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Why capturing carbon is an essential part of Biden’s climate plans

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Shuchi Talati


President Biden’s early climate efforts prioritized popular actions: rejoining the Paris agreement, purchasing clean energy and vehicles, and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. But the administration’s strategies to drive the nation toward net-zero emissions also lean heavily, if less obviously, on a touchier area: capturing or removing huge amounts of the carbon dioxide driving global warming.

In July, the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy tacked “and Carbon Management” onto its name, signaling a distinct shift in an agency traditionally focused on developing more efficient ways of extracting fossil fuels and converting them into energy. Now, the central goal of the office, backed with around 750 federal employees and nearly a billion-dollar budget, is to develop better, cheaper ways to clean up climate polluting industries.

Shuchi Talati, chief of staff at the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management.

COURTESY PHOTO

New priorities include: advancing technologies and techniques that can prevent CO2 from escaping factories and power plants, remove it from the atmosphere, turn it into new products and store it away forever.

The office placed several researchers focused on these issues into leadership roles, including naming Shuchi Talati chief of staff. She’ll oversee many of the changes in the agency alongside Jennifer Wilcox, the principal deputy assistant secretary. Talati was previously the deputy director of policy at Carbon 180, a proponent of carbon removal and recycling, and a fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

President Biden’s agenda is also playing out in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which the Senate already passed. It provides billions of dollars to develop direct-air capture plants that can suck CO2 out of the air, pipelines to move it around, and sites where it can be buried in geological formations deep underground.

Many in the climate movement argue that carbon capture is a distraction from the core mission of eliminating fossil fuels as quickly as possible. And the field is littered with failures, including a variety of Department of Energy-backed boondoggles like the nearly $2 billion FutureGen clean coal project.

But research finds it will be far harder and more expensive to eliminate emissions and prevent dangerous levels of warming without carbon capture and removal, particularly in heavy industries where few other options exist. And the number of successful commercial projects is growing around the globe, curtailing the emissions from steel, hydrogen, and fertilizer plants.

In the interview that follows, I asked Talati what role carbon capture should play in our response to climate change and how the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management is working to accelerate progress in the field.

The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why was it important to shift or expand your office’s mandate?

When it comes to climate goals, especially net zero, carbon management has an increasingly important role to play. That means not only dealing with our continued emissions, but recognizing that for every type of fossil fuel that’s burned we have to manage the carbon that comes with that.

Ensuring that those two were connected in the name of our office is important to how this office does its work and how it’s perceived. Because we don’t want to do any work on fossil fuels that is not related to mitigating the environmental impacts associated with it.

How does the Department of Energy see carbon capture and storage specifically fitting into the broader effort to accelerate decarbonization and address climate change?

Where we can transition to renewables, we want to make those choices. But where we can’t, CCS [carbon capture and storage] has a really important role to play. With industries like cement, we know that CCS is absolutely essential to capturing those emissions.

We can capture not only the emissions from the actual energy that’s needed, but the emissions released during the production process, where there are no other mechanisms to prevent that CO2. CCS is just an incredibly versatile way to capture emissions from a lot of these hard-to-decarbonize sectors.

When it comes to the power industry, looking at natural gas, especially, there are a lot of natural gas power plants that are not scheduled to retire until after 2035, which is after our 100% clean electricity goal. That represents over 200 gigawatts that is going to continue operating with natural gas. So to enable that to be clean, CCS is really the only option.

I want to say too, for natural gas, we’ve never actually demonstrated this technology before. So if we really want to understand the true costs and what commercialization will really look like, we need to first invest in demonstration. That’s really what our office could do.

Many climate activists consider support for carbon capture akin to granting a social license for the fossil fuel industry to continue operating. How do you respond when you hear people raise those concerns?

I understand where a lot of these critiques are coming from. This has not been an industry that has been necessarily straightforward. And I think the fact that it’s coupled to the fossil fuel industry is really challenging, and that’s something that we are grappling with.

But I think when it comes to the committed infrastructure we have, and especially looking at the industrial sector—where it’s not necessarily about the fossil fuel industry, but about creating products that we know we’re going to continue to need, like concrete—we have to think about what that means for emissions, and getting to zero. There really are no other options.

The role of our office, and the role of the federal government, is to ensure that we’re doing this properly and creating an industry that is responsible and building the environmental safeguards around this technology that might not have existed in the past. 

