In September, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—often considered to be Appalachia’s largest city—played host to the first Global Clean Energy Action Forum (GCEAF) held in the United States. This conference brought together government officials, international organizations, private sector CEOs, and various policymakers to discuss “rapid innovation and deployment” with regards to energy transition. At the conference, individuals such as Bill Gates, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, John Kerry, the Biden administration’s climate envoy, and Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), went on stage to promote public-private partnerships as a means to achieve a lower-emissions energy future. However, outside the conference, a coalition of local environmental groups from “front line” communities criticized the technologies that the conference promoted, arguing that they were expensive diversions from renewable energy options with less harmful effects on the region.

Goals of the Conference

Some of the goals of the GCEAF on “Rapid Innovation and Deployment” included  “focusing on actions that deliver a low-cost, zero-emissions energy future that provides opportunities for all,” and “featuring net-zero goals and clean energy transitions.” In line with the theme, United States Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm opened the conference, and her discussion on clean energy technologies, with her catchphrase: “deploy, deploy, deploy.” Although the conference featured speakers who discussed a wide-range of clean energy technologies, many seemed to highlight technologies aimed at decarbonizing heavy industries like steel, cement, shipping, and aviation. For example, Graholm announced the U.S. Energy Department’s launch of programs aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions in steel, cement, transportation, and other high-emitting industries. The justification for this policy is that heavy industries account for 30% of carbon polluting emissions. “For the sake of our health and the health of the planet, we must slash carbon pollution from the industrial sector,” Graholm said.

At the conference, Granholm also announced $4.9 billion in funding for carbon capture and storage systems. In general, carbon capture technologies are those that reduce CO2 emissions from new and existing coal- and gas-fired power plants and large industrial sources. These technologies apply a three-step process that includes capturing CO2 from power plants or industrial sources, transporting the captured CO2 (usually in pipelines), then using underground injection or geologic sequestration (storage) to store the CO2 in underground rock formations.

Backlash Against the Focus on Carbon-Capture Technologies

Outside of the conference, local environmental activists denounced the technique for capturing carbon emissions from smokestacks, calling it “an expensive diversion that would promote the continued extraction of oil and gas.” These activists argue that rather than on the promotion of these “false solutions,” the focus should be on pursuing less harmful energy options, like wind and solar power. In Appalachia, where such a high percentage of the energy industry relies on traditional fossil fuels, providing funding for these industries rather than on renewables does little to address the harm that fossil fuels cause to the region.
On one hand, with such a large focus of the conference being on public-private partnerships aimed at decarbonization, activists raise a good argument. Why should the government direct such large amounts of funding towards fossil fuel industries that seek to continue burning coal and gas? Especially when the government could try to enact legislation requiring such industries to cut-back carbon emissions themselves. Some argue that the money saved thanks to the funding received to improve carbon capture technologies will be spent on expanding operations, thereby perpetuating existing reliance on fossil fuels. On the other hand, funding any sort of decarbonization programs will help reduce emissions on a national scale.

In the end, it may be true that a shift away from extractive industries would be the better option to promote clean energy, reduce toxic pollution, and create better environmental conditions in Appalachian communities. However, funding carbon capture technologies will also have an identifiable impact on reducing industrial greenhouse gas emissions. When viewed at face value, this will have a positive impact on the national scale, but the goals of the conference reflect a short-sightedness that may serve to slow clean energy transition in the Appalachian region.