Carbon Removal in California: Striving Toward Environmental Justice in the Central Valley

Authored by Jake Ferrell, Carbon Justice Fellow at the National Wildlife  Federation & Audrey Alonso, Digital Organizer at Our Climate

Orchard in California's Central Valley.

Orchard in California’s Central Valley. Credit: Ian Abbott/Flickr

Crops, cattle farms, and oil wells. Look out over the landscapes of Kern County, California, and you can find the physical infrastructure of various industries. The latest industry poised to shape Kern County landscapes is carbon dioxide removal.

California appears set to become a national leader in carbon dioxide removal (CDR)a climate strategy that removes CO2 directly from the ambient air and sequesters it in a form where it is prevented from re-entering the atmosphere. CDR addresses the climate crisis by targeting excess atmospheric CO2, a result of societal industrialization, and can range from natural solutions like reforestation to more technological processes like direct air capture (DAC).

Carbon Removal Projects in California Receive Federal Support

When the Department of Energy (DOE) announced the first round of awardees for its $3.5 billion Direct Air Capture Hubs (DAC Hubs) program in August 2023, no fewer than four projects in California were selected, the most of any one state. The most advanced project, led by a subsidiary of fossil fuel company California Resources Corporation, will receive up to $11.8 million to conduct a Front End Engineering Design (FEED) study to explore the potential for a DAC hub in Kern County, California.

The other threeled by Aera Energy, Chevron, and the University of Californiawill receive up to $3 million each to explore the feasibility of their proposed projects. All projects are located in the southern part of California’s Central Valley, in and around Bakersfield and Kern County.

What Goes On in the Central Valley?

Oil and gas production in California. Credit: John Ciccarelli, BLM

The Central Valley is no stranger to economic sectors of national importance. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Central Valley is among the main agricultural regions in the U.S., producing a quarter of the nation’s food, including 40% of the fruits and nuts consumed. Alongside agriculture, fossil fuel extraction dominates the landscape.

In 2019, Kern County was the leading oil producing county in the state, and the seventh largest in the country. While these industries helped build a city like Bakersfield into what it is today, participants at a carbon removal workshop convened earlier this year in Bakersfield, were quick to point out the environmental degradation and human health consequences those same industries have brought with them.

Though these consequences impact nearly all residents of Bakersfield and the broader Central Valley, the burden falls especially on low-income communities and communities of color. Bakersfield, a city of over 400,000 people, is located 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Census data shows around half of the residents identify as Latinx, 7% Black, 7% Asian, and around 30% as white (these numbers may not be fully representative of the population, due to Kern’s large population of undocumented people). More than 16% of county residents live below the poverty line.

The CDR spotlight shines so brightly on the Central Valley because its landscape fits the criteria set forth by Congress guiding DOE’s selection process, including: access to geological storage reservoirs for CO2ongoing economic reliance on the fossil fuel industry, proximity to low-carbon electricity sources, and location as an economic opportunity zone.

However, given the ongoing history of this region, the characteristics that make the Central Valley an attractive site for DAC in the federal government’s eyes are the same characteristics that may make communities in the area skeptical of DAC.

Indeed, “economic opportunity zones” refer to areas identified by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) where developers are offered tax benefits to “spur economic growth and job creation in low-income communities” but the environmental degradation and public health consequences of the fossil industry’s boon in particular, are frequently centered by Kern residents, even if they also acknowledge the jobs that come with the industry’s presence.

Given DOE’s mandate to prioritize applications for these areas, and the mandate’s demographic overlap with vulnerable groups, it is likely that most or all of the DAC Hub locations will have large shares of BIPOC populations, along with those of low socioeconomic status. This is true of Kern County, where nearly 70% of residents are BIPOC and the average income is one third of the state’s average.

The long history of unjust infrastructure siting and legacies of environmental injustice in the United States may bolster and inform skepticism and resistance to further projects, particularly in the communities that have borne the brunt of hosting extractive industries.

Hope & Skepticism

So, how are different groups and actors in California approaching the prospect of a new carbon removal industry blossoming in the state? At the state level, California has positioned itself as a leader in developing CDR policyit is the first US state to incorporate specific quantitative targets for CDR with its latest Scoping Plan for reaching carbon neutrality, and there have been a flurry of state bills recently passed supporting CDR.

Local government officials are leading calls to bring the burgeoning carbon management industry to the Central Valley with the announcement of a Carbon Management Business Park in Kern County. Lorelai Oviatt, the director of Kern County’s Planning and Natural Resources Department, has stated that the vision is to build a massive solar farm to power DAC plants, so as to replace the county’s declining agricultural revenues due to droughts continuing to plague the Southwest. For Kern alone “at the top end this could produce $68 million a year in county property tax revenue to the county, $25 million to surrounding cities, and 23,000 jobs,” Oviatt noted. “That is hope!”

But it is not so simple. Local residents have expressed opposition to carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects in the past. Part of that opposition is centered around the fact that captured CO2 would have been used to extract more oil in a process known as enhanced oil recovery (EOR).

Today, the California Resources Corporation FEED study has expressly stated that its DAC Hub would not utilize CO2 for EOR, however Chevron and Aera Energy have not yet made statements either way. Some participants in a Bakersfield community DAC workshop signaled that Chevron or Aera Energy involvement in a project would be a red line for them.

