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Carbon Capture Chronicles

In today's issue of "This Week in Climate", we look at a big week for carbon capture.
Julian Moore
Aug 18, 2023 9 min read
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It was a big week for carbon removal as the Biden Administration announced the single largest investment ever made for direct air capture technology. The Energy Department will award $1.2 billion for the Project Cypress DAC installation in Louisiana and the South Texas DAC facility.

Aside from the ten-figure funding, the amount of carbon that these projects expect to capture is extraordinarily ambitious. Both projects said they would capture one million metric tons of carbon in their first year of operation, while the Texas project claims it will pull in 30 million metric tons of carbon per year once it is up and running.

That is orders of magnitude beyond the average 10,000 metric tons of carbon that current DAC facilities capture, and more than 250 times the carbon intake of the biggest existing operation in the world.

As expected, the announcement has been met with its fair share of critics, including those from the communities that could stand to gain as many as 4,500 jobs from the funding.

Director of the Louisiana-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice Monique Hardin told the Guardian that the project would only encourage more pollution from the oil and gas industry that organizations like hers are working hard to clean up after.

It’s an argument against the moral hazard of promoting carbon removal tech to carbon-burning industries that found an echo in a particularly fiery Al Gore Ted Talk last week.

It is hard to argue against this point when it comes directly from the horse’s mouth. At an oil industry conference earlier this month, Occidental CEO said she believes carbon capture will “help to preserve our industry over time”, giving them “license to continue to operate for the 60, 70, 80 years that I think it’s going to be very much needed.”

“Net-Zero Oil”

Then there’s the issue of carbon economics. The market for buying captured carbon dioxide is still in its fledgling stage, meaning that companies that have few options when it comes to selling the carbon they capture. The market received a boost from the 45Q tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act, which offer tax breaks for storing carbon capture underground, or selling it for either Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) or other downstream products.

But To date, the most reliable source of income is still EOR, where carbon dioxide is injected into retired oil wells to squeeze out the last drops of crude at the bottom. That oil is then burned, putting a dent in the carbon solvency of the whole enterprise.

1PointFive, the company behind South Texas DAC, announced a partnership with Occidental last year for a major EOR project. The press statement didn’t mention EOR specifically at the time, but said that Occidental partnership would create the opportunity for corporations to purchase carbon credits and “net-zero oil”.

The Potential Upside

Those are exactly the kinds of euphemisms that make climate advocates want to scream, but it also does not represent the full picture of opportunities for DAC to make an impact on climate change.

Supporters of DAC are quick to point out that carbon removal and emissions reductions are not mutually exclusive. The latest IPCC report made clear that both aggressive reductions and wide-spread carbon removal efforts, including DAC, are necessary to avert the most horrific climate scenarios. Even in a world where human activity isn’t emitting any excess carbon, carbon capture technologies like DAC will play a role.

And while Enhanced Oil Recovery is troublesome from a carbon perspective, alternatives are emerging alongside growing demand for carbon removal. Brooklyn-based Air Company is integrating captured CO2 into making vodka while in Austin, captured carbon is making its way into beer at Austin Beerworks.

Furthermore, while existing DAC technologies certainly have their warts, proponents argue that is all the more reason to accelerate innovation now to improve things like energy requirements and capture efficiency. Funding at the scale of last week’s Department of Energy grant could mean that DAC companies will have more leeway to innovate and iterate on their technology without having to create more partnerships with oil and gas majors to get it done.

New Rules

Regulatory changes should also help accelerate alternatives to enhanced oil recovery for carbon capture companies. In 2010, the EPA created a special class of underground wells known as Class IV wells set aside for the exclusive purpose of storing carbon dioxide and hazardous materials. Wells used for oil recovery are known as Class II wells.

Until recently, only a handful of Class IV wells had been approved, but in the last two years, applications have exploded, mostly from behalf of carbon capture companies looking to cash in on the $180/ton incentive from 45Q.

There are currently 10 applications for Class IV wells under review in Louisiana, which could help give the state a “primacy” privilege to manage the approval and regulation of wells itself, removing one regulatory hurdle for DAC developers. The EPA said it was ready to hand over the keys to Class IV well management to state officials after it passed an environmental justice review.

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The Author

Julian Moore