Episode 182: Carbon Management and the Energy Transition with the Department of Energy's Dr. Shuchi Talati
Today's guest is Dr. Shuchi Talati, Chief of Staff, Office of Fossil Energy & Carbon Management at the U.S. Department of Energy. Dr. Talati explains her position at the Department of Energy and why she dedicated her career to CDR (Carbon Dioxide Removal). We dive into the role of fossil fuels, carbon removal, nuclear energy, and offsets as climate solutions, and where policy fits into the climate puzzle. Dr. Talati is an incredible guest!
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For starters, just talk a bit about the work that you do at the DOE both personally and the department that you're a part of just to give some context to listeners?
So I'm the chief of staff of the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management at the Department of Energy. I joined the administration on January 20th. So I've been here almost a year and it's been incredibly exciting and incredibly chaotic, but I think in, definitely a good way. I think this administration and just so you know, all the people who have joined it are just so excited to do good work and DOE is at the center of that. And so when I joined as chief of staff, you know, my priority was to really think critically about the role of fossil fuels or the fossil fuel industry and also to think about carbon banishment, what that means as we strive towards that zero by 2050.
And so, you know, really important pieces of that include frontline communities that have borne the brunt of the fossil fuel industry and those impacts, but also communities that have been huge parts of the labor input that have gone into both coal mining, natural gas extraction, and also, you know, the workers at these power plants. And so really thinking about what the energy transition means for both of these kinds of communities and how we can do the best work possible for them and for climate.
In terms of the mandate for the department, is it really focused on policy or other, other levers that are in your purview?
So the Department of Energy is largely an R&D organization and really focusing on innovation and also demonstration and, and deployment of really critical technologies across the energy space. There are applied program offices like Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, but also offices that really think about what that means outside of the innovation space. Like the Office of International Affairs, the Office of Policy, Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs. And so these are all really important groups of people that are working together for one coherent mission, which is to demonstrate and deploy these critical technologies to solve climate change.
Your early passion was around helping address the problem of climate change and of course, as you talked about the intersection of science and policy, there's such a wide landscape of potential solution areas, what is it that led you to CDR versus anywhere else where you could have anchored?
I think the CDR space when, especially a few years ago, there weren't a lot of people in it. And it was a recognition for me personally, that CDR was gonna be absolutely vital to reaching our climate goals. The entire climate energy space is fascinating and there are amazing, amazing people in all parts of it. And this was one where I thought policy and governance needed more thought and needed kind of more individuals dedicated their time to it. If you look at kind of the governance landscape, it's really tricky. You know, carbon management is, is a very sensitive issue, and thinking through how to do it right, how to do it responsibly, equitably, to ensure that deployment is just and sustainable, takes a lot of policy. That was the reason I really wanted to pursue it and to make sure that I can be part of shaping that.
In terms of the utility of CDR, I mean, it seems that essentially we're taking it out of the air and storing it. Is there any value that's getting created in that exchange? And if so, who pays for it? And if not, then who pays for it?
I think one really critical question is here is who gets to a certain value. And we put value on a lot of things that don't inherently have monetary value. And so at some point it's the role of federal government to pay for these types of removals. Now that said, that as policy does not exist yet and, you know, when it comes to having carbon to, you know, convert or store, some doesn't inherently have any market value, but some do. And so for example, we could utilize carbon right now for building materials which do have inherent value. We can also convert the CO2 into chemicals which have inherent value, but in terms of really thinking through what we need for all the scales that we're talking about, we're really going to have to invest a geologic storage.
And in terms of that having value, it doesn't yet. We need government incentives. Now for, something like 45Q does exist where you get $50 a ton for storing carbon, um, from direct air capture. So we're starting to see those abouts come up. It's really not enough to pay for direct air capture right now. And so hopefully we'll see an expansion if reconciliation does pass to 45Q to enable industries to actually start investing in these spaces and be able to make a profit.
So you're saying that the hope is that the carbon that gets removed can be utilized to create products for example or serve other purposes and that if there were things like solid accounting and mandates and or incentives to motivate companies to balance the carbon books essentially, then that would help this market to form at the scale that it needs to?
Yes, you did. And an interesting thing that we started to see over the last year too, is, is a lot of companies making net zero commitments or even net negative commitments and that means CDR. And so we're starting to see companies themselves assigning value to removing carbon. Now that said, a voluntary offset market is something that is not yet regulated. And so deciding what a real offset means and if we are applying carbon accounting in the best way to those offsets, I don't think that's happening yet. And so I think it does take the federal government to really define what high quality offsets are and how companies and the private industry should be interacting with the market. And I think that's something that is the role of the public sector to have that oversight and to ensure transparency.
Can you talk a little bit about the role that fossil fuels are playing in the global energy system today and the role that they should play in the future and over what time period?