“Chevron and Aera Energy own this town,” stated one participant, and other participants agreed that they did not always trust local elected officials to support the needs of the community over industry. Workshop participants were frustrated that fenceline communities like theirs always seemed to be the first choice for new industrial projects, and voiced skepticism over whether DAC would be any different from past projects that did not pursue a caring relationship with the community.

Climate Change in the Central Valley

California’s Central Valley is experiencing extreme heat in the summer months. Credit: Flickr/Eric Sonstroem

Anyone who lives in or has experienced the summer months in the Central Valley likely knows firsthand the extreme heat faced by residents every year, and how it is only projected to get hotter. “By midcentury, the Central Valley is projected to experience average heat-health events that are two weeks longer” states a Summary of Projected Climate Change Impacts on California.

Experiencing 90° F October days is already a common event for those living in the Valley. Alongside extreme heat, there is also the aforementioned drought. Audrey Alonso, an NWF-American University Carbon Removal Justice Fellow was born and raised in the Central Valley, and personally remembers learning how to deal with drought as a kid and has maintained those water-conserving lessons to this day.

The Central Valley depends on a functioning irrigation system to maintain arable land, and droughts have put a massive strain on many households and farms in the area. The 2021 drought caused communities to incur $1.7 billion in costs, and led to the loss of over 14,000 jobs. These issues, exacerbated by climate change, are a growing problem that continue to affect the region’s agricultural production and the livelihoods that support it.

Climate change is bringing increasingly severe and frequent heat waves and droughts to Kern County; creating dusty conditionsexacerbating air quality issues, as the region consistently ranks as one of the worst in the U.S.; and threatening human health, especially that of vulnerable populations like the elderly and those who labor outside, including farmworkers.

It is important that any Kern County DAC projects acknowledge this context and refrain from becoming a burden to communities as well as limited resources they might share, like water. If they are able to do this, some argue there may be a way forward.

What if We Centered Equity and Environmental Justice?

In the community DAC workshop conducted in Bakersfield “to understand community needs, concerns, and support or opposition for a potential DAC hub in their community,” participants laid out pathways toward an equitable vision for DAC Hubs deployment.

Such a vision, they said, would need to emerge from ongoing discussions across the community, and would require rooting decision-making power firmly with community groups and local small businesses, include active involvement and oversight from the community, and work with trusted experts. Accountability, transparency, local job guarantees, and integration with the existing local economy would be paramount, and the DAC technology must be renewably powered and sensitive to the region’s water conditions.

Of all workshop participants, 75% would either strongly support or somewhat support a DAC Hub project in their community if it aligned with their equitable vision by addressing the concerns and needs they outlined, 20% of participants remained indifferent or unsure, and only 5% would oppose such a project.

This hypothetical buy-in was uniquely high across all four DAC workshops conducted, and signals a real opportunity to pursue a responsible buildout of CDR in California centering equity and environmental justice principles.

This blog is the second installment in an ongoing series examining the intersections of carbon dioxide removal and environmental justice.

The Oil & Gas Industry’s Role in CCS and CDR: International Energy Agency Conclusions

Authored by Wil Burns, Co-Director, Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy, American University

As part of its World Energy Outlook Special Report Series, the International Energy Agency (IEA) last week released a report that focuses on what the Agency believes the fossil fuel industry should do “to align with the Paris Agreement and with the 1.5°C goal.” Pertinent to the Institute’s work, the report includes a section (2.3.1) discussing the potential role of carbon capture and storage (CCS) within the fossil fuel sector, as well as direct air capture (DAC). While CCS is not squarely in the purview of the Institute’s work, it plays an integral role in one carbon dioxide removal approach, bioenergy and carbon capture with storage (BECCS), and the technology’s deployment will contribute to the development of conveyance and storage infrastructure relevant to the development of the direct air capture (DAC) sector.

The report contends that neither CCS or DAC can be viewed by the industry as mechanisms to “retain the status quo.” Under a business-as-usual scenario, the study concludes that oil and natural gas consumption would require an “inconceivable” 32 billion tons of CCS/DAC, including 23 billion tons of DAC to be Paris-compliant. Moreover, the study projected that this would require 26,000 terawatts of electricity generation in 2050, which would be greater than electricity demand in 2022, and $3.5 trillion in annual investments through mid-century, commensurate with the fossil fuel industry’s annual average revenue in recent years.

However, the report also emphasizes the important role that the fossil fuel industry can play in achieving Paris Agreement objectives through responsible deployment and investment in these approaches. The IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2023 study outlines a number of scenarios that reflect future potential global conditions. These include the Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS), premised on current climate policy, and commitments, the Announced Pledges Scenarios (APS), premised on the assumption that governments meet all national energy and climate targets made to date, and the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE) Scenario, which limits warming to 1.5°C.

In the APS, carbon dioxide capture grows from 45 Mt CO2 in 2022 to 440 Mt CO2 in 2030, with early action through large-scale deployment of CCS in the fossil fuel sector providing the foundation for subsequent use in other sectors where abatement is critical after 2030. This is projected to result in the global capture of 3.5 GtCO2 by 2050.

The NZE scenario requires much more aggressive carbon capture to contribute to the goal of holding temperatures to 1.5°C: 1 GtCO2 by 2030, and 6 GtCO2 by 2050, half of which is from DAC and heavy industry. This requires a whopping $500 billion of investment just through 2030. The study concludes that this daunting task requires the fossil fuel industry to go beyond conceiving carbon capture as a “social license to operate,” focusing merely on reducing Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions from the sector. Rather, the IEA argues that the fossil fuel sector could use its “sizeable balance sheets” to leverage a competitive advantage across the broader energy economy, helping further the industry’s diversification strategies while facilitating requisite levels of CCS and CDR.

