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Economy

Biden’s Risky Bet that Oil Companies Can Lead a New Climate Industry

In aligning with fossil fuel companies, the administration is deepening skepticism of carbon removal.

An oil refinery and carbon capture.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, 1PointFive

For as long as people have been talking about building machines that suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the concept has sparked fierce debate. Would such a tool be used the way that scientists envision — alongside aggressive emission cuts? Or would it be co-opted to prolong dependence on fossil fuels?

Suddenly these questions have become less theoretical. Last month, Carbon Engineering, one of the first companies to actually build a “direct air capture” machine, was acquired by Occidental Petroleum, a fossil fuel company that plans to use the technology to market “net-zero oil.” The Biden administration has also selected Occidental as a potential recipient of one of two major grants, worth up to $600 million each, to build a “DAC hub” in South Texas near Corpus Christi. As part of the same announcement, the Department of Energy gave funding to oil and gas companies in California, Alaska, and Alabama for the early planning stages of additional hubs.

“Cutting back on our carbon emissions alone won’t reverse the growing impacts of climate change," Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a press release for the DAC hub awards. "We also need to remove the CO2 that we’ve already put in the atmosphere,”

She’s right. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says pursuing carbon removal is “unavoidable” if the world hopes to limit warming to safer temperatures — but it will only work if we stop burning so much oil and gas. In handing the reins of this new industry to fossil fuel companies, the administration has confused the message, stoking the mistrust of those already skeptical of the technology, and giving carbon removal projects with no fossil fuel connections a steeper hill to climb to earn support.

It hasn’t helped that Occidental’s CEO, Vicki Hollub, has described DAC as a “license to continue to operate.” Shortly after the Biden administration’s announcement, she told NPR that thanks to this technology, “there’s no reason not to produce oil and gas forever.” When I reached out to Occidental for clarification, a spokesperson denied that the company will use the technology to pump more oil than it otherwise would. He pointed me to another statement from Hollub in 2022 where she said producing net-zero oil was about “just meeting demand,” and that as long as there was demand for oil, it was better to meet it with a lower-carbon product.

But the aforementioned events have invited fierce blowback. On Wednesday, 17 climate and environmental justice organizations sent a letter to Secretary Granholm calling on the DOE to revoke its funding offers to fossil fuel companies. “There may be paths forward for equitable, climate-positive DAC, but they do not look like the one we’re on now,” they wrote.

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  • Climate advocates and community groups are not just concerned about giving fossil fuel companies a license to keep producing. Their objection is tied to where these projects are being deployed. The DAC hubs are almost all being planned in economically distressed areas that have hosted fossil fuel production for decades. The bipartisan infrastructure law, which funded the hubs, requires that at least two meet those characteristics.

    This makes some economic and political sense. If you need to build pipelines to transport CO2 or drill into the ground to store it, this is where the knowhow resides. The requirement is also intended as a way to create new jobs and transition workers in places that might otherwise be devastated by the decline of the oil and gas industry. But since fossil fuel companies have a track record of polluting these areas with cancerous chemicals and fighting regulations, locals worry about the risks of putting new technology into their hands.

    These fears are not unfounded. There are different types of direct air capture technology, but many require energy or heat to separate and compress the CO2 after it is collected, which could create additional pollution depending on how it is generated. The compressed carbon may then have to be transported, via pipeline, to its final destination. While CO2 pipelines have a good safety record, a highly publicized accident in Mississippi that hospitalized 45 people has fanned fears of ruptures.

    Perhaps the biggest worry is around what happens next. Some companies, including Occidental, inject CO2 into depleted oil fields in an effort to squeeze the last drops out. But DOE-funded hubs will not be permitted to do this. Instead, the compressed CO2 will likely be injected into a saline aquifer, a layer of permeable rock thousands of feet underground, which is capped by an impermeable layer that prevents the CO2 from leaking out.

    Some geological storage wells have been storing carbon successfully for decades, but there are only a handful of such sites operating around the world. A recent report to Congress detailing U.S. experience with CO2 injection summarized several potential risks to human health associated with it, including drinking water contamination, leaks, effects on soil health, and earthquakes. However, it also noted that CO2 injection wells have more stringent construction, testing, and monitoring regulations than other types.

    In Kern County, California, where three DAC hubs have been proposed, all of this invokes deja vu. Juan Flores, an organizer for the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, one of the signatories to Wednesday’s letter, told me it reminds people of fracking, which brought increased risk of respiratory problems, cancer, preterm birth, and psychological stress to the area. “They experimented with our communities, they denied the new dangers for many years,” he said. “Now our community members are saying, ‘this again?’”

    The DOE hubs program required companies to submit a plan for providing community benefits when they applied for funding. But in Kern County, oil and gas companies have squandered their goodwill, Dan Ress, a staff attorney at the Center told me. For example, the California Resources Corporation, an oil and gas company that won an $11 million DOE grant to do an engineering study for a hub in Kern County, recently supported a multi-million dollar campaign to repeal hard-won regulations banning oil drilling next to homes and schools. “This is the same company saying, oh yeah, we want to be good neighbors and do great community benefits? Absolutely not, get out of here,” said Ress.

    The feeling of being the unwitting subjects of an experiment also came up in my conversation with Roishetta Ozane, a community organizer in Lake Charles, Louisiana. That’s where another DAC hub called Project Cypress, which could receive up to $600 million from the DOE, is under development. “We don't want to be guinea pigs for something that's never been tried and tested before on this scale,” Ozane told me.

