worst impacts of global warming.
The industrial sector accounts for about 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to a fact sheet on the legislation, pulling data from the Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Department, and Energy Information Administration.
“If we’re going to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, we need to be paying more attention to the industrial sector—it’s seeing the fastest growth in emissions, and it’s one of the trickiest to address,” Jessie Stolark, a policy adviser for the center-left think tank Third Way’s Clean Energy Program, said in a statement to Bloomberg Environment.
The bill would help to focus research efforts at the Energy Department, Stolark said.
The industrial sector doesn’t yet have the clear emissions reductions paths that the power and transportation sectors do, in part because the technologies to cut industrial emissions either still need to be developed or are nascent.
Energy efficiency and carbon capture technologies are two pathways outlined in the bill. But carbon capture, for example, hasn’t yet been commercialized in large industrial applications, such as cement and steel production.
Carbon capture separates the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the emissions of power plants and other industrial facilities so it can be stored or used, rather than released into the atmosphere where it causes global warming.
Many industrial processes also inherently require carbon or the products are carbon-based, making it even more difficult to cut emissions.
In an interview, Casten, who worked in the clean energy industry prior to his election in 2018, recalled working on a project at a silicon plant in West Virginia. Coal, and thus carbon, is a critical part of the chemical process of creating silicon, he said.
“How do you possibly make silicon without coal? And how do you possibly create a solar panel without silicon?” Casten said. Most solar panels are made predominantly with silicon.
“We basically have to recreate what a lot of smart chemists figured out how to do 100 years ago that kind of created the modern manufacturing sector,” he added, a challenge he said is “intimidating” but also “exciting.”
Whitehouse has long been a critic of industry groups, particularly the Chamber, for either actively fighting climate policy or staying silent on it.
The bill pulls together a broad base of supporters, including industry groups like the Chamber, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Chemistry Council, with which Whitehouse often finds himself at odds.
“It seems improbable, doesn’t it? A Sheldon Whitehouse bill supported by those three” industry groups, Whitehouse said.
But Whitehouse said a broad coalition, including fossil fuel companies, industry groups, labor unions, and environmentalists, that he helped to build supporting carbon capture technologies helped pave the way for tackling industrial emissions with a similar set of supporters.
Many environmental groups are also backing the industrial emissions legislation, including the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, Clean Air Task Force, Third Way, Carbon180, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, and the BlueGreen Alliance.
Also backing the bill are the Industrial Energy Consumers of America; the nonprofit research group Information Technology and Innovation Foundation; and the think tank Niskanen Center.
“It feels like a sequel” to the bipartisan effort in 2018 to extend and expand tax credits for carbon capture, Whitehouse said. Capito also sponsored that bill.
“When you have a coalition like that, you want to keep feeding it. You want to keep using it. It’s like having a pipe and not putting things through it,” Whitehouse said.
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