Section 2.3.1 of the report also includes an extensive analysis of the specific role of, and limitations to, deployment of DAC. On the one hand, the IEA emphasizes that countries with low-cost energy resources and ample CO2 carbon capacity could reap $60-150 billion per year if certificates for DAC sequestration are traded between $100-250 per ton/CO2. However, the study concludes that the cost of deployment, energy constraints, competition for DAC CO2 from synthetic fuel production, and constraints on annual CO2 storage capacity will limit DAC deployment. It projects that under the NZE scenario, atmospheric removal of CO2 will reach 1.7 Gt/yr. by 2050, with one-third of this achieved by DAC. The study finds this will require about $70 billion in annual investment for DAC in 2050 and approximately 500 TWh of annual electricity generation in 2050.

As is often the case with IEA reports, this one is short on specific policy prescriptions to drive the kind of investment by the fossil fuel industry that is contemplated in the study. While the study discusses some specific roles that governments are, and can, play in incentivizing CCS/CDR, it is by no means clear these will be sufficient to substantially move the needle. The suboptimal levels of investment of the fossil fuel industry to date in these technologies, given the sector’s massive contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, suggests that it may not fulfill the role contemplated by the IEA without far most aggressive demand-pull mechanisms, such as a carbon take back obligation. Hopefully, the IEA’s future reports on this sector will consider a wider array of policy options to foster a more responsible role by the fossil fuel industry.

Reershemium, et al., Initial Validation of a Soil-Based Mass-Balance Approach for Empirical Monitoring of Enhanced Rock Weathering Rates, Environmental Science & Technology (2023)

Literature Review Series

Authored by Wil Burns, Co-Director, Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy, American University

There is growing interest in enhanced rock weathering (ERW) as a potentially important component of a carbon dioxide removal portfolio. Recent studies project that large-scale application of pulverized silicate rocks, such as olivine, basalt, or wollastonite, to croplands could effectuate atmospheric carbon dioxide removal of 0.5-4 gigatons annually by 2100. However, one of the most imposing barriers to scaling ERW as a climate response mechanism is the difficulty of monitoring and verifying carbon sequestration.

A new study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology tries to help address this issue. The study introduces a new tool to monitor and verify ERW sequestration. The approach seeks to measure differences in concentrations of ERW feedstock pre- and post-weathering by comparing concentrations of mineral-bound metal cations before and after feedstock deployment. More specifically, the approach, which is referred to as “TiCAT,” seeks to estimate the total loss of cations from the solid phase of soil samples vis-à-vis a titanium tracer. The researchers contend that this mass-balance approach can help us estimate the time-integrated amount of weathering of a silicate mineral, basalt in this study, within a given soil profile. The TiCAT approach was initially assessed through a laboratory mesocosm experiment that measured the concentration of reaction products in soils and leachate solution pools.

The researchers concluded that the TiCAT process accurately estimated initial CDR within the standard error or means of results from the more conventional method used to calculate weathering and initial CDR in mesocosm experiments. This suggests that “it can yield an accurate and robust estimate of initial CDR in enhanced weathering systems.” This could be a significant breakthrough, because prior methods of estimating ERW, especially those reliant on measuring quantities and transport of weathering reaction products, pose barriers to scaling given their time and labor intensiveness. Moreover, this approach could “directly integrate into existing agronomic practices,” as samples from the uppermost layer of soils are routinely taken for nutrient and soil pH analysis.

However, the authors of the study also proffer a number of caveats in terms of their findings, including the following:

    • The estimates from this approach are only an initial value, subject to potential leakage of initially captured carbon as it’s transported an alkalinity and dissolved inorganic carbon from soil to the oceans;
    • The variable lag time between feedstock dissolution and the capture of carbon dioxide needs to be taken into account in accurately assessing CDR;
    • As a next step, it needs to be established the approach can scale weathering rates from discrete sampling points to larger systems;
    • There may be site-specific conditions in some settings that would preclude accurate use of this approach, such as areas with high levels of physical erosion or where feedstocks with chemical conditions similar to those in the soils are applied.

As Mercer recently noted, robust monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of greenhouse gas removal approaches is a “market shaper” that can address a market failure that may preclude scaling of many options. Moreover, it’s critical to engender public acceptance and trust. While not as sexy as images of the construction of new CDR facilities, research of this nature needs to be front and center in our consideration.

DOE FECM should fund public and community organizations to lead on responsible carbon management

Authored by Dr. Sara Nawaz, Celina Scott-Buechler and Dr. Holly Caggiano

In August 2023, the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (DOE FECM) unveiled its Notice of Intent (NOI) and Request for Information (RFI) regarding the launch of a Responsible Carbon Management Initiative. The primary purpose of this announcement was to notify interested parties of the department’s intentions and to encourage project developers and industry stakeholders to prioritize safety, environmental stewardship, accountability, community engagement, and societal benefits in carbon management projects.

To engage stakeholders and gather input, DOE FECM sought responses to a set of questions, particularly focusing on the draft Principles for Responsible Carbon Management Projects and the broader initiative. Responding to this call for input, Dr. Sara Nawaz, the Institute’s Director of Research, collaborated with Dr. Holly Caggiano from the University of British Columbia and Celina Scott-Buechler from Stanford University to share feedback on the draft Principles.

