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Economy

Louisiana Is Officially Getting a Direct Air Capture Hub

But the community is still uneasy.

Project Cypress and money.
Heatmap Illustration/Project Cypress, Getty Images, Library of Congress

The Department of Energy is giving the green light to Project Cypress, a cluster of facilities in southwest Louisiana that will filter carbon dioxide directly from the air and store it underground. The agency announced Wednesday that it will award the project $50 million for the next phase of its development, which will be matched by $51 million in private investment.

Before receiving any money, the Project Cypress team had to reach an agreement with the DOE regarding how they would engage with community and labor stakeholders. The result, also released Wednesday, was a series of commitments — for example, to assemble a community advisory board, to partner with local workforce development organizations, and to create a public website with project information.

The developers have yet to provide a list of more concrete, measurable benefits the project will bring to the community. This was more like a plan to make a plan that will have robust community input. That the project sits near Lake Charles, home to some of the most contested energy projects in the country, will not make the next steps easy, however.

The funding is part of a $3.5 billion program authorized by Congress in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to create four such “direct air capture hubs” around the country in an effort to help commercialize the nascent technology. This is the first award the DOE has handed out after selecting Project Cypress last August as one of two hubs it would consider supporting. A second hub under development by Occidental Petroleum in South Texas is still in negotiations with the agency and has yet to receive funding.

Once it’s fully operational, Project Cypress is designed to capture 1 million tons of carbon from the air per year, employing two different technological approaches to do so.

The first, developed by the Swiss startup Climeworks, uses fans to draw air into metal boxes containing a material called a sorbent that attracts carbon dioxide molecules. Then it heats the sorbent, which releases the CO2 so that it can be stored.

The second approach, pioneered by a California-based company called Heirloom, involves crushing and cooking limestone so that it becomes calcium oxide, a white powder that’s thirsty for CO2. Heirloom lays the powder out on trays, where it binds with carbon dioxide in the air. Then it bakes the powder in an electric kiln to remove the CO2.

Both companies say they will use renewable energy to power their respective processes. To lock the carbon away underground, they are partnering with a company called Gulf Coast Sequestration which has applied for permits to drill two CO2 storage wells on a vast, privately-owned cattle and horse ranch in West Calcasieu Parish. After the carbon is captured, it will be liquified and delivered by pipeline to a well, where it will be injected into porous sandstone about 10,000 feet below the Earth’s surface.

With this award, the project will enter the second of four implementation phases, during which the companies will finalize the project’s design, engage with area residents and stakeholders to complete a community benefits plan, and start on the permitting process.

Phase two will not be quick — it’s expected to last two to three years. Then the companies will begin negotiating with the DOE for funding for phases three — construction — and four — the ramp-up to full-scale operation. The DOE has structured the DAC Hubs program with off-ramps at the start of each phase, allowing the agency to deny additional funding to a project if it finds that it is not meeting previously agreed-upon objectives. But if all goes well, Project Cypress is eligible for up to $600 million.

The Carbon Removal Alliance, a group that lobbies for policies to support what it calls “high quality carbon removal,” sees this award as a “fresh start” for the Department of Energy in that it shows the agency moving beyond its traditional role of funding research and development to commercializing technologies.

“With official funding beginning to flow into states like Louisiana and backed by robust community benefits plans to ensure the highest standards, we’re about to see how technologies like direct air capture can provide positive benefits to our economies and environment,” said Giana Amador, the executive director of the Carbon Removal Alliance.

Members of the community, however, are skeptical that the project will benefit them.

The industrial history of Calcasieu Parish is both an asset and a curse for Project Cypress. The area is home to a high concentration of refineries, petrochemical plants, and liquified natural gas terminals. The developers chose the location because it had a local workforce with relevant skills and the right geology to trap carbon underground, but the residents’ trust will be hard-won after decades of living in one of the most polluted corridors in the country, where news of toxic spills and leaks is common. Many residents have spent the last few years furiously fighting the buildout of several new LNG plants that are expected to increase pollution even more.

One of those activists is James Hiatt, a former refinery worker based in Sulphur, Louisiana. About a year ago, Hiatt founded a group called For A Better Bayou because he wanted to build a grassroots movement to reimagine the future of Louisiana — to be for something, not just against heavy industry.

“I want people to really imagine and embrace an alternative future for ourselves,” he told me. But to him, direct air capture is not it. “I wish I was so sold on it, like this is the way forward and I could get behind it and we could be like oh yeah, let's do this,” he told me. “But it just does not add up for me.”

When the project developers and the DOE held a meeting for stakeholders last November, Hiatt said, even attendees who worked in the oil and gas and petrochemical industries expressed doubts about the plan.

Hiatt shared a few videos from the meeting with me. One speaker questioned whether the jobs created would truly go to people from the area. This is not the first time a company has come in promising jobs and economic growth, only to hire workers from Alabama or Texas. Another speaker called the idea of a community benefits plan a way to “distract the community” from the risks of the project, which the companies have yet to define. (A preliminary list published Wednesday included things like increased traffic and noise during construction, risk of leakage during the transport or storage of the CO2, and energy and water use.) Others implored the companies not to seek property tax breaks, which divert revenue away from schools and social services.

When Project Cypress was first announced, the developers said it would create “approximately 2,300 quality jobs and generate a billion-dollar economic stimulus in the region, with increased opportunities for local contractors, suppliers, and small businesses.” The project also has a stated goal of hiring at least 10% of its workforce from the local fossil fuel and plastics industries.

But beyond that, its intentions are vague. The list of commitments published on Wednesday included lots of plans — i.e., a plan to create a “Site Labor and Workforce Development plan” which will “describe plans to provide equal access to jobs for local residents for construction and operations” — but few concrete actions or outcomes, yet.

Hiatt is especially skeptical that the carbon will stay underground and is worried about leaks. But perhaps more than that, the math of it all doesn’t make sense to him. Project Cypress might capture a million tons of CO2 from the air per year, but Louisiana alone releases more than 200 million tons annually, and is still approving new emissions-intensive facilities like those LNG plants. “Even if we scale this up, we'd have to scale it up orders of magnitude higher than will ever be possible,” he told me. “It doesn't seem like it's worth the time or the money to be doing this when we should be reducing the emissions to start with.”

There are many hurdles to scaling up direct air capture, but overcoming this cognitive dissonance is one of the trickiest. Ultimately, the goal of the project is not to offset Louisiana’s emissions. It’s to demonstrate a technology that could eventually, if we develop the right incentives to support it, clean up carbon that’s already in the atmosphere. But believing in that vision demands that people also see a world where emissions will start to decline — one that’s perhaps not yet apparent in Lake Charles.

Green
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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