Occidental Petroleum and Others Investing In Direct Air Capture With Government Support

emissions come from a power plant

(Credit: Canva Pro)

by | Aug 29, 2023

emissions coming from smoke stacks at an industrial facility.

Can we suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, and if so, at what cost? Is it worth it, especially if alternative carbon-free fuel sources and natural solutions exist?

Those are critical questions as the U.S. Department of Energy will invest $3.5 billion to build four so-called direct air capture facilities. Those plants can arrest CO2 in the atmosphere before burying it or using it to make industrial materials like cement. It’s an embryonic and expensive technology.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the agency is investing $1.2 billion in two demonstration projects in Louisiana and Texas that will remove 2 million metric tons of CO2 annually. While that is the equivalent of taking 500,000 cars off the road, it is a pittance of the annual emissions: 35.8 billion, the International Energy Agency said.

“These two projects are going to build these regional direct air capture hubs,” Granholm said at a press conference. “That means they’re going to link everything from capture to processing to deep underground storage, all in one seamless process.”

Carbon capture is a risk. Many argue the same money should go into supporting cleaner fuels. But the reality is that the world will still depend on fossil fuels. Technology development is henceforth unavoidable if we are to meet the challenges presented by climate change.

An earlier National Climate Assessment said national governments must invest in the technology to yank CO2 from the atmosphere — to sequester it from ambient air. The risk of catastrophic climate change is so significant that it will affect every dimension of human life — from energy production to water availability to infrastructure development.

To that end, Swiss-based Climeworks and California’s Heirloom are teaming up to win an Energy Department grant. The former now has the largest direct air capture project globally in Iceland. The latter has a smaller demo in California. As far as the one in Iceland, it sucks out 4,000 metric tons yearly.

Meanwhile, Occidental Petroleum qualified for an Energy Department grant and said it will spend a billion dollars on a similar technology in Texas.

“Capturing CO2 from the air is the most expensive application of carbon capture,” the International Energy Agency said. “The CO2 in the atmosphere is much more dilute than in, for example, flue gas from a power station or a cement plant. This contributes to direct air capture’s higher energy needs and costs relative to these applications.”

Can We Get There in Time?

Helena serves as a brain trust to solve climate issues — one that brings together financial, intellectual, and political capital. It works explicitly with Climeworks to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere — after it has left the smokestack.

Climeworks’ goal is to remove 1% of the world’s total annual CO2 emissions by 2025 — or 10 billion tons of CO2 each year by 2050. Currently, the CO2 is captured and used for plant life. But companies must capture and sequester that CO2 to have a tangible impact on mitigating the effects of climate change. And that’s hard right now because it costs $600 to remove a ton of CO2. But Climeworks says it will get that down to $100 a ton in a few years.

“The emitting has gone on so long and has reached such scale that to avert a 2-degree rise, we need carbon capture and sequestration to be implemented across the globe,” said Sam Feinburg, chief operating officer and executive director of Helena. “We used to ask if this is feasible,” he continued, in an earlier interview. “Now we know it is imminently feasible but the bigger question is, ‘will we get there in time.’ “It is very important that the world embrace this at scale. It is embryonic now. It will get there. We will accelerate that timeline.”

But nature is another option. And the global community is getting a benefit by letting the rainforest naturally absorb carbon. Between 2005 and today, rainforest nations have prevented 9 gigatonnes of CO2 from being emitted. (One gigatonne is 1 billion metric tons.)

The rainforest nations collectively need at least $100 billion to save their trees. In other words, they need the developed world to invest in their countries so they do not have to chop down their forests. If the world’s most advanced economies don’t properly value rainforests, the host nations will have to rely on that land for logging and agriculture.

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