Their response highlighted the need for an important reconfiguration of DOE’s approach to responsible carbon management. Instead of treating ‘responsibility’ as something that individual developers should lead on and be supported in, the response argued for the need for DOE to support and fund democratic institutions and communities to better participate in decision-making about carbon removal.

Moreover, the response suggests the need for an autonomous, publicly funded entity to lead public engagement and participation processes. This entity would ensure that public and community views, concerns, and values are central to national, regional, and local planning for carbon management. These kind of independent public engagement processes have been demonstrated to improve public acceptance and social license, and to help in planning low-carbon transitions.

The response recommended a two-fold approach for DOE FECM:

    1. It suggests identifying and allocating funding to community organizations that are beginning to address issues of environmental justice, Tribal consultation, and more in carbon management. These funds would support community-led exploration of socially viable pathways for carbon management at the regional level.
    2. It proposes funding the scoping of an independent agency to lead governance and public co-creation of carbon management initiatives, with a focus on community participatory methods.

You can find a version of their full response below:

We commend the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (DOE FECM) for its commitment to exploring responsible carbon management. Approaching this topic via a set of Principles is a useful starting point, but as we will assert in this response, the current formulation of this RFI and these Principles offers only limited potential to meet the goal of responsible management. As we understand the RFI, it suggests that DOE FECM’s goal with a Responsible Carbon Management Initiative is to support [private] project developers in adequately meeting the Principles; it suggests that, in Phase 2, there will be a FOA that “would provide resources to support project developers seeking to meet the Principles or other aspects of this effort (including increasing transparency or third-party verification)”.

As written, the Principles appear to empower the private sector to lead emerging carbon management efforts. We urge that FECM reconsider this approach to carbon management. A socially and environmentally responsible carbon management regime is best led by our democratic institutions and the communities that have been, and will continue to be, most impacted by carbon-intensive industries.

Public and community leadership and ownership must be at the heart of DOE efforts on carbon management—and this initiative provides a unique opportunity to do so. If retooled to imagine carbon management as a public good, this flagship approach would empower government and community organizations to develop strategies tailored to local needs while developing ambitious long-term goals and the institutions necessary to meet them. A handful of local governments are already doing this through the 4 Corners Carbon Coalition. Another example of community-centered, and ultimately community-owned, carbon management project is the CALDAC DAC Hubs application. While we recognize the appeal of a private enterprise that can move faster and more nimbly than the government is sometimes able to do, we as social scientists must stress the importance of building social license and effective governance in any new industry. Given carbon management’s growing importance to meeting global climate goals—and the many examples of misuse of carbon management as a greenwashing tactic—the societal stakes of a successful industry are high. Like other forms of waste management in the U.S., carbon management should primarily be treated as a public project. This is further justified by the significant public funds that have been allocated to carbon management to date. Treating carbon removal as a public project

In addition to conceptualizing the carbon management industry as a public undertaking necessitating public control, we would further argue that a community-driven approach is needed over the proponent-led model implicit in this RFI. Developers of carbon management projects certainly need support in working towards more responsible deployment at the project level, but they are not the only group that do, nor are they the group with the greatest need for support. In fact, there are limits to what ‘developers’ alone can accomplish in working towards the goal of responsible deployment. To ensure adequate attention to the Principles (particularly on community engagement, environmental justice, Tribal consultation, workforce development and quality jobs, but also others), it will be crucial that community groups (e.g., Tribal, environmental justice, labor, and general public community groups) are supported in engaging with developers regarding potential projects and broader carbon management initiatives in their local areas.

There are a few reasons why these groups are well-positioned to support the implementation of responsible carbon management initiatives, and why DOE FECM should actively focus its attention and support on these important public and community groups. Despite holding crucial local knowledge, these groups often lack access to the conversations, options, and technical understandings of trade-offs that would help them make informed decisions about if, how, when, and where potential carbon management projects might benefit their communities. When developers lead the agenda on these topics, communities tend to enter the conversation later—yet, early participation is essential for effective community engagement and positive outcomes for environmental justice communities, workforces, and overall project acceptance and success. Beginning the conversation early means that communities can shape priorities from a project’s inception, rather than responsively negotiating at a table that has already been laid. When developers lead the conversation, communities are less likely to be offered the full range of possible options available to them, as developers tend to focus on options that they hope to implement, excluding other options (for decarbonization, community benefits, etc.) that might also exist.

As such, there is an urgent need for public engagement and participation processes that are shepherded and led by independent groups separate from developers—both to determine the scope and governance of carbon management nationally as well as to determine mechanisms for empowering communities to lead carbon management projects. DOE FECM should take steps towards establishing such an autonomous public entity that can ensure that public and community views, concerns and values are centered in national planning for carbon management and the production and ownership of individual projects.

 A key value of such a group would be the impartiality that such independent third-party actors bring. Precedents for such independent public participation bodies have been developed for environment and megaproject sectors in the Netherlands, Denmark, Canada, Italy, the UK, and France, with the most long-standing in Quebec and France. In France, a public entity that does public engagement (the National Commission for Public Debate, or Commission Nationale du Débat Public, CNDP) is designed to facilitate early public participation in potential environmental projects, so that participation occurs when it is still possible to substantially modify terms of projects. As such, the CNDP has the potential to meaningfully improve projects and generate social acceptance; of 101 public debates, 296 consultations, and 31 consultancy and expertise missions that the CNDP has facilitated in the last 25 years, only 3 projects were abandoned following public debate, 58% of projects saw design modifications, and all saw changes to their governance procedures.