You mentioned the role carbon capture can potentially play for natural gas plants that are going to continue operating for decades. But do you anticipate carbon capture playing a role in the building of new electricity generation energy going forward?

Honestly, I think that’s really dependent on the market and how private companies are viewing their investments.

We are only supportive of abated fossil fuels, so when it comes to building new natural gas, our support is very dependent on whether that CCS infrastructure is there. And I think a really important component of that, too, is reliable storage. Right now, a lot of CO2 is used for enhanced oil recovery [freeing up remaining oil from wells] and we want to make sure that we are helping to build a durable storage infrastructure, around geologic reservoirs and around CO2-to-products that have long duration storage, like building materials.

Even if this can be an effective tool for cement plants or for some element of existing natural gas plants, there’s still a reasonable fear that there could be fudging here. That emissions could leak out more than companies are saying, both from plants themselves or from extraction sites, or because carbon storage sites don’t work as effectively as hoped. How can we ensure that the industry does these things in reliable ways?

I think that’s the role of our office, and I think that’s the role of this administration. I totally agree. I think we need to ensure that reliable storage is actually working. We have experience in terms of the way CO2 has been stored in depleted oil and gas reservoirs, but we don’t have as much experience with saline aquifers [permeable rocks filled with salt water].

We need to do demonstration projects. We need to have [monitoring, reporting, and verification] capabilities that we trust, that are robust, and that work at scale. And that takes investment from the government and really dedicated capacity.

I think, too, our infrastructure has leaks all throughout the supply chain for natural gas. So that is actually one of the priorities we listed in our upcoming budget: reducing methane.

That means changing the way our office has often worked in the past. We want to shift the conversation to having the least environmental impacts possible from the extraction that’s happening.

The infrastructure bill that’s moving forward includes funding for direct-air capture plants. What role does the Department of Energy see carbon removal directly from the air playing in the efforts to address climate change?

It’s incredibly exciting that this is the biggest investment in carbon removal in history. The fact that we are recognizing the need to have focused demonstration funds for direct-air capture is the absolute first of a kind globally. And so [the Department of Energy] plays a really important role in helping to invest in these early technologies, to demonstrate them and to really be able to help private companies leverage the incredible work that they’ve done in this space.

When it comes to direct-air capture, these demonstrations are incredibly expensive. And $3.5 billion dollars doesn’t actually go as far as most people think that it might.

We are incredibly excited about this technology. But there are others that I think merit equal focus, like enhanced mineralization [developing ways to accelerate the natural process by which certain types of minerals capture carbon dioxide].

When we talk about engineered carbon removal, I think enhanced mineralization hasn’t quite had its moment in the sun yet. [Direct-air capture] is the first thing that comes to mind—and we want to change that. Enhanced mineralization has incredible capacity to scale.

How do you feel about the tension, or if there is a tension, between scaling up carbon removal, but also being mindful of the potential limits on our ability to do it?

That’s an incredibly important question.

Carbon dioxide removal should not be applied in cases where we can reduce emissions other ways. For companies, that means reducing their emissions through energy efficiency, or electrification, or whatever those other ways might be. Avoiding emissions first is always the priority. Always. Because it’s going to be cheaper, it is going to be more efficient to do that. Carbon removal is hard. It’s expensive. And the industry doesn’t exist yet at scale.

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How the idea of a “transgender contagion” went viral—and caused untold harm

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How the idea of a “transgender contagion” went viral—and caused untold harm


The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it arrived at exactly the time people with bad intentions were looking for science to buoy their opinions.

The results were in line with what one might expect given those sources: 76.5% of parents surveyed “believed their child was incorrect in their belief of being transgender.” More than 85% said their child had increased their internet use and/or had trans friends before identifying as trans. The youths themselves had no say in the study, and there’s no telling if they had simply kept their parents in the dark for months or years before coming out. (Littman acknowledges that “parent-child conflict may also explain some of the findings.”) 