The role of the fossil fuel sector is still a really big one. You know, they contribute the bulk of the fuels to generate electricity today, the bulk of transportation fuels. But as we have a national and global recognition of what our climate targets need to be, we need to be really critical if they think about what the future of the sector is and how it should be framed. From a very personal and out of an administration perspective, whenever we can choose a non-fossil option, we absolutely should because getting to net zero means that mitigating emissions is our absolute priority. And so if we can not build something that uses fossil fuels and uses solar energy, we would 100% should.
Now there are sectors where that's not possible. For those spaces, we have to make sure that we are doing the cleanest version of fossil fuels possible. I think an example of that, that plays a role in the kind of the global market right now that's deeply controversial is LNG. So obviously there is an international dependence on the US exporting LNG, but our natural gas supply chain isn't clean. And so we need to really focus on mitigating methane emissions to ensure their national gas supply chain is leak tight.
I think another example is cement, right? The fuel to actually create cement right now is largely coal. That fuel could change but the process emissions that come from creating cement are not from fossil fuels, but emissions are being created. And so you do need something like carbon capture and storage, even if the fuels might change. And so there are situations where poisons carbon capture really need to play this important role in our net zero framework. That doesn't mean that carbon capture and storage is the biggest part of net zero by any means but to say that we don't need it, isn't true. And I think that the questions are, how do we do it well and how do we do so economically?
Some would say if we don't get off fossil fuels immediately, every minute we're on them longer, we are wreaking havoc from a climate standpoint. And others would say that if we get off them too quickly, we're wreaking havoc from an energy poverty standpoint, can both be true?
I think both are true and I think that's why this is so hard. There's no easy answer. I think we have to be doing everything possible to help climate vulnerable populations and to mitigate emissions to get to net zero, to get to net negative emissions. But we also have to take into consideration those that haven't benefited from the last 150 years of burning fossil fuels either that are only just starting to kind of move towards having energy independence, having society where they have a lot more freedoms. And that's not a decision that the United States should be making in a vacuum.
There needs to be a lot more international participation one, but also conversation focused on the Global South and not conversation about the Global South, but with the Global South. How do they wanna see these changes implemented? Most of the climate vulnerable populations are in the Global South, but those are also the ones experiencing the most energy poverty. We shouldn't be making any of those decisions for them. So how do we have a coordinated conversation where we can help in the best possible way, but not make any decisions for anyone else?
I've heard some people say that when Republicans and Democrats argue about the validity of science or the urgency or the timelines or things like that, that there's actually a lot less disagreement about those things and more about the approach from a solution standpoint. So although that's not what's being spoken, that's what's actually driving the resistance. Do you agree with that perspective and what are the best ways for us to find common ground across both sides of the aisle to put meaningful and durable policy in place?
I think, well, yeah, I agree. I think we're seeing a lot of bipartisan movement in a lot of these technologies. I do think that we have to recognize that we're not as far as we need to be. We should have been at this space 20, 30 years ago and that's not something we can change. But I think there's often a need to say, well, both sides are for those decisions, but I think we need to recognize that this administration is really pushing for these climate solutions. And we absolutely wanna work with our bipartisan partners but we didn't have a net zero by 2050 goal before January.
Having these capitalizing goals, which sometimes might need to come from a particular party or from a particular administration is necessary. That's not to say bipartisan work isn't absolutely critical because it is. There's no way we move forward without bipartisanship and incredibly fateful that we've seen so much of that in the infrastructure package negotiations and in reconciliation. We're obviously not quite there yet. I'm, I'm hopeful that we will be.
But the recognition of how fast we need to move and what we need to do to get there is something we're not quite aligned on yet, but I'm very hopeful that climate and the goals we need to attain don't live at a partisan space anymore. It never should have. Science should never have lived in that space. The scientific method is proven. It's not one that has any sort of political motivation. I think we need to be a lot more conscious about moving this conversation outside of the partisan space as soon as we can.
In that solutions bucket, there's a chorus of people that say that they don't understand why we're not investing much more into nuclear and that nuclear is the best lever we've got and, and then there's a whole bunch of others that say nuclear is bad and nuclear has waste and nuclear is expensive and the US can't build big stuff anymore and if it was gonna be cost-effective, it would have been cost-effective a long time ago, et cetera, et cetera, in a personal capacity, do you have any view on that and what the future should be?
So by no means am I a nuclear energy expert. So I do not wanna pretend that I am. You know, I'll say that the vast majority of our zero carbon energy right now comes from nuclear. And so we should really be conscious of that, but at the same time, nuclear waste continues to be a huge issue. That's not really an answer to your question. That's to saying that I think sometimes we, a lot of people who are making the arguments that you said, kind of dismiss nuclear out of hand.
I think that's really dangerous given how much we depend on it for our current zero, zero carbon energy space. I think the future of nuclear holds a lot of promise. I think there's really interesting R&D in the advanced nuclear space and I don't really think anyone can say what the future of that is. I think that's dependent on investments, depended on breakthroughs, and I don't really think we have the luxury of ruling anything out or say anything can't be part of our net zero plans.
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