From Regulator to Industry Insider: The Troubling Transition of Neil Chatterjee

In a move that has reignited the debate around the so-called “revolving door” between government and industry, Neil Chatterjee, a former U.S. energy regulator appointed by Donald Trump, has joined the board of directors at CarbonCapture Inc. This company specializes in technology to capture and store carbon dioxide, a process touted by some as a solution to climate change but criticized by others as a “false solution” that perpetuates reliance on fossil fuels.

Chatterjee’s career has spanned significant roles, from advising U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on energy policy to serving as chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) under Trump. His tenure at FERC was marked by decisions that expanded oil and gas infrastructure, contributing to the very carbon pollution he now aims to combat. Critics argue that Chatterjee’s shift to CarbonCapture Inc. underscores a broader issue of former regulators leveraging their government experience to advance the interests of industries they once oversaw.

CarbonCapture Inc. hails Chatterjee’s appointment, emphasizing his “deep ties in Washington and across the industry” as crucial for navigating the challenges of scaling up carbon capture technologies. The company is at the forefront of developing direct air capture (DAC) machines, designed to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it underground or utilize it in various industrial processes. Despite the innovative approach, the technology faces significant hurdles, including high energy requirements, the use of toxic solvents, and concerns over the safe storage of captured carbon.

Critics, including Food & Water Watch, highlight the pitfalls of relying on carbon capture as a primary strategy for addressing climate change. They argue that it diverts attention and resources from essential actions like phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable energy. The fact that a significant portion of captured CO2 is currently used for enhanced oil recovery, a process that injects CO2 into wells to extract more oil, further fuels skepticism about the technology’s role in a genuinely sustainable future.

Chatterjee’s pivot to the carbon capture industry raises questions about the motivations behind such moves and the potential for conflicts of interest. His previous skepticism of government interventions in the energy market seems to have dissipated in the face of lucrative subsidies for carbon capture provided by legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act. This act, celebrated by CarbonCapture Inc.’s CEO as a “bonanza” for the industry, underscores the critical role of government support in making carbon capture a viable solution.

This situation exemplifies the complex interplay between industry ambitions, government policy, and the urgent need for effective climate action. As companies like CarbonCapture Inc. benefit from government subsidies and pre-sold carbon removal credits to major corporations seeking to offset their emissions, the broader implications for climate policy and environmental justice remain hotly contested.

Chatterjee’s journey from a pro-industry regulator to an industry insider epitomizes the challenges of navigating the ethical and practical dilemmas at the heart of America’s energy and environmental policy. As the debate over carbon capture and other climate solutions continues, the need for transparency, accountability, and a commitment to genuine sustainability has never been more critical.