Germany’s regional coal workforce transition also offers insights into how to ensure that carbon management is developed to facilitate a just transition. Beginning in the 1980s, Germany began a multi-decade community engagement process, acknowledging that a just transition away from coal must be a participatory process involving workers, industry and governments.” Since then, municipal governments have implemented a regional-level approach that relies heavily on participation—an approach that has been much more successful than its previous top-down approach with minimal public participation. Forms of engagement and participation used have included multi-stakeholder commissions (to advise on intervention design and oversee implementation), and multi-stakeholder conferences (to create local dialogues about regional needs and possibilities), and grant committees (to select projects for funding). Much of this has occurred at the local level, where the federal government transferred resources to local governments for them to oversee these participatory processes; such a transfer of resources to local governments was found to reduce coordination problems across policy levels, facilitating the efficacy of this transition away from coal.

From the German coal transition example, we see (1) the importance of conducting participation not just in relation to specific projects, but on broader sectoral transition and how it should unfold. We also see (2) that government-facilitated participation processes enable solutions that are targeted and adapted to local contexts and generate higher levels of acceptance. Both of these lessons will be relevant for carbon removal and carbon management, which needs to grow exponentially as a sector in the coming years and decades, and which will vary in form depending on the geographic regions in which they are conducted.

How can DOE FECM begin to incorporate these insights into its work? We propose that, instead of funneling its limited resources to developers, a better approach to responsible development by DOE FECM might involve the following:

    1. Identifying and allocating funding to a set of community organizations that are beginning to give attention to issues of environmental justice, Tribal consultation (and consent), etc. on carbon management. Funding would support these groups in leading initial exploration of socially viable pathways for carbon management at the regional level while considering the broader role and scope of carbon management in climate action. Redirecting resources directly to community organizations and facilitating these groups in leading on engagement activities would provide a strong pathway for DOE FECM to work towards its goals of “the highest levels of safety, environmental stewardship, accountability, community engagement, and societal benefits in carbon management projects”.
    2. Funding the scoping of an independent agency that might be chartered to lead governance of and public co-creation of carbon management (with attention to the many other issues covered in these Principles). Such a body might be deployed at regional levels to provide independent insights into community carbon management priorities through community participatory methods and inform the development of carbon management initiatives. Given the existing precedent for autonomous public entities to facilitate robust and sustained community engagement, we suggest that such an entity would be well-positioned to equitably and effectively facilitate the development of a Responsible Carbon Management Initiative.

Review of Lefebvre, et al., Biomass residue to carbon dioxide removal: quantifying the global impact of biochar

Literature Review Series

Authored by Wil Burns, Co-Director, Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy, American University

To date, the vast majority of purchases of durable carbon dioxide removal have been for biochar, a process that can transform biogenic carbon dioxide into a far more stable form via the process of pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is a thermal process that, in the absence of oxygen, can deconstruct bio-polymers into, among other things, biochar, a charcoal-like substance that can securely store carbon for hundreds to thousands of years when applied to soil. Conversion of biomass to biochar can sequester 50% of initial carbon, compared to 3% associated with burning, or less than 10-20% after 5-10 years from biological decomposition.

Image Credit: Lefebvre, et al. The above image is a graphical abstract.

A number of studies in recent years have suggested that biochar potential could be much greater in the future, perhaps in the range of 3.5 GtCO2/yr., or up to 350 Gt during this century. However, to date, studies have focused on global or regional aggregate estimates. In a recently published study, researchers led by David Lefebvre of the University of British Columbia sought to extend these analyses by assessing the potential of biochar sequestration in each of 155 countries. The study restricts itself to the assessment of sequestration potential associated with biomass residue feedstocks in the contexts of agriculture, forestry wood residues, animal manure, and wastewater biosolids. The study also presumes that 30% of residues are left in the fields in the interest of maintaining long-term soil health.

Among the conclusions of the study are the following:

  • Four countries, all characterized by large populations, land areas, and agricultural sectors have the greatest potential, including:
    • China: 468 Mt CO2e/yr.
    • United States: 398 Mt CO2e/yr.
    • Brazil: 303 Mt CO2e/yr.
    • India: 225 Mt CO2e/yr.
  • North America and South America are characterized by a large number of countries with biochar sequestration potential of 25 Mt CO2e/yr., with bands of relatively low potential across North Africa into the Middle East, with low potential in portions of Europe and southern Africa.
  • 28 countries have the potential to sequester more than 10% of their CO2 emissions with biochar, with the largest number in Europe
  • The “conservative approach” of the study (including assessment of only recalcitrant carbon with permanence factors based on national averages) yielded an estimated carbon dioxide removal potential of 6.23% of total greenhouse gas emissions of the 155 countries in the study.

Notably, the researchers observed that its estimates didn’t take into account a number of potentially compelling co-benefits, such as potentially reducing emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, enhancement of crop yields and displacement of fossil fuels. Any effort to assess the potential costs and benefits of biochar deployment in individual countries, as well as globally, will require a more granular assessment of these factors, suggesting one potential research tributary flowing from this study.

Overall, this study could prove extremely helpful in helping to operationalize biochar programs nationally, and regionally, moving forward. It suggests that biochar could play an important role in the carbon dioxide removal portfolio of many countries.

Carbon Removal Meets Environmental Justice: A Fellow’s Perspective

Authored by Jake Ferrell, Carbon Justice Fellow at the National Wildlife  Federation

Set up in their on-site warehouse, company leadership gathered perhaps fifty people, myself included, around a large presentation screen to show what went into building and deploying their climate-saving direct air capture (DAC) technology. They presented their aims, a polished pitch: DAC modules widely deployed with low-costs, at commercial scale, and located in the desert somewhere so it wouldn’t bother anyone. A hand shot up – had they considered the environmental justice (EJ) dimensions of their projects? Doubts were voiced that projects would, in reality, be located so far away from communities, let alone sensitive wildlife and ecosystems. The question was shouted, barely audible in the cacophonous mechanical environment. “We didn’t think about that yet,” company leadership replied. “We’ve been focused on the engineering of building a DAC plant.”

A group of people pose for a photo inside a building.









The Carbon Removal Justice Fellows meet with members of the Senate Budget Committee on Capitol Hill. Photo credit: Jake Ferrell

The Carbon Removal Justice Fellowship was created to center equity and justice considerations in carbon removal policy. National Wildlife Federation partnered with American University’s Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy to co-run the program. The fellowship’s creators saw an opportunity to gather a diverse group of talented people to meet at the intersections of environmental justice and carbon removal in order to facilitate important conversations on how to avoid this industry becoming another harmful iteration of the status quo. The fellowship’s inaugural cohort was made up of folks working in environmental law, community advocacy for frontline communities, clean water, decarbonizing heavy industry, carbon removal social science, and more.

What is Carbon Dioxide Removal?

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is a strategy whereby CO2 is removed directly from the ambient air and sequestered in a form that prevents it from re-entering the atmosphere. CDR addresses the climate crisis by targeting excess atmospheric CO2, a result of societal industrialization. Examples of CDR range from natural solutions like reforestation to more technological processes like DAC.

Several people sit on couches and various seats in an office.

Fellows meet with representative offices on Capitol Hill. Photo credit: Jake Ferrell

Centering Environmental Justice in Carbon Dioxide Removal

The potential benefits of CDR include the prospect of addressing legacy emissions, and the ability to make room for self-determined development in places that might require steel, concrete, or other emissions-generating industries during the energy transition. The growing CDR industry, however, still has a series of challenges to grapple with regarding its energy demands, water use, climate-relevant scalability, economic cost, and transportation of CO2 from capture to sequestration sites. Additionally, this sector cannot afford to ignore the country’s long-standing legacy of racist pollution, siting injustices, and undelivered promises. Projects and communities are always inextricably intertwined, both economically and environmentally, so projects need to incorporate environmental justice considerations such as self-determination, informed consent, and mutual respect from the early planning stages of a project.

But environmental justice is more than listed principles – it is an active and variable movement with many facets, so it is vital that as the carbon removal sector experiences rapid growth, justice, conservation, and labor voices claim a seat at the table to be heard. Thus far, many active EJ organizations have been understandably critical of CDR conversations that do not appear to take seriously the social implications and historical legacies of adding more industrial projects in their communities. There is a risk that carbon removal provides an excuse for mitigation deterrence, or the postponing of society’s necessary transition away from fossil fuels. Many in the Carbon Removal Justice Fellowship carried forward this skeptical EJ ethos into conversations in the CDR space.

Urging the Industry to Consider its Impacts

The eleven Fellows managed to visit Washington, D.C., New York, NY, Laramie, WY, and Denver, CO within a packed 15 days in July. We talked to folks at organizations like the BlueGreen Alliance, Carbon180, Carbon Business Council, US Department of Energy, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and World Resources Institute to name a few. The Fellows also spent two days engaging in CDR conversations on Capitol Hill. In my view, our purpose – the red thread guiding us through our manifold meetings – was to hold space, to parse through some of the complex issues at the intersections of EJ and CDR, and to challenge existing perceptions. In this last aspect we were especially successful, and success in this instance often meant tension and uncomfortable exchanges. But tension is often necessary for progress, and many participants across the program appreciated our candor.

Some of the Fellows’ recurring questions from the duration of the program include: What does it mean to center environmental justice in relation to carbon removal? What does it look like for a project to get enthusiastic consent from a community? How are a project’s community benefits determined, and who gets to make those decisions? What does an A+ on a project’s environmental justice and community benefits scorecard look like? How do we move from well-intentioned plans to legally enforceable agreements? Who is accountable to whom, and where does the buck stop?

While historic policy related to carbon removal has been passed and big announcements like the $1.2 billion dollars for DOE’s DAC Hubs continue to roll out, the Carbon Removal Justice Fellows will continue to wrestle with these questions and others in the weeks and months to come. Those two weeks in the July heat mark the beginning of our ongoing engagement with carbon removal and environmental justice.

A group of people pose for a photo outside.

Photo credit: Jake Ferrell

Such an impactful group could not have come together without Dr. Simone H. Stewart and Shannon Heyck-Williams at the National Wildlife Federation, and Dr. Simon Nicholson and Jenn Brown at the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University, most of whom participated alongside the cohort during the fellowship.

How Carbon Financing is Repeating the Mistakes of Environmental Conservation

Authored by Professor Scott Freeman, American University

Prepared for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and carbon financing policies are drawing unprecedented sums from country governments and private corporations. Proposed projects encompass a variety of strategies, a large portion of which involve land use change that will directly affect the lives of those living on or near the land in question. 

Early evidence of displacement or infractions of sovereignty associated with the development of carbon management projects, have alarmed frontline defenders and environmental justice advocates. Researchers are increasingly concerned with the equity and justice of carbon removal and carbon financing.  Even ‘engineered’ carbon removal technologies that require minimal space raise critical questions about who makes land use decisions and who benefits most from carbon removal.

These concerns about the impacts of environmental policies that appeal to a “broader good” are not new. So as we collectively try and work through the ethics of ostensibly novel interventions, it actually may be useful to think through the ethics and impacts of previous interventions similarly undertaken for broader environmental well-being. 

Environmental conservation initiatives, particularly the history of parks and protected areas, have long aligned with concerns of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation by targeting and conserving specific areas. But their history is not one without conflict and problems. 

The history of conservation raises very concerning flags that carbon removal advocates should pay close attention to.

Historical legacies

Throughout the 20th century, biodiversity and forest conservation often resulted in negative effects for residents proximate to the areas of intervention. Interventions have historically imagined a “wilderness” without people, a perspective that has sidelined the individuals who live in or near conservation areas. Those who do live most proximate to conservation areas can be marginalized in the design and implementation of conservation areas, which has resulted in displacement or economic and social hardship.

Premised on the notion that human interaction with forests was the principal cause of their destruction, parks and protected areas often followed policies of “fortress conservation.” Fueled by global concerns for the loss of biodiversity, fortress conservation built upon the model of national parks in the United States which imagined keeping certain people (often indigenous) out of conservation areas while regulating other more “acceptable” activities like tourism. As a result, similar to parks in the United States, parks and protected areas globally have brought about the displacement of indigenous people and those living close to the resources in question. Displacement not only implies loss of land, but the undermining of livelihoods, and the disruption of existing systems of environmental management. Altering the economies and environmental management strategies of people proximate to resources have also negatively impacted the effectiveness of protected areas. These negative effects of conservation and development projects occurred in remarkably unjust ways: few if any rich or elite households have been displaced by the creation of protected areas. 

Even for individuals who are permitted to continue living in conservation areas, the limitations put on those areas have also impacted their lives and livelihoods. By restricting agricultural activities and other customary practices, conservation areas can result in increased economic hardship and decreased ecological outcomes. Prioritizing conservation goals without sensitivity to the social lives in and around conservation has led to a long series of problematic engagements. Even interventions that prioritize participation and the inclusion of local stakeholders, like community-based conservation, have neglected to fully consider the political and social contexts that exist prior to the entrance of conservation initiatives. 

Many of the issues of conservation interventions have come about because of thinking– and actions– that attempt to separate humans from the environment. Protecting areas from the threat of deforestation has often meant removing people who live in that area. Protecting the seas from overfishing has meant halting the activities of fishers. And yet, the activities of forest dwellers or artisanal farmers may be marginal to the deeper causes of environmental destruction. 

Imagining that forest spaces are absent of humans, and can easily be set apart or repurposed, is a deeply problematic assumption. This, in combination with the tendency for policies to be designed outside of the areas of interest and implemented top-down, creates a perfect possibility for the continual sidelining and marginalization of forest dwellers, indigenous people, and other groups closest to areas of intervention.

The surprising issues of climate financing and CDR 

CDR, in either protecting forested areas or altering existing uses of land, represents a potential continuity of these impacts. While some CDR interventions may focus on reforestation, others may incentivize forest preservation. Still others may involve focused engineering technologies such as biomass carbon removal and storage. Across these diverse interventions are similar concerns for either conservation of lands or land-use change. Like conservation interventions, decisions are being made about land from the top-down. Designed far from the contexts of implementation, the politics and sociality in areas of implementation are distant from the authors of interventions. Also like conservation interventions, the social contexts of areas of intervention are not principal factors in the design of CDR schemes, taking second seat to efficacy in the removal of carbon.

The potential for displacement of people and livelihoods is one principle concern of CDR projects. A review of industrial tree plantations, one strategy of carbon sequestration, found that forest plantations often occurred on state lands, which affects local inhabitants who may live in or use forests with insecure tenure, and often causes displacement with little or no compensation, sometimes through the use of force. The REDD+ program has argued for participation and pro-poor policies, and yet the requirements of land and the enclosure and use change of common lands has led to conflict and risks of economic and physical displacement

When occurring on private land, carbon removal schemes can contribute to land consolidation in the hands of wealthier individuals, which can lead to displacement and migration of smallholders.  For example, an estimated 15,000 agriculturalists with insecure tenure in Kenya were displaced in order to make way for large forest plantations financed by carbon credits; they never received compensation for their removal. A study in Cambodia found that lands dedicated to shifting cultivation cleared forested areas in favor of mono-cropped trees, both diminishing primary and secondary forests and halting economic activities by agriculturalists in the area. Such policies have comprised a growing number of land grabs. Referred to as “green grabs” in these cases, these displacements fulfill carbon commitments but do so while valuing the land, and not necessarily the people living on or dependent on that land. 

Whether focusing on afforestation or other land uses, widespread land-use changes in CDR raises other concerns. In particular, researchers are concerned about carbon removal’s effect on food production. As land becomes newly valued and focused on the production of non-food crops, it raises concern about the ability of indigenous groups and local populations to produce food, but also raises issues with the amount of total land dedicated to food production in contrast to the amount of land dedicated to carbon removal.