    Ozane is the director of the Vessel Project, a grassroots group supporting the needs of black, indigenous, people of color, and low income people in an industrial city where petrochemical production has dramatically expanded over the past decade. (The group was not a signatory on the letter.) She said Lakes Charles is overburdened with pollution and still recovering from a spate of destructive hurricanes in 2020. “We're saying, hey, you might be right. These DAC hubs might work. But why are you testing it in our community?”

    There are no fossil fuel companies involved in Project Cypress. But that does not give Ozane any peace of mind. She worries it would “open the floodgates” for companies to keep releasing toxic emissions into the area, as long as they pay someone to pull carbon out of the air afterward.

    Multiple people I spoke with in Louisiana and Texas also brought up a history of local officials giving heavy industry a free pass on pollution and major tax breaks. Why should they believe that the DAC hubs will be any better regulated or bring in much-needed revenue?

    But local attitudes along the Gulf Coast are varied and complex. Prior to the hubs announcement, Data for Progress, a polling and research non-profit that spearheaded Wednesday’s letter, held a series of focus groups about DAC in Louisiana and Texas. One key finding, Celina Scott-Buechler, a senior fellow who led the research, told me, was that there was a tension between concerns like Ozane’s, and an awareness that fossil fuel companies historically have been the primary sources of good jobs in these communities.

    “I think people make a calculated risk decision,” one focus group participant in Lake Charles said. “They're like, oh, so I could be around these chemicals that could have a long-term effect. I may not see them for the next 20, 30 years, but if it's going to take care of my family and give my family a nice home and a good vehicle to drive, then I'll work tirelessly to provide that for my family. But I may die at 65.”

    Another stressed that there was a “big need for jobs” and that “sometimes people's need for employment overshadows whether it's good for the environment or not.”

    Patrick Nye, who lives in the Corpus Christi area near where Occidental is building its South Texas hub, embodies this tension. Nye owns an energy company that produces oil and generates wind power, but he also runs an environmental group that’s fighting the local expansion of liquified natural gas export facilities and proposed seawater desalination projects. When I asked about his oil business, he said he didn’t have the heart to let his employees go and puts his profits toward his activism.

    Nye is skeptical that direct air capture will work, but he thinks it’s worth trying. “If this works, this may help save the planet,” he said. He also sees a lot of potential opportunities flowing to the local university and its graduates. And he thinks the hub will be far enough away from where people live that if things go wrong, few will be impacted. Occidental is building its hub in a largely undeveloped area about 45 miles south of Corpus Christi on King Ranch, the largest private ranch in the country.

    At the same time, he’s worried local officials will just rubber stamp the project without proper study. “King Ranch is really well known, they're very politically positioned,” he said. “They have a lot of clout to get this thing done, and it has to be looked at with a very fine tooth comb.”

    In addition to requesting DOE withdraw grants for fossil fuel companies, the letter sent Wednesday makes a pitch for how the agency can roll out the DAC hubs program more equitably. The authors propose that projects in areas with extractive industries be co-created or co-owned by communities, actively work to reduce local pollution, have rigorous data transparency, and that locals should have the right to refuse them. They also want community benefits plans to be legally binding, with consequences if companies fail to comply.

    All these requirements might sound unfair to companies who are just trying to tackle climate change and make a better world, Scott-Buechler acknowledged. “The question that I ask is, a better world for whom?”

    I asked her what it would look like in practice for a community to co-own a DAC hub, considering these are first-of-a-kind projects that are incredibly expensive and financially risky. Would communities be taking on those risks?

    This was something that Data for Progress and other groups were still studying, she said, looking at possibilities like having the project held in public trust, or replicating the solar cooperative model. She recognizes that not all communities will be interested in ownership, but thinks it should be an option.

    When I asked the DOE how it defends the choice to support fossil fuel company-led projects, a spokesperson told me the agency is “leveraging these companies' significant expertise in managing large energy infrastructure projects and applying this experience to developing DAC projects that are cost-effective, efficient, equitable, and environmentally responsible.”

    She also emphasized that Occidental and Project Cypress have only been selected for “award negotiation” and not “officially” awarded yet. “If projects are awarded, DOE and the awardee will have frequent, meaningful engagement with the impacted local community and impacted workers throughout the lifecycle of the project,” she said.

    Meanwhile, the agency has also launched a public process to develop a set of safety, environmental stewardship, accountability, and community engagement guidelines for all carbon management projects that it will encourage project developers to (voluntarily) abide by.

    But the Biden administration seems eager to support Occidental in its pursuit of direct air capture and encourage more oil and gas companies to follow its lead. During a carbon capture conference last year, Secretary Granholm applauded Oxy’s CEO Vicki Hollub for investing in carbon removal, saying this reflects “exactly the kind of bold thinking we need more of.” Earlier this year, she told a room of oil and gas executives, “We need the energy sector stepping up … few are better positioned to crack open cost-effective carbon management.”

    The debate over whether direct air capture is a moral hazard is likely to rage on long after these projects are up and running. But the money is going out the door now. “This is something that is not just coming anymore, it's here,” said Scott Buechler. “Is there a collective vision for what might be able to come next?”

    Read more about carbon capture:

    The Dawn of a New Climate Industry

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    Emily Pontecorvo profile image

    Emily Pontecorvo

    Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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