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From Texas to Lousiana, the U.S. is investing a “once-in-a-generation” $3.5 billion into DAC hubs

closeup of direct air capture machine
Climeworks "Orca" plant in Iceland // Image Credit: Climeworks
  • The Biden administration announced the first two winners of a $3.5 billion competition created to build four direct air capture hubs across the country, 19 other research and development projects were also awarded funding.

  • DAC sucks carbon from the air and stores it permanently underground. According to the IEA and the IPCC, in combination with reducing emissions through renewables, carbon removal is necessary in the fight against climate change.

  • The two winners are “Project Cypress,” in Louisiana led by DAC company Climeworks, and “South Texas DAC Hub,” led by Occidental Petreleum subsidiary, 1PointFive. Each project aims to capture and store 1 million metric tons of CO2 a year, the equivalent to the annual emissions of 35 commercial airliners or 2.5 gas plants, or saving 226 lives.

  • These two projects plan to create 4,800 local jobs, with Cypress hiring 10% former fossil fuel workers.

  • The climate NGO, Carbon180 urges that to ensure the initiative is in line with environmental justice, not only should all projects avoid enhanced oil recovery, a type of carbon removal that uses CO2 to better tap fossil fuels, but they should involve the communities the DAC projects will be built in at every step.

On Friday, August 11 Biden-Harris administration announced the first two winners of a $3.5 billion competition created to build four direct air capture hubs across the country, leveraging technology that, as the International Energy Agency explains it, is “a part of the portfolio of technologies and measures needed in a comprehensive response to climate change.”

Direct air capture, or DAC, is a type of technology that vacuums planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and stores it permanently underground, with the goal of drastically reducing the amount of CO2 in our air to — in combination with reducing CO2 output in the first place — slow the effects of climate change, and maybe (just maybe) even turn us into a negative emissions economy where we capture and store more greenhouse gases than we produce.

According to a leading company in the space, Climeworks, DAC is a three-step process, where air is drawn inside of the massive device into a fan called “the collector,” which passes it through a filter that traps CO2 particles.

Once filled up with CO2, the collector closes, and the temperature is cranked up to 100°C or 212°F, “about the same temperature it takes to boil water for a cup of tea” Climeworks says. And finally, the hot temperature allows the filter to release the CO2, which is then collected and stored permanently underground.

DAC mimics the processes of the Earth, from soil and trees to the ocean, and even animals like elephants and whales that store CO2 to keep the Earth in balance.

However, due to what players in the carbon removal game refer to as “legacy emissions,” the cache of carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution — aka the dawn of coal and oil, DAC is rising in importance as one lever in building on the carbon removal tech already provided by Mother Nature.

infographic of how DAC works
Infographic Credit: Climeworks

Two new regional hubs for DAC

That’s why as a part of its “Investing in America Agenda” the administration says it aims to kickstart DAC, establishing four regional hubs across the U.S. and the first stop is Lousiana and Texas, where projects are, together, receiving $1.2 billion of the pot to fund large-scale sites.

On Friday, the administration announced the first two winners of the competition: “Project Cypress,” a Climeworks operation in partnership with the science and technology nonprofit Battelle and fellow DAC startup, Heirloom, and the “South Texas DAC Hub,” which will be built by the carbon removal company 1PointFive, a subsidiary of the oil and gas cooperation Occidental Petroleum, and its partners, Canadian DAC company, Carbon Engineering, and Worley, a global energy provider.

The news of the competition and its first winners is the first taste of the United States’ bigger carbon removal push, as seen in last Friday’s scoop regarding the government’s plans to become the first federal government to pay to remove CO2.

While prior to this investment, the Department of Energy had focused most of its energy on DAC’s cousin, carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) a form of carbon removal that captures carbon from high-emitting sites like gas plants or steel mills, the DAC investment may show a rebalance in focus.

CCUS is often criticized as a vessel to keep fossil fuel companies around, and while the technology is helpful in reducing the impact of “hard-to-abate” sectors, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts it, the ultimate goal is that these sectors no longer emit, especially when the planet would benefit from the removal of carbon already in the atmosphere.

fossil fuels being emitted in the air against a yellow sky
Image Credit: Chris LeBoutillier // Unsplash

“Cutting back on our carbon emissions alone won’t reverse the growing impacts of climate change; we also need to remove the CO2 that we’ve already put in the atmosphere—which nearly every climate model makes clear is essential to achieving a net-zero global economy by 2050,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in a statement.

“With this once-in-a-generation investment made possible by President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, DOE is laying the foundation for a direct air capture industry crucial to tackling climate change, transforming local economies, and delivering healthier communities along the way,” Granholm added.

