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Building Carbon Capture Infrastructure Is Needed to Help Save Our Climate

By Michael Gold 

We can’t afford to leave the fossil fuel companies out of developing overdue solutions to reduce carbon emissions. 

Some might say this would be like asking a gang of foxes to come into the henhouse and take their pick of whatever chickens they want. But the oil companies have the most well-developed engineering expertise in building pipelines and capturing carbon at the source. We need their help.

The infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year allocates $6.5 billion for direct air capture and storage of carbon, over five years. An additional $11.5 billion is going to carbon capture pilot programs and hydrogen energy research. 

Aside from that, the U.S. Department of Energy is providing up to $96 million in federal funding for carbon capture technology development, announced in February 2022. That comes on top of an additional $20 million going to the states for regional carbon capture projects. That’s not nearly enough to scale up carbon capture if it’s going to work as part of the package of solutions we need.  

Occidental Petroleum plans to spend $800 million to $1 billion on a facility to remove carbon from the air at its Texas holdings. That’s just one company. When you talk about U.S. and global investment, we need to go much bigger.

Occidental’s CEO, Vicki Hollub, has predicted carbon capture will become a $3 to $5 trillion industry (source: Business and Industry Connection magazine).

A plant in Iceland, which went online in September 2021, removes carbon dioxide directly from the air and stores it underground, where it will eventually turn into rock, all using renewable energy. The Swiss company that operates the installation, called Climeworks, which is partnering with Carbfix, its Icelandic partner, claims that its plant can remove up to 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Both individuals and businesses can purchase carbon removal services from Climeworks. 

To appreciate the enormity of the problem, compare Climeworks’ 4,000 tons of carbon removal to carbon dioxide emissions from the world’s biggest emitters.

The world emitted 36.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2021, a record high, the IEA states on its website. Global carbon emissions rose about six percent in 2021, the IEA found. 

If we apply Climeworks’ 4,000 tons of carbon removal to the average American’s carbon emissions, we see the scope of the issue. Climeworks can remove the carbon emissions generated by about 285 Americans in one year. There are approximately 334 million Americans.

We almost certainly cannot address this crisis without building carbon capture technology at scale, in addition to constructing solar farms and wind turbines, expanding the use of biofuels from algae and cooking oils, and developing new energy sources, such as hydrogen.

The oil companies have the infrastructure to build carbon capture technology more quickly than anyone else. They have already made advances in this area. We need the engineering expertise the oil companies possess.

It may take us decades to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. In the meantime, we can greatly reduce the impact they have on the environment, by installing carbon capture technology, capping old oil wells leaking carbon, and drastically cutting methane emissions from natural gas facilities.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) provides an excellent model on how to work with corporations to reduce emissions. EDF often focuses on developing technology for cutting pollution. For instance, in the late 1980s, EDF worked with McDonald’s, the global restaurant giant, to reduce, reuse and recycle its packaging. Over a ten-year period, McDonald’s cut its packaging by 300 million pounds, including its notorious styrene clamshells. Over ten years, the company recycled one million tons of corrugated boxes and cut restaurant waste 30 percent, saving $6 million dollars a year. EDF is working with Walmart on reducing emissions and toxic chemical use. Its working with fisherman to prevent overfishing.

Fossil fuel companies are not angels, to say the least. They have funded enormous, decades’ long efforts to cloud the science behind climate change and create doubt about it in the mind of the public. Their products not only warm the climate, but they also fill the air with pollutants that cause cancer, asthma, lung disease and heart disease. 

Despite the massive harms they have inflicted against the environment, we must get the oil companies invested in fighting climate change, by fully utilizing their carbon capture expertise. If we don’t get them on board the train to fight climate change, the train may not leave the station.