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DOE Funds Two Direct Air Capture Carbon Removal Projects

The Department of Energy is providing $1.1 billion to fund two direct air capture sites, one in Texas and one in Louisiana.

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Direct air capture — it’s an idea that fascinates entrepreneurs around the world. Don’t worry about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causing the Earth to overheat. We can just suck it out of the atmosphere and shove it deep underground or use it to make plastics and biofuels. That way, we can continue to extract, process, and burn fossil fuels until the last molecule of coal, oil, and gas has been consumed. Then we can let renewable energy take over, after all those lovely profits have been distributed to corporate executives and fossil fuel company shareholders.

The Department of Energy this week announced $1.1 billion in funding for two direct air capture projects, one in Texas and the other in Louisiana. The Washington Post reports they will be designated the nation’s first “hubs” for developing and testing the machinery, according to a DOE announcement on August 11. In total, the Biden administration has earmarked  $3.5 billion in funds for direct air capture projects in the United States.

“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 added that when the projects are fully operational, they could remove enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to equal the emissions from a half million combustion engine cars.

Mitch Landrieu, a senior adviser to the president, said the direct air capture hubs represent “the largest investment in engineered carbon removal in history.” He is a former mayor of New Orleans and also served as the lieutenant governor of Louisiana from 2004 to 2010.

Along with about $1.1 billion in funding split between the two hubs, this first phase includes about $100 million in grants for 19 concept and engineering studies spanning from Alaska to Florida that could pave the way for future projects, Noah Deich, deputy assistant secretary for the DOE’s Office of Carbon Management, told reporters on a press call.

Direct Air Capture In Corpus Christie

Clmeworks Orca Iceland. Credit: Climeworks

1PointFive, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, will use the DOE money to develop up to 30 direct air capture (DAC) plants on 106,000 acres of private land it has leased just south of Corpus Christi, Texas. Once operational, each facility is expected to be capable of removing up to 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, which is roughly equal to the annual emissions from 2.5 methane gas fired power plants. Its partners include Carbon Engineering and the global engineering firm Worley.

Major polluters near the project — of which there are many in the Corpus Christi area — may be interested in ways to reduce their carbon footprint eventually. In theory, they could purchase carbon credits from Occidental in the future to offset their emissions.

Occidental, the largest oil and gas producer in the Permian basin, announced last year it plans to use carbon vacuum systems to develop “net-zero oil,” a “fuel option that does not contribute to additional atmospheric CO2,” according to the company. CleanTechnica readers may get a shiver up their spines when they hear phrases like net-zero oil. Essentially, it involves blending captured carbon with crude oil to create fuels that have lower carbon emissions. Airplane fuel is one of the primary uses for such products.

Environmental groups worry that some of that captured carbon dioxide — assuming the DAC technology works at all — will be pumped into existing oil wells to force more oil out. The DOE says any captured carbon paid for by its grants will not be used for such purposes. However, 1PointFive is building a separate DAC facility in the Permian Basin. The carbon dioxide from that plant will be used for “enhanced extraction” of oil, according to Canary Media.

Last year, 680 million barrels of oil were shipped overseas from the Corpus Christie area. The EPA claims each barrel of oil produces 426 kilograms of carbon dioxide, which suggest the area was partly responsible for adding about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere last year. If the Occidental direct air capture project works, it will extract at most 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide at some point in the future — about a tenth of the emissions created by fossil fuel activities in the Corpus Christi area every year.

Here’s another consideration. What will be the cost of removing each of those tons of carbon dioxide? Climeworks, which is currently operating experimental direct air capture facilities, says it cost $500 per ton today. It hopes to get that down to $200 per ton by mid-century, according to CNBC.

Direct Air Capture In Louisiana

The Louisiana hub, called Project Cypress, is led by Battelle, which says it “applies science and technology to create a safer, healthier, more secure world.” It will partner with Climeworks, which operates one of the world’s largest direct air capture facilities, and Heirloom. The Climeworks plant in Iceland has an annual capacity of 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

The Louisiana facility, known as Gulf Coast Sequestration, will be able to capture over 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. The captured CO2 will be permanently stored in a Class VI deep saline aquifer.

Powered By Renewable Energy

It takes a lot of energy to operate a DAC facility. It would be pretty ironic if the electricity to run them came from coal- or methane gas-fired thermal generating stations. 1PointFive said its DAC hub in South Texas will be ​“solar-powered.” Battelle confirmed that Project Cypress will initially purchase clean energy from the local utility as it builds its first demonstrator project, though it intends to build on-site renewable energy projects to power future DAC facilities.

What Do You Do With Captured Carbon?

The hubs in Texas and Louisiana will seek out any number of buyers for the carbon they sequester (if any). It could be the basis for voluntary carbon credit markets, although informed observers like Joe Romm say those carbon offset schemes are just that — schemes. This week, the Department of Energy also confirmed its plans for a new $35 million carbon purchasing program — the first such government led initiative in the world.

The DOE said it intends to support any project that removes carbon from the atmosphere, not just DAC facilities, as a way to boost demand for fledgling technologies. “We’re really excited to show how we can spur innovation through this new mechanism,” Deich said.

Katie Lebling, an associate in the World Resources Institute’s climate program, said the federal DAC hubs will be crucial not just for advancing the technology but also for creating processes that engage and involve community members at every step of a project’s development. Building a DAC hub in a place where people don’t want it, or in a way that exacerbates environmental injustices, could undermine future efforts to accelerate carbon removal.  “There’s a lot riding on this,” she said.

Carbon Capture Is Controversial

In May, a UN panel of experts operating under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change issued a scathing report in which it said, “Engineering-based removal activities are technologically and economically unproven, especially at scale, and pose unknown environmental and social risks. These activities do not contribute to sustainable development, are not suitable for implementation in the developing countries, and do not contribute to reducing the global mitigation costs, and therefore do not serve any of the objectives of the Article 6.4 mechanism.”

The panel based its conclusions in part on input it received from several groups that are critical of carbon removal, such as the Center for International Environmental Law and Friends of the Earth. Only a few carbon removal companies provided information to the panel while it was developing its note. The carbon capture industry is now scrambling to provide feedback to the United Nations before it makes any final decisions on the Paris Agreement’s emissions trading system.

The Takeaway

Humans, in their quest for unlimited shareholder value at all costs, have unalterably changed the Earth’s climate in thousands of ways. The statistic that seems to get people’s attention is from the report published by Earth System Science Data earlier this year which said humans have added more than 2 trillion tons of carbon dioxide to the environment. In the process, the Earth has been forced to absorb the heat of more than 25 billion atomic bombs of the type dropped on Hiroshima in just the past 50 years alone.

While exploring ways of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, we continue pouring more of it into the air every second of every day. Direct air capture may work to some extent, but at best it is like giving a heroin addict a pair of clean socks.

We can theorize about injecting sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere or building a 2 million ton sunscreen at the L1 Lagrange point to reduce somewhat how much energy from the sun falls on the Earth every day, but what we really, honest to gosh, need to do is to stop extracting, transporting, processing, and burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

There are any number of reasons people can think of why we shouldn’t do that. It’s too inconvenient, too expensive, or too scary. But extinction is not a condition that can be fixed. We don’t know how to science our way out of death. Dead is dead, and that’s what the human race will be if we continue on our merry way toward the climate apocalypse. Feel good ideas like carbon capture are just mixing sugar in with the fossil fuel Kool Aid to make it more palatable.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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