Arjee Restar, now an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, didn’t mince words in her 2020 methodological critique of the paper. Restar noted that Littman chose to describe the “social and peer contagion” hypothesis in the consent document she shared with parents, opening the door for biases in who chose to respond to the survey and how they did so. She also highlighted that Littman asked parents to offer “diagnoses” of their child’s gender dysphoria, which they were unqualified to do without professional training. It’s even possible that Littman’s data could contain multiple responses from the same parent, Restar wrote. Littman told MIT Technology Review that “targeted recruitment [to studies] is a really common practice.” She also called attention to the corrected ROGD paper, which notes that a pro-gender-­affirming parents’ Facebook group with 8,000 members posted the study’s recruitment information on its page—although Littman’s study was not designed to be able to discern whether any of them responded.

But politics is blind to nuances in methodology. And the paper was quickly seized by those who were already pushing back against increasing acceptance of trans people. In 2014, a few years before Littman published her ROGD paper, Time magazine had put Laverne Cox, the trans actress from Orange Is the New Black, on its cover and declared a “transgender tipping point.” By 2016, bills across the country that aimed to bar trans people from bathrooms that fit their gender identity failed, and one that succeeded, in North Carolina, cost its Republican governor, Pat McCrory, his job.  

Yet by 2018 a renewed backlash was well underway—one that zeroed in on trans youth. The debate about trans youth competing in sports went national, as did a heavily publicized Texas custody battle between a mother who supported her trans child and a father who didn’t. Groups working to further marginalize trans people, like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, began “printing off bills and introducing them to state legislators,” says Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it arrived at exactly the time people with bad intentions were looking for science to buoy their opinions. The paper “laundered what had previously been the rantings of online conspiracy theorists and gave it the resemblance of serious scientific study,” Branstetter says. She believes that if Littman’s paper had not been published, a similar argument would have been made by someone else. Despite its limitations, it has become a crucial weapon in the fight against trans people, largely through online dissemination. “It is astonishing that such a blatantly bad-faith effort has been taken so seriously,” Branstetter says.

Littman plainly rejects that characterization, saying her goal was simply to “find out what’s going on.” “This was a very good-faith attempt,” she says. “As a person I am liberal; I’m pro-LGBT. I saw a phenomenon with my own eyes and I investigated, found that it was different than what was in the scientific literature.” 

One reason for the success of Littman’s paper is that it validates the idea that trans kids are new. But Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins and author of Histories of the Transgender Child, says that is “empirically untrue.” Trans children have only recently started to be discussed in mainstream media, so people assume they weren’t around before, she says, but “there have been children transitioning for as long as there has been transition-related medical technology,” and children were socially transitioning—living as a different gender without any medical or legal interventions—long before that.

Many trans people are young children when they first observe a dissonance between how they are identified and how they identify. The process of transitioning is never simple, but the explanation of their identity might be.

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Inside the software that will become the next battle front in US-China chip war

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screenshot of KiCad software for circuit board design and prototyping


EDA software is a small but mighty part of the semiconductor supply chain, and it’s mostly controlled by three Western companies. That gives the US a powerful point of leverage, similar to the way it wanted to restrict access to lithography machines—another crucial tool for chipmaking—last month. So how has the industry become so American-centric, and why can’t China just develop its own alternative software? 

What is EDA?

Electronic design automation (also known as electronic computer-aided design, or ECAD) is the specialized software used in chipmaking. It’s like the CAD software that architects use, except it’s more sophisticated, since it deals with billions of minuscule transistors on an integrated circuit.

Screenshot of KiCad, a free EDA software.

JON NEAL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

There’s no single dominant software program that represents the best in the industry. Instead, a series of software modules are often used throughout the whole design flow: logic design, debugging, component placement, wire routing, optimization of time and power consumption, verification, and more. Because modern-day chips are so complex, each step requires a different software tool. 

How important is EDA to chipmaking?

Although the global EDA market was valued at only around $10 billion in 2021, making it a small fraction of the $595 billion semiconductor market, it’s of unique importance to the entire supply chain.

The semiconductor ecosystem today can be seen as a triangle, says Mike Demler, a consultant who has been in the chip design and EDA industry for over 40 years. On one corner are the foundries, or chip manufacturers like TSMC; on another corner are intellectual-property companies like ARM, which make and sell reusable design units or layouts; and on the third corner are the EDA tools. All three together make sure the supply chain moves smoothly.

From the name, it may sound as if EDA tools are only important to chip design firms, but they are also used by chip manufacturers to verify that a design is feasible before production. There’s no way for a foundry to make a single chip as a prototype; it has to invest in months of time and production, and each time, hundreds of chips are fabricated on the same semiconductor base. It would be an enormous waste if they were found to have design flaws. Therefore, manufacturers rely on a special type of EDA tool to do their own validation. 

