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Fossil fuels play a role in Biden's climate fight: White House advisor

Akiko Fujita
·4 min read
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The Biden administration pledged Thursday to slash U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least half of 2005 levels in the next nine years.

The Nationally Determined Contributions or NDC, as defined by the Paris Agreement nearly doubles the previous target set under the Obama administration, but White House Domestic Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy said she still sees a clear role for fossil fuels, the dominant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, McCarthy said the continued use of fossil fuels was necessary to ensure a smooth but gradual transition to clean energy, adding that carbon capture and sequestration technology would "no question" be a critical tool to offsetting emissions in the meantime.

“The transition is going to take some time,” she said. “The president doesn't want to take things off the table. He wants to invest in what's available today, recognizing that the future will be won by the country that gets to the finish line on clean energy first, and he certainly wants the United States to be that country.”

Biden is looking to reclaim U.S. leadership on climate change, hosting a two-day virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, involving more than three dozen world leaders. The White House sees the gathering, which includes Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin as a rare opportunity to recommit to curbing greenhouse gas emissions and convince other world leaders to take aggressive action.

Biden has already set some of his climate ambitions in motion, in an effort to decarbonize the U.S. economy by 2050. His infrastructure proposal calls for $174 billion to expand electric vehicles, and the establishment of a clean electricity standard, that puts the country’s electricity grid on a path to be carbon free by 2035.

In this April 19, 2021, photo, President Joe Biden speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
In this April 19, 2021, photo, President Joe Biden speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

But McCarthy made it clear that carbon free, doesn’t necessarily mean a break from fossil fuels. She said the administration is under no illusion about the challenge to go all green.

“We think there's every opportunity to actually look at a variety of ways of moving forward with clean energy, but also to look at carbon capture and sequestration so that we can make the technologies available to every utility as we move forward,” she said.

Put simply, carbon capture technology involves capturing carbon dioxide emissions from industrial processes and burying them deep underground. Critics contend the process is too expensive, too underdeveloped, and too slow to catch on. Climate activists argue the technology detracts attention away from the critical steps necessary to reduce harmful pollutants. But major sectors, including the oil and gas industry have increasingly touted the technology as a way to tackle climate change, while keeping plans to drastically reduce fossil-fuel extraction at bay.

Investing in carbon capture and storage tech

Last month, Exxon Mobil (XOM) announced a $3 billion investment in low-carbon technology including carbon capture. In a recently released climate framework, The American Petroleum Institute (API), the largest trade and lobby association for fossil fuels, urged the commercial deployment of carbon capture to be fast-tracked, while calling for carbon pricing as a way to lower emissions.

“This plan addresses not just what the government should do, but what the industry is committed to do to reduce our own emissions,” said API President and CEO Mike Sommers, in an interview with Yahoo Finance Live. “Innovation in this case means investment in particularly carbon capture and storage technologies, and we're excited that many of our member companies are stepping up to the plate now to make sure that they're investing in these technologies.”

McCarthy is keenly aware of the pushback from the industry and Republican criticism, that the president’s green energy push will come at the expense of job losses in a sector that employs nearly 10 million people. The American Jobs Act sets aside $16 billion to help fossil fuel workers transition to green jobs.

“[Biden] is not just looking at the communities that have been left behind that need benefits. He's also recognizing with his eyes wide open, that there has already been a transition,” she said.

While the White House has yet to identify drastic reductions in the country’s fossil fuels supply, McCarthy said the administration is quickly moving to assess oil and gas leases on federal lands, after the president paused contracts earlier this year. She expects to have a report done "very shortly."

“We’re going to be looking at how we can restart that leasing program in a way that makes sure that as public lands are tied up, that they're being used productively, but also that the states are being paid a fair revenue from that land that's being occupied,” she said. “We're not right now in a shortage of leases. There's plenty of them out there. That's part of the challenge.”

Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita