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US government sees carbon capture, storage, and utilization as vital to meet emissions targets

Smokestacks spill fumes from an industrial site located on a waterfront
Image Credit: Unsplash/Chris Leboutilllier

The incredible need for carbon capture and removal coming from governments and industry has pushed carbon capture, utilization and sequestration technologies to the front of the line of new climate solutions.

But even as demand rises, some climate experts worry that the technology remains unproven and that the motives for its adoption are unclear.

As the U.S. looks to drive down emissions from power plants (with new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency expected this week) carbon capture systems are set to play a central role.

The planned regulations for reducing power plant emissions depend on the ability to capture carbon dioxide emissions from those coal and gas plants and finding some way to either permanently store or reuse those emissions.

These point-source capture offerings are one flavor of carbon capture -- but the one that's captured the imagination and billions of dollars from outside investors is direct air capture (which involves drawing CO2 out of ambient air).

However, in a blow to the broader efforts to bring greenhouse gas emissions down, some of the biggest industrial backers of these direct air capture technologies are very explicitly saying that their use of carbon capture should enable them to keep the fossil fuel industry alive.

Oil companies will have to find ways to remove as much carbon dioxide as they emit “if they want to be the last producer standing in the world,” Vicki Hollub, the chief executive of the oil and chemicals company, Oxy, told The Wall Street Journal last year.

Hollub's company is an investor in Carbon Engineering and is jointly developing a $1 billion direct air capture facility in the heart of Texas' oil-rich Permian Basin.

While Oxy's big bet on direct air capture is welcome, Hollub's view that the project will mean her company can keep drilling and refining oil and gas is not.

The role of direct air capture technologies is to work alongside efforts to stop burning fossil fuels (which cause global warming), because the amount of greenhouse gases in the world is already causing increasing warming.

"The fact is, that [direct air capture] is -- as the UN IPCC made clear -- a central and unavoidable for meeting any of our international climate goals," says Jason Hochman the co-founder and head of the non-profit "There is no way to get to net zero without large scale carbon dioxide removal."

For the Biden Administration what holds true for the broad global goals is being applied to the nation's decarbonization goals for its power sector with carbon capture systems designed to bolt on to power plants that burn fossil fuels.

For advocates of the solution, these carbon capture systems are just like the sulfur scrubbers that got rolled out in a previous round of Environmental Protection Agency rule making about 50 years ago.

“Back in the 1970s, when the E.P.A. set rules for sulfur pollution, there were only three plants in the country with sulfur scrubbers,” Jay Duffy, litigation director at Clean Air Task Force, an environmental advocacy group, told The New York Times. “And by the end of the decade they were widespread. You see this dynamic every time a new pollution regulation comes along.”

These rules aren't a foregone conclusion. They need to pass muster with a very conservative Supreme Court who might uphold challenges from states whose economies are dependent on fossil fuels.

“EPA will have a hard time showing that [carbon capture] is adequately demonstrated sufficient to use it as a basis for regulation,” Scott Segal, a partner with Bracewell LLP, wrote in an email to Politico. Segal also suggested that making plants responsible for the storage or reuse of emissions could be a tough hurdle for the Court.

“The Court will likely be on high alert for a power plant regime that pushes the envelope of its previous decision,” he said.

Although the technology is relatively untested, the government is moving forward with rule making and markets are moving forward with purchases of carbon offsets and verifying the technology as a viable solution in voluntary markets.

These are the ways that corporate buyers look to balance their emissions with comparable reductions of greenhouse gases to achieve net-zero emissions.

Again, this offsetting of annual emissions is intended to be paired with the development of new renewable energy that will ramp down demand for fossil fuels.

"It is a compliment and not a substitute for rapid and sustained decarbonization strategies," said Hochman, from the Direct Air Capture Coalition.

If it's meant to be a compliment, some new corporate buyers are turning to the tactic as a very very large compliment.

Partners Group, a private investment firm that has over $145 billion in assets under management has inked an agreement with Climeworks -- the OG in the carbon capture market -- to permanently remove 7,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“The agreement with Climeworks reflects Partners Group’s focus on sustainability and its commitment to achieving positive stakeholder impact over the long term," said David Layton, a partner with Partners Group and the organization's chief executive. "Our aim is to be a sustainability leader in private markets, by driving forward positive change at the companies under our stewardship, and also by playing a leading corporate role in the transition to a net zero global economy.”

Meanwhile, more of the standards bodies that verify the value and validity of carbon offset projects are taking a positive view of the permanent sequestration, direct air capture, and other, newer technologies.

In part that's a response to the ways in which these same verification bodies have come under fire for approving nature-based credits (think tree planting and forest preservation) that did not achieve desired outcomes.

In part that's a response to the ways in which these same verification bodies have come under fire for approving nature-based credits (think tree planting and forest preservation) -- and which did not achieve desired outcomes.

Those well-documented woes for nature-based solutions are a boon for companies like CarbonCure Technologies, which recently had it capture and sequestration technology verified by the greenhouse gas credit and registry, Verra, the world’s leading greenhouse gas (GHG) crediting program and carbon registry.

“You can’t put a monitor on every tree in a nature-based offset project, but we can monitor every truckload of concrete produced and metric ton of CO2 saved with real-time telemetry and tracking built into every CarbonCure installation,” said CarbonCure Chair and CEO Robert Niven. “In partnership with our field-leading concrete producer partners, we’re rapidly scaling across hundreds of concrete plants around the world, supplying millions of truckloads of low-carbon concrete to thousands of construction projects.”

Startups like Sustaera, Climeworks, CarbonCure, Carbicrete and others stand to benefit from these new verifications. Their approvals will add another arrow to the quiver of solutions that draw greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

And what the voluntary markets are doing to boost direct air capture, the new rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should have a similar effect on point-source capture technologies.

That's good news for businesses like the publicly traded carbon capture technology company LanzaTech and businesses like the Bill Gates backed Verdox.

“Combating climate change requires the world to prevent further increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and eventually return them to pre-industrial levels,” according to Dr. Brian Baynes, Founder and CEO of Verdox, in a statement announcing the company's launch. “Many industries, however, still lack a plan for complete decarbonization, because of the high cost and energy consumption of currently available capture technologies. Unlike these predecessors, Verdox’s technology has the potential to capture carbon from any industrial source or the air – and at up to 70% relative energy savings, giving us the ability to intervene completely.”


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