Factory emitting smoke

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In the race to remove the trillion tons of excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the treatments we choose for this problem ought to at least be slightly better than the problem itself. We have proposed solutions on the table, but the carbon dioxide removal (CDR) landscape is complex, risky, and fairly untested. From the financial sector, experts say that the commercial viability of CDR calls for more exploration and more capital. In geopolitical spheres, only fairly modest steps have been taken toward taxing carbon emissions. At least for now, CDR is still beset by questions of implementation, cost, and scale - questions that might be at odds with the kind of nimble decision-making that the climate crisis seems to call for. 

Within the general CDR category is a range of solutions called negative emissions technologies. Many of these known technologies remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere naturally through photosynthesis. Afforestation (planting of trees) is one of the most straightforward.

The costliest of the negative emissions technologies (and one that does not use photosynthesis) is direct air capture (DAC), according to MIT senior research engineer, Howard J. Herzog, who has been studying the field of CDR for 30 years. DAC, an energy-intensive process of removing carbon from the atmosphere through various filtration methods, is having a bit of a star turn. Originally invented to filter out exhaled CO2 aboard spacecraft 20 years ago, DAC separates carbon dioxide directly from ambient air. The carbon dioxide is then either stored underground or used in a complementary process. Critics of DAC say it requires large-scale systems that will take the geoengineering of vast amounts of land to accommodate its pipelines. Another criticism is that DAC will funnel funding away from other climate solutions, in particular renewable energy. Moreover, investment analysts have suggested that making DAC cheaper won’t drive the wide adoption of this technology. 

In recent months, nevertheless, the fossil fuel sector has made some major public moves on DAC. Two traditional energy companies, White Energy and Occidental announced a joint carbon capture project. The largest private investments thus far are from Occidental Petroleum and Chevron (US $68mil) to Carbon Engineering Ltd. Carbon Engineering Ltd. has also accepted funding from an Australian mining company BHP (US$6 million) and is working with Occidental Petroleum’s subsidiary, Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, to build the world’s largest DAC facility in the Permian Basin in New Mexico.

This summer, ExxonMobil announced a partnership with the California-based Global Thermostat to look at the scalability and viability of its DAC facilities. Global Thermostat’s Chief Technology Officer Peter Eisenberger directed Exxon’s Physical Sciences lab through most of the 1980s. Though no ExxonMobil funding is in the offing, at least publicly, Global Thermostat has raised funds from other sources.

The timing of all this activity suggests that carbon capture legislation may be an incentive. According to researcher S. Julio Friedman at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, policy incentives are critical for the growth of CDR investments.

To that end, Carbon Engineering Ltd. is going after a subsidy available from a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) Program in California.

Among the first of tax credits to unlock a flow of capital for carbon removal is the 45Q tax policy, which offers credit for the capture and geologic storage. The 45Q credit is expected to benefit power plants, factories, and ethanol producers. Meanwhile in the U.S. Senate, a carbon capture bill (S. 383) is building off the success of last year's changes to the 45Q tax credit. S.383 supports carbon dioxide utilization and DAC research to facilitate the permitting and development of carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration projects along with carbon dioxide pipelines.

Sasha Mackler, who directs the energy project at the Bipartisan Policy Centre in Washington, says legislation is the lever that controls how fast and how far CDR can go. “The size of the market will depend on the ambition of our climate policy,” he says.

Mackler’s hunch is that recent oil company investments are probably motivated by the market opportunities they now present. “We haven’t done our analysis on this yet, but when we look at the initial conditions, what we see are commercially practical decisions . . . that will position these companies well for the future,” says Mackler. “I think that’s part of their calculus.”

“In terms of improving the energy market, these traditional companies can be great partners for resources and connections,” says Tito Jankowski, a carbon capture entrepreneur who uses the carbon dioxide capture process to fabricate consumer products. “Traditional fossil fuel companies are not necessarily an enemy here.”

Jankowski founded AirMiners.org, an index of CDR developers that includes Global Thermostat and a long list of others still in experimentation phases. One startup is building an efficient marine microalgae farm; another is working on a zero-emissions cookstove with plans to capture the carbon dioxide in a lime solution.

With its history of handling enormous amount of capital and moving gasses and fluids around at high volume, the fossil fuel sector may indeed have the skills base needed to help build a carbon dioxide removal infrastructure. And when you need all hands on deck, who has time for enemies?

Specifically, however, ExxonMobil seems a questionable ally in this tragedy of the commons. First ExxonMobil faced allegations that it knew the risks of climate change and defrauded its investors by misrepresenting the risks. Now the Attorney General of New York plans to set a legal precedent that would make ExxonMobil accountable for part of the cost of transitioning to a 100% renewable energy economy. If the prosecution is successful, the company’s future influence may be diminished.

Though the burgeoning carbon removal sector may look like a trillion dollar opportunity, the real quest is to discover which solutions can scale up quickly enough to reduce carbon dioxide levels before 2050. Incentives may drive down the high cost of DAC in the near future, but as all consumers know, cheaper can be the enemy of the best. No single solution has yet emerged as the catalyst from which all carbon removal standards will commence.

This article is a preview of the kind of content you'll find in Alternatives Journals' Invest in Change issue (slated to be released in October)

Jennie is an independent journalist focused on evidence-based fixes in mental health and climate adaptation. She's interested in social program initiatives that we can steal, scale and replicate.

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