United Airlines is Investing in Direct Air Capture, What Does That Mean?

Authored by Simon Nicholson, Wil Burns, & David Morrow

Prepared for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

 

United Airlines announced on December 10 plans for a multimillion-dollar investment in a Direct Air Capture (DAC) plant. The investment is part of United’s plans to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

In this blog post we look at what United is proposing and how to make sense of it.

Bottom line: This kind of investment in early-stage investigation into and development of DAC is immensely positive and should be encouraged, particularly in light of United being a prominent player in a hard-to-abate sector. At the same time, United’s pledge for support of DAC development cannot and should not be read in itself as a credible commitment to cleaning up the airline’s past or future carbon pollution. Instead, what United is doing here is helping to establish a technological pathway that may, in the future, yield real and significant carbon removal benefits. Whenever companies are talking about DAC or other forms of carbon removal, money spent on near-term research and development should be viewed as distinct from money spent over a number of years on the actual sequestering of carbon. We flesh these points out below and also point to some other interesting aspects of the United announcement.

What is United Planning?

United has pledged to invest in a DAC operation being developed in the United States by 1PointFive, a partnership between Oxy Low Carbon Ventures (a subsidiary of Occidental, an oil and gas company) and Rusheen Capital Management. 1PointFive’s website proclaims that the initiative’s mission is to become “the leading developer of DAC facilities worldwide.” This Oxy + Rusheen partnership is relying on a DAC technological system developed by Carbon Engineering in Canada. An earlier announcement from Carbon Engineering sets out plans via the 1PointFive venture for a plant that will be developed in West Texas to draw up to 500,000 (later updated to 1 million) tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year and to sequester the CO2 in the Permian Basin.

United’s pledge comes via an already-signed letter of intent. United’s press release and reporting have not, though, yet revealed the exact amount of United’s investment, the precise purpose to which the investment is to be directed, and how United is viewing the investment alongside other efforts to tackle the airline’s carbon footprint. These will be important details to watch for in subsequent news about United’s DAC plans.

DAC could contribute to United’s efforts to reach carbon neutrality in a couple of ways. One way would be by United purchasing and utilizing synthetic jet fuel made from captured carbon. Such “carbon recycling” would lower the overall carbon footprint associated with a United flight. Another way, and this seems to be the intent of United’s deal with 1PointFive, would involve injecting captured carbon into long-term underground storage. Such geologic sequestration could conceivably be scaled to account for some large share of United’s CO2 pollution.

One final high-level point to note about United’s announcement is that United is distinguishing its interest in DAC from what the announcement terms “indirect measures like carbon-offsetting.” By carbon-offsetting, the announcement is referring to largely voluntary, consumer-driven efforts whereby customers on United flights pay a little extra money and in exchange United invests in tree planting or forest protection schemes. Forests and soils are hugely important carbon sinks and efforts to augment these and other nature-based solutions for carbon removal must be supported. Voluntary offsets programs are, though, problematic for a range of reasons, so this distinction being drawn by United between their DAC investment and offsets looks important. The main benefit will be if United makes the drawing down of carbon part of their core operations rather than as something that customers can add on a voluntary basis. 

Questions to Ask about the Investment

One article on the United announcement attributes to the company’s CEO Scott Kirby the claim that the 1PointFive project in which United is investing would capture enough carbon dioxide to offset nearly 10% of United’s annual emissions. A couple of things to note here:

1) Investing in early-stage research and development, or even in the building of working infrastructure, is not the same thing as paying for operations. It will be important to learn more about both what the United investment is intended for and what it is actually used for. Technological carbon removal, including DAC, is likely to be an important part of getting airlines to carbon neutrality. However, it will take sustained investment over decades to build up enough carbon removal capacity, and then successful operation of that capacity for some reasonable span of time for even a single airline like United to claim that DAC is offsetting emissions from business operations.

So, to be clear, an investment by United for infrastructure is all by itself a very positive thing. There is no need, then, to conflate that investment with emissions reductions or emissions offsetting claims.

2)  If United’s investment is going towards the operation of a successful DAC endeavor, there are some questions that should be asked and answered:

    1. How much of the potential 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year from the planned 1PointFive facility could United rightfully claim? Might others also be looking to claim credit for actually capturing and sequestering CO2 once the plant is operational? How do we avoid double, or more, counting of the “same” emissions reductions to ensure the integrity of the emerging carbon dioxide removal markets? 
    2. Even if United claims all of the CO2 stored annually by a working facility at the 1 million tonne scale, this alone would be far shy of 10% of United’s annual Scope 1 emissions, which United reported to be around 34 million tonnes in its disclosure to CDP.
    3. Storing CO2 directly in geological formations will have different climate effects than using captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery or for the creation of short-lived products like a synthetic fuel. As a recent working paper from David Morrow and Michael Thompson notes, the relevant questions to be asked here are, where does the carbon come from and where does the carbon go?
    4. From where will the energy come to power the new DAC facility? Just as directing captured CO2 towards enhanced oil recovery can obviate climate benefits, so powering DAC with fossil fuels rather than renewable energy makes for problematic climate math.

All of this is to say that the accounting around carbon removal claims by way of DAC is not a straightforward thing. It will be useful and important to watch how United’s investment relationship with 1PointFive develops. Transparency to enable robust evaluation will be essential.

One model for corporate transparency around DAC plans comes from tech company Stripe. Stripe has set out: a) a corporate intent to be an early investor in development of promising carbon removal approaches; b) a plan to help to build out a market for carbon removal by being a steady customer for actual carbon removal services over a period of years; and c) a clear method by which carbon removal options are being evaluated and selected. Details of the Stripe approach are here, and may provide guidance for other early movers like United.

Here’s a metaphor. Imagine a kid spilling Cheerios on the floor and then committing to cleaning them up. If the kid offers to invest in purchasing a vacuum cleaner, that’s a good first step. The kid should not get credit for cleaning up the mess, though, until the vacuum cleaner is running and is sucking up the cereal. (And if the kid’s sibling ends up being the one doing the actual vacuuming, it’s important to make sure that both kids aren’t claiming full credit for cleaning up the mess.) It’s also important to understand what the kid’s plan is if the vacuum cleaner doesn’t arrive or if it fails to operate as advertised. And, most importantly, what’s the kid’s plan for limiting the flow of Cheerios to the floor? The vacuuming component only works when aligned with a strong and robust reduce-the-dropping-of-the-Cheerios plan.

The United statement is to be applauded and, at the same time, United’s actions on the back of the statement should receive careful scrutiny.

 

Simon Nicholson and Wil Burns are Co-directors and David Morrow is Director of Research at the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy in the School of International Service at American University.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.