What are the leading companies in the EDA industry?

There are only a few companies that sell software for each step of the chipmaking process, and they have dominated this market for decades. The top three companies—Cadence (American), Synopsys (American), and Mentor Graphics (American but acquired by the German company Siemens in 2017)—control about 70% of the global EDA market. Their dominance is so strong that many EDA startups specialize in one niche use and then sell themselves to one of these three companies, further cementing the oligopoly. 

What is the US government doing to restrict EDA exports to China?

US companies’ outsize influence on the EDA industry makes it easy for the US government to squeeze China’s access. In its latest announcement, it pledged to add certain EDA tools to its list of technologies banned from export. The US will coordinate with 41 other countries, including Germany, to implement these restrictions. 

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Bright LEDs could spell the end of dark skies

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a satellite view of Earth on the hemisphere away from the sun with city lights visible


A global view of Earth assembled from data acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite.

NASA

Specifications in the current proposal provide a starting point for planning, including a color temperature cutoff of 3,000 K in line with Pittsburgh’s dark-sky ordinance, which passed last fall. However, Martinez says that is the maximum, and as they look for consultants, they’ll be taking into account which ones show dark-sky expertise. The city is also considering—budget and infrastructure permitting—a “network lighting management system,” a kind of “smart” lighting that would allow them to control lighting levels and know when there is an outage. 

Martinez says there will be citywide engagement and updates on the status as critical milestones are reached. “We’re in the evaluation period right now,” she says, adding that the next milestone is authorization of a new contract. She acknowledges there is some “passionate interest in street lighting,” and that she too is anxious to see the project come to fruition: “Just because things seem to go quiet doesn’t mean work is not being done.”

While they aren’t meeting with light pollution experts right now, Martinez says the ones they met with during the last proposal round—Stephen Quick and Diane Turnshek of CMU— were “instrumental” in adopting the dark-sky ordinance.


In recent months, Zielinska-Dabkowska says, her “baby” has been the first Responsible Outdoor Light at Night Conference, an international gathering of more than 300 lighting professionals and light pollution researchers held virtually in May. Barentine was among the speakers. “It’s a sign that all of this is really coming along, both as a research subject but also something that attracts the interest of practitioners in outdoor lighting,” he says of the conference.

There is more work to be done, though. The IDA recently released a report summarizing the current state of light pollution research. The 18-page report includes a list of knowledge gaps to be addressed in several areas, including the overall effectiveness of government policies on light pollution. Another is how much light pollution comes from sources other than city streetlights, which a 2020 study found accounted for only 13% of Tucson’s light pollution. It is not clear what makes up the rest, but Barentine suspects the next biggest source in the US and Europe is commercial lighting, such as flashy outdoor LED signs and parking lot lighting. 

Working with companies to reduce light emissions can be challenging, says Clayton Trevillyan, Tucson’s chief building officer. “If there is a source of light inside the building, technically it’s not regulated by the outdoor lighting code, even if it is emitting light outside,” Trevillyan says. In some cases, he says, in order to get around the city’s restrictions, businesses have suspended illuminated signs inside buildings but aimed them outside. 

Light pollution experts generally say there is no substantial evidence that more light amounts to greater safety.

For cities trying to implement a lighting ordinance, Trevillyan says, the biggest roadblocks they’ll face are “irrelevant” arguments, specifically claims that reducing the brightness of outdoor lighting will cut down on advertising revenue and make the city more vulnerable to crime. The key to successfully enforcing the dark-sky rules, he says, is to educate the public and refuse to give in to people seeking exceptions or exploiting loopholes. 

Light pollution experts generally say there is no substantial evidence that more light amounts to greater safety. In Tucson, for example, Barentine says, neither traffic accidents nor crime appeared to increase after the city started dimming its streetlights at night and restricting outdoor lighting in 2017. Last year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed crime rates alongside 300,000 streetlight outages over an eight-year period. They concluded there is “little evidence” of any impact on crime rates on the affected streets—in fact, perpetrators seemed to seek out better-lit adjacent streets. Barentine says there is some evidence that “strategically placed lighting” can help decrease traffic collisions. “Beyond that, things get murky pretty quickly,” he says.

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