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Biden administration bets big on giant carbon

Jun 08, 2023

The Biden administration is betting big on giant carbon-sucking vacuums as a climate solution, announcing that it will help jump-start two mammoth projects in Texas and Louisiana that will be a global testing ground for the new technology.

The move positions the United States as a leader in trying to mitigate emissions by installing hulking, costly machinery that aims to pull greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere and bury them underground. The Texas project, led by the Occidental Petroleum Corp., also known as Oxy, already ranks as one of the world’s largest experiments in “direct air capture.”

It will share $1.2 billion in Energy Department funding with a Louisiana project and be designated the nation’s first “hubs” for developing and testing the machinery, administration officials announced Friday morning.

“These hubs are going to help us prove out the potential of this game-changing technology,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during a call with reporters. She said that when the projects are fully operational, they could remove an amount of carbon emissions from the atmosphere that is the equivalent of taking a half-million gas-powered cars off the road.

Mitch Landrieu, a senior adviser to the president, said the direct air capture hubs represent “the largest investment in engineered carbon removal in history.”

The technology, though, remains relatively untested. There are only a handful of direct air capture machines running worldwide at present, and the amount of emissions that they capture is negligible. A U.N. panel rattled the fledgling carbon removal industry in May with a report that warned the vacuums “are technologically and economically unproven, especially at scale, and pose unknown environmental and social risks.”

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But many mainstream climate scientists and environmental economists no longer see the carbon vacuums as a fringe technology distracting from cutting the emissions created by fossil fuel use and other accelerants of global warming. As temperatures rise and prospects for hitting climate action targets diminish, a consensus has emerged at organizations like the International Energy Agency that technology to suck emissions from the air will be an important component to curbing warming.

The Biden administration plans to award a total of $3.5 billion to direct air capture hubs across the country. There are at least 11 projects vying for the cash infusion.

The Occidental-backed South Texas hub follows the oil company’s announcement that it had leased 106,000 acres south of Corpus Christi, a hot spot of oil, gas and petrochemical facilities on the Gulf Coast, to build the direct air capture project. The lease agreement, according to Occidental, will enable it to remove and store up to 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Major polluters near the project looking for options to reduce their carbon footprint may eventually be able to purchase credits from Occidental and its partners to offset emissions.

Occidental announced last year that it plans to use the carbon vacuums to develop “net-zero oil,” a “fuel option that does not contribute to additional atmospheric CO2,” according to the company. Such ambitions concern environmental groups, which worry direct air capture and other carbon removal projects will be used by oil companies to prolong the extraction and use of fossil fuels. The carbon dioxide that the direct air capture machines will suck from the atmosphere can itself be used in oil drilling. Through a process called enhanced oil recovery, the compressed carbon dioxide is pumped underground to push oil to the surface.

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Administration officials said the particular projects they are funding will not be used for enhanced oil recovery.

The Louisiana hub, called Project Cypress, is led by Battelle, the major technology contractor. Among the company’s partners is Climeworks, which operates one of the world’s largest direct air capture plants, located in Iceland. But that plant, which captures only 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, would be dwarfed by Project Cypress.

According to the International Energy Agency, there are at least 130 direct air capture facilities in the planning stage around the world.