The Department of Energy chose the first two locations for “hubs” it envisions for industrial plants that suck planet-heating carbon dioxide out of the air. Projects in Texas and Louisiana will receive up to $1.2 billion from the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop direct air capture (DAC) facilities, backing a purported climate solution that not all environmental advocates support.
The Biden administration is funneling billions into direct air capture, a relatively new technology that some governments and companies are beginning to turn to as a way to address pollution they’ve already emitted. This is the first round of funding in a bigger plan to dole out $3.5 billion to develop at least four DAC hubs across the US.
But this approach to tackling climate change is divisive even among green groups. President Joe Biden’s move garnered praise from some environmental advocates but ire from others wary of fossil fuel companies’ deep ties to the emerging carbon removal industry.
In South Texas’ Kleberg County, the DOE will fund a project led by a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum called 1PointFive and a Canadian DAC company called Carbon Engineering. The two companies already have plans to build up to 30 giant DAC plants on the historic King Ranch. They’ve also broken ground on their first large-scale DAC plant in Ector County, Texas. Occidental has previously used its carbon removal plans to sell what it calls “net-zero oil,” or oil produced by shooting CO2 into the ground to force out hard-to-reach reserves.
In Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, the DOE will fund an initiative by Swiss DAC company Climeworks and a California-based startup called Heirloom Carbon Technologies. Climeworks was the first company to suck carbon dioxide out of the air and sell it as a product in 2017, with Coca-Cola as one of its early buyers. In Iceland, Climeworks captures CO2 for companies including Microsoft, Shopify, and Stripe. The Iceland facility is the world’s largest operating DAC plant to date. But with the capacity to draw down just 4,000 metric tons a year, it’s still smaller than the plans for new plants in the US.
The first two DAC hubs to win funding from the DOE are each supposed to eventually capture at least 1 million metric tons of CO2 a year. Together, the emissions they capture annually would be roughly equivalent to taking 445,000 gas-guzzling cars off the road, according to the DOE. In the process, the effort is expected to create 4,800 jobs in Texas and Louisiana.
“These direct air capture hubs will provide critical learning opportunities to improve carbon removal technology and set the industry on a rapid growth trajectory, which is urgently needed alongside deep emission cuts,” Angela Anderson, director of industrial innovation and carbon removal at the nonprofit World Resources Institute, said in an emailed statement to The Verge.
While proponents of direct air capture still say it shouldn’t replace efforts to transition to clean energy, others warn that companies are using the technology as a license to pollute. “We really see in these announcements, the moral hazard that DAC represents … Making money from the fossil fuel industry’s [carbon dioxide] waste streams rather than eliminating the generation of that waste — that to me, is deeply concerning,” says Nikki Reisch, climate and energy program director at the Center for International Environmental Law.
This kind of technology is still prohibitively expensive at upward of $600 per ton of CO2 removed from the atmosphere. The Biden administration has a goal of bringing that cost down to less than $100, and hubs are crucial for making that happen.
By clustering DAC plants together, they can share infrastructure, like pipelines needed to transport CO2. And it’s no surprise that hubs are going up in places with a history of coal and gas production. Captured CO2 could potentially be stored in old oil and gas fields and provide a new economic engine for communities entwined with the fossil fuel industry.
And yet, other communities living with oil and gas companies’ pollution and pipelines cutting across their land see those hubs as causing more harm. “Direct air capture allows polluting industries to live on when we should be focusing on a just transition to renewables,” said co-executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance Marion Gee, who represents a network of grassroots organizations across the US. “It’ll be Black folks, Indigenous communities and poor BIPOC neighbors — sacrificed, yet again in the name of protecting corporate interests.”
In addition to the Texas and Louisiana projects, the DOE also selected 19 more proposed projects Friday for initial funding “to assess the viability of future DAC Hub demonstrations.” Many of the proposals are clustered along the Gulf Coast, southwestern US, and California, but there are also initiatives in Alaska, North Dakota, Wyoming, Illinois, and Kentucky.
The groups receiving funding run the gamut from academic researchers to big energy companies. The diverging visions for the future of carbon removal are particularly apparent in California, where one proposal is from Chevron and another comes from an alliance of nonprofits, academics, and startups proposing “community-led DAC” that could leave fossil fuels behind.
“This is just the start, and we have an opportunity to build a direct air capture sector that is really wholly decoupled from the fossil fuel industry,” Sasha Stashwick, policy director at the nonprofit Carbon180 that’s part of the alliance, said in an interview with The Verge the day before the DOE’s announcement. “That’s an enormous opportunity. But there’s also a risk to the extent that direct air capture is seen as really extending the life of fossil fuels.”