Dr. Jennifer Wilcox
Biography for Jennifer Wilcox, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy and Carbon Management
more by this author

Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Jennifer Wilcox, and I am the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management at the U.S. Department of Energy.

It’s an honor to be giving an update to the Arctic Circle Assembly on some of the work the Department of Energy is doing to combat climate change, especially in the areas of carbon capture, air capture, and other carbon management strategies.

As all of you now know, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth assessment report in August, and the news is very disturbing. Absent deep reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, average global temperatures will exceed 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

Clearly, we have a shrinking window of opportunity to limit the harm done to our most vulnerable climate populations, including many living in the Arctic and near-Arctic.

For our part, the Office of Fossil Energy has recently added “Carbon Management” to our name. Our mission centers around research, development, demonstration, and deployment priorities that will pave the way for net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century.

The Biden-Harris Administration has very ambitious climate goals. With the help of technology and incentives, the U.S. economy aims to cut emissions by 50% by 2030, to produce 100% clean electricity by 2035, and to ultimately reach a net-zero U.S. carbon economy by 2050.

To reach these goals, decarbonization has become a cornerstone of President Biden’s strategy. This means we must look at every sector of our economy – from energy to manufacturing to transportation and the service sector – to truly make a difference.

Carbon Capture

Technology approaches like carbon capture – as well as carbon dioxide removal – are critical to this strategy and will play an enormous role over the next decade.

For the last 20 years or so, we in the U.S. have focused our CCUS investments in the power sector, particularly in coal-fired power plants.

But going forward, we will expand carbon capture into the natural gas space, and into industrial sectors like hydrogen production and cement and steel production.

And to do this will require carbon capture coupled to reliable and dedicated storage. 

As a show of our commitment, the DOE’s budget request for the coming year is asking for a 60% increase in investment in research and development for carbon capture, storage, conversion, and removal – up to $368 million in 2022.

Earlier this year, we made available $75 million for R&D and front-end engineering and design (FEED) studies for carbon capture and dedicated storage on natural gas power plants and industrial facilities

And just last week, DOE announced an additional $45 million in funding for 12 projects to advance point-source carbon capture and reliable and dedicated storage.

These approaches are designed to capture up to 95 percent of CO2 emissions from natural gas plants and steel and cement makers.

The question often asked in the United States is that once this carbon is captured – what do you do with it?

Just last month, the world has noticed that the largest direct air capture plant in the world – Orca – started operating only a few miles outside Reykjavík.

While this project is currently starting small, capturing 4,000 tons of CO2 a year, this effort will provide the framework for future plants to be built at a lower cost, through learning by doing, ultimately leading to the scaleup of this emerging industry, which is a critical tool for achieving net-zero.

Already, there is talk of expanding the plant’s capacity 10-fold within the next several years because there is so much demand globally for this technology and for offsetting carbon emissions.

And Orca’s capture and geological storage model is just one example of ways to deal with carbon once it’s captured. CO2 can be converted to high-value products like fuels and chemicals or even long-lived products like synthetic aggregate or concrete for construction.

And while we continue to rely on fossil fuels to meet our energy demands in the U.S. today, we’re working toward minimizing their environmental impacts in addition to decarbonizing our existing infrastructure.

Products like synthetic fuels can lock C02 away temporarily, and they come with the benefit of lessening our reliance on crude oil extraction for these same products.

In addition, for producing synthetic fuels and chemicals with CO2 as a feedstock, the sourcing of low-carbon hydrogen will be critical. There is significant potential in applying carbon capture to help advance a cost-effective and low-carbon hydrogen economy.

In fact, one of our four major demonstration projects with CCS in Port Arthur, Texas, has successfully combined carbon capture with steam methane reforming to produce hydrogen.

For a single production stream, this project captures over 90 percent of the CO2 for clean hydrogen. And this project has captured and injected over 7 million tons of CO2 deep underground since 2013.

Hydrogen is used today primarily for refining and fertilizer, but it’s potential to becoming part of a clean energy economy as a chemical feedstock in synthetic fuels or directly as an energy source, is growing.

So, there are many examples showing that we know how to do this.  But we need to act more quickly, and we need to think more broadly.

We need to think about the supply chain – the natural gas that goes into the steam methane reforming unit, which is not leak-tight today.

In general, when we examine fossil fuel extraction – whether it’s coal, oil, or natural gas, we have to recognize that methane emissions are associated with these resources. 

And this is why we’re also investing in approaches to reduce methane leakage associated with fossil fuel production and its transport.