According to the DOE’s April 2023 carbon management report, President Biden’s plan for a net-zero emissions domestic economy will require a tag-team effort between renewables and carbon removal — “between 400 million and 1.8 billion metric tons of CO2 be removed from the atmosphere and captured from emissions sources annually by 2050.”

In Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, Climeworks will be teaming up with Battelle and Heirloom to jumpstart this effort, with plans to capture more than 1 million metric tons of existing CO2 from the atmosphere each year and store it permanently deep underground.

This is equal to the annual emissions of 35 commercial airliners, 2.5 gas-firing power plants, or, due to the health complications associated with pollution, save 226 lives a year, according to a 2021 Nature study.

Similarly, in Kleberg County, Texas, 1PointFive — an epithet for the need to stay under 1.5°C of permanent warming to avoid the worst effects of climate change — will be taking a slightly different approach, developing and demonstrate a DAC facility designed to remove up to 1 million metric tons of CO2 annually with an associated saline geologic CO2 storage site.

Saline geologic storage essentially injects CO2 into rock formations, which research shows is a “vital option for CO2 mitigation at a large scale” as this paper published in the January 2022 issue of the journal Frontiers in Earth Science shows.

As a subsidiary of the oil giant, Occidental, 1PointFive’s previous work delved into enhanced oil recovery (EOR), a mechanism for CCUS that injects carbon into the ground, but instead of aiming for just permanent storage, its goal is to, as the name suggests, enhance oil recovery.

As the company told Canary Media, this new project aims to develop what could be 30 DAC plants on 106,000 acres of private land just south of Corpus Christi, which currently in the U.S. is a hub for oil.

However, neither of these projects will be involving EOR, which many environmental advocates have expressed will counteract the benefits of direct air capture. 1PointFive, does, however, have a DAC/EOR project in the works in the Texas Permian Basin.

Leaving oil out of the equation and putting environmental justice in

As Erin Burns, the executive director of Carbon180, a climate NGO, put in an April Medium article, “The Regional Direct Air Capture (DAC) Hubs program will be the first megaton scale deployment of carbon removal in the world, representing a 400x increase in DAC capacity.”

Because EOR is eligible to receive funds from the program, however, Carbon 180 worried it would undermine this (literally) world-changing capacity.

“The Regional DAC Hubs program should not provide support for continued fossil fuel extraction and use,” Burns says plainly. The article goes on to list many reasons, chiefly that EOR is “antithetical to the potential of DAC,” “poor use of taxpayer dollars,” and “creates associations with greenwashing and barriers to trust-building,” in what will likely be foundational U.S. policy for a nascent, but growing industry.

As Shawn Bennett, Battelle’s Energy and Resilience Division Manager describes the potential of DAC, the “technology is an important bridge to a future that greatly reduces the amount of legacy carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.”

“But in addition to that, Project Cypress will be developed to the benefit of the local community, maximizing local job opportunities for the energy transition,” he added in a statement.

Thus, in addition to having a climate impact, the projects will create 2,500 jobs in Texas and 2,300 jobs in Louisiana, hiring 10% from the fossil fuel industry. According to the DOE on top of adding employment benefits, it also wants to avoid harm, so they are planning to co-host in-person community briefings to engage with local stakeholders in Texas and Louisiana.

As Burns explains in the Medium article, drastically scaling up DAC could become an environmental justice issue if not handled accordingly.

“Carbon removal will (and should) only be successful if it’s deployed in ways that are equitable and just, in places that want to host projects, and with benefits that flow to host communities,” Burns writes.

Thus, therein lies another reason to avoid including EOR in the program, according to Carbon180: environmental justice communities are already saddled with pollution from oil production and use. Creating more sustains fossil fuel infrastructure, Burns wrote.

The Texas and Louisiana sites are only the beginning of the federal government’s carbon removal push. As part of the regional hubs program, DOE also announced $100 million in grants for 19 additional projects, supporting either early-stage product development, feasibility assessments, or research. These projects span coast-to-coast from Alaska to California to Illinois to Alabama.

The projects range from carbon utilization with established CO2-to-product company Twelve in Pasadena to a project researching what modifications DAC would need to operate in the chilly Arctic in Anchorage to a project at Northwestern University combining two climate-positive technologies — DAC and nuclear energy — to power a midwestern DAC hub with a reliable low-carbon energy source.

Combined with the two hubs in Lousiana and Texas, the two other yet-to-be-announced hubs, and the 19 cross-country projects, this, as Max Scholten, Heirloom’s Head of Commercialization says, “is a chance to write the playbook for how a new era of industrial policy lifts up the people and places that inequities of the past have overlooked as we make a measurable difference for the climate.”

“Project Cypress’s success will be measured through the jobs we create and the benefits we shape with communities in our new home of Louisiana,” he said in a statement. “We can’t wait to get to work.”

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