This approach takes us beyond the idea of just drawing a box around a unit that emits carbon. We need to draw the box much larger to include the supply chains that go into these units, whether producing energy or making a product.

So, what we’re looking at is stacking many approaches together to achieve deep decarbonization. 

Carbon capture will play an essential role in this effort. We can leverage data from the increasing number of investments that we’ve made from carbon capture on coal to carbon capture from natural gas power plants, or steel or cement production facilities.

But it’s clear that to achieve net-zero, we will need carbon dioxide removal methods to take CO2 from the pool in the atmosphere that has been accumulating since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

And that’s where the Department of Energy’s direct air capture initiative plays an important role.

Direct Air Capture

If this were a decade or more ago, we could have perhaps focused on just deep decarbonization by itself, but we are in a place where it’s simply too late for that.

We now need to start taking CO2 directly out of the atmosphere. This is a reality that is directly linked to the legacy of our dependency on fossil fuels.

Recent studies from the National Academy of Sciences to the International Energy Agency reported that by 2050, humanity would have to remove  on the order of gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year through direct air capture to achieve carbon-neutral goals.

And because carbon dioxide removal takes CO2 out of the air, which is more than 100 times dilute compared to point sources, the process is ultimately more expensive and can use more of Earth’s limited energy resources – like land, low-carbon energy, and in some cases water.

In Orca’s case, the ability to use carbon-free electricity generated by geothermal energy is among its most attractive features.

Additionally, and impressively, the dissolved CO2 from the plant, when injected into basaltic rock, becomes mineralized in only two years, meaning that its trapped underground permanently.

These results show just how viable and valuable carbon capture and storage technology has become. It will give companies and countries great confidence that the technology being developed in Iceland can be duplicated elsewhere.

But no technology is perfect for every situation, and replicating the combination of factors — access to water and basal  in addition to low-cost and low-carbon energy — at other locations may be challenging.

It’s possible to store CO2 in other geological formations where they don’t necessarily turn into rock in the near term, but ultimately do store the CO2 at scale and in a reliable and durable fashion – like depleted oil and gas reservoirs, and saline aquifers of which there many high-quality candidates in the U.S. and around the world.

But using zero-carbon energy is key. Otherwise, the process can generate more CO2 than it stores.

For this reason, we must be responsible for ensuring that direct capture is not used to offset emissions that can otherwise be avoided, such as decarbonizing fossil fuels.

Carbon dioxide removal should be decoupled from fossil industries and used to offset TRULY hard-to-abate sectors like the agricultural sector, some parts of shipping, and aviation.

And in our office, we’re leveraging our expertise in carbon capture to invest in direct air capture approaches using chemicals, minerals, and even biological systems to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.

And concerning carbon storage specifically, our goal is to broaden the availability of certified resources for geologic storage in regions that have known storage capacity – but also in areas where the storage potential is more prospective.

And we aim to expand carbon storage demonstration to have more projects distributed in U.S. locations where CO2 injection deep underground is feasible today.

The Challenge

Back in 2012, I wrote the first textbook specifically on carbon capture, and since then, there has been a lot of creativity and invention regarding carbon capture technology.

Yet emissions globally have grown almost every year since, so our mission – and the work required to achieve it – is more urgent than ever.

Governments have a critical role to play here, as does the private sector, and the non-governmental sector, in moving forward on the same page toward the goal of net-zero carbon by 2050.

And this is why what the Arctic Circle Assembly is doing to help solve climate change is so important. Your commitment in support of carbon capture and direct capture helps bring together stakeholders from across the Arctic region and around the world.

And it’s important to view this activity for what it is: the response to an emergency, both globally, and closer to home.

As John Kerry, the former U.S. Secretary of State and current Special Presidential Envoy for Climate said when he received the Arctic Circle Prize from this forum in 2019: “The ability of future generations to be able to adapt and live and prosper in the Arctic in a way that people have for thousands of years is in jeopardy.”

We have very little time left to avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change on our planet. The climate crisis threatens our people, communities, public health and economy, and to be even more direct – our ability to live on planet Earth.

My message today to you is that we have a unique opportunity – and a compelling responsibility – to help tackle the climate crisis and advance a net-zero, clean energy economy.

Together with non-governmental organizations around the world and individuals on their own, nations have met great challenges in the past regarding making the environment safer and healthier.

I have great confidence in our collective ability to meet this great challenge, and I want to thank you again for inviting me to share my message with you.

I look forward to leveraging our collective expertise, passion, and drive to achieve a greater impact in this space. 

Thank you.