The top-down dynamics fueled by private investors and facilitated by state governments also poses issues as decisions about land are made without the explicit involvement of individuals who live in and around that land. This has threatened indigenous sovereignty: in Guyana indigenous lands have been promised through climate financing, making decisions on indigenous lands without consultation. As powerful actors forge agreements about the land of less powerful actors, the dynamics of CDR policies can be remarkably unjust, consolidating power and moving decisions away from those who are already marginalized. 

As an industry, conservation has attempted to distance itself from pasts ensnared in displacement, attempting to engage social science and indigenous critiques of conservation. Yet for those working in the industry, the inclusion of the human dimensions of conservation is a steep uphill battle. Even recently, guards in protected areas used violent repression in implementing conservation. 

Reassessing Carbon Removal 

The goal of establishing new land use areas dedicated to forestation seems noble; potentially protecting areas and fostering new ones that will serve to sequester carbon. Yet the history of similar interventions that have sought to designate land use and restrictions have been remarkably unjust and in many ways damaging to forest dwellers and local residents. 

Moving towards a more just carbon removal strategy will mean a radical reconsideration of how decisions are made about land, and who benefits from those decisions. This would mean altering policies and priorities so that forest dwellers, small farmers, and indigenous people design, benefit from, and have decision-making power over carbon removal. As it stands, current redress mechanisms in conservation have failed to compensate individuals for loss as a result of the negative impacts of conservation. 

Those interested in seeing carbon removal scale must reckon with the histories of conservation. Rethinking fundamentally who benefits from carbon removal and the large potential for displacement and negative outcomes should be a principal concern of whether or not carbon removal policies are on track to contribute to the creation of a more just and sustainable world. 

IPCC WGIII Report Affirms the Necessity for CDR to Meet Goals of the Paris Agreement

Two opposing mega-trends are highlighted by the IPCC Working Group III report, one a cause for grave alarm, one a cause for hope. This report finds we are currently heading very fast towards global warming of 1.5°C. And the current pledges by countries would take us significantly well beyond the 1.5°C target. 

A major takeaways from this report indicate that we must dramatically phase down fossil fuels and stop new fossil-fuel infrastructure.  However, at the same time as we phase down fossil fuels, the IPCC report finds that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is required to counterbalance hard-to-abate sectors of the economy and to limit warming to 1.5°C. The IPCC report affirms that carbon removal is especially important to counterbalance hard-to-abate sectors, like steel production and long-haul aviation. 

For a more extensive look into the finding of this report, please see our “Key Findings for Carbon Dioxide Removal.”

Here is a summary of some key points:

The IPCC Working Group III report affirms that carbon removal will be critical to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, in tandem with deep cuts to emissions, and highlights the scaling that needs to happen to realize this goal. 

  • CDR can counterbalance hard-to-abate sectors: The report finds that CDR has an important role to play in reaching net-zero emissions by counterbalancing residual emissions in sectors of the economy like food production, long-haul aviation, and steel production (C.11.4). CDR is required both globally and nationally (Technical Summary, page 94).
  • Carbon removal cannot be an excuse to overshoot 1.5: The Working Group II report found that scenarios that significantly overshoot 1.5°C, including ones where large-scale CDR is used, bring catastrophic costs and other risks. The Working Group III report acknowledges the current limitations of CDR as well as the risks and impacts (C.11.2; C.11.5), stating that upscaling the deployment of CDR at very large scales depends on developing approaches to address feasibility and sustainability (C.11).
  • Responsible deployment is key: The report warns that poorly done CDR can have varying socio-economic side effects, depending on the method, site-specific content, implementation, and scale of CDR deployment (C.11.2). As a result, it is crucial to responsibly scale-up CDR. 
  • Multiple CDR solutions can work in tandem with one another: The report does not make a recommendation on which CDR approach is best. The estimates of carbon removal available from each CDR approach vary in the report. In addition, all approaches have limits and trade-offs. The report finds that CDR in the land sector alone presents challenges for competing demands on food security, conflicts with livelihoods, and the nuances of land ownership and management systems (C.9). The report finds that regarding mitigation generally, a broad portfolio is best and that portfolios of technological solutions reduce feasibility risks (Technical Summary, page 138) In this light, investing in multiple CDR approaches may be required to reach the gigaton scale of removal needed. This portfolio of options includes technological approaches like Direct Air Capture, which requires significantly less land area than nature-based solutions.   
  • Carbon removal is distinct from carbon capture: The IPCC places CDR and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in two distinct sections of the report. The terms often get conflated. CDR and CCS are two diverse approaches to climate mitigation that use similar and overlapping vocabulary but undertake very different activities, often with radically different approaches. Carbon removal can address legacy emissions, which makes it a unique tool for meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. Conversely, CCS stops carbon dioxide before it gets into the atmosphere. 
  • Scaling up CDR is crucial: The report finds that scaling up CDR responsibly requires accelerated research and development, improved tools for risk assessment and management, targeted incentives, the development of agreed methods for measurement, and robust reporting and verification of carbon flows (C.11.5). Modeling in the report does not fully account for the falling costs of CDR, but general economic cost forecasts by prior IPCC reports failed to fully capture cost reductions that subsequently occurred for solar and wind power (Technical Summary, page 25). The report finds that modular small-scale technologies tend to improve faster and be adopted more quickly – a technological profile that may match DAC units (Technical Summary, page 25). 

It is critical to responsibly scale up carbon removal to removal in order to balance the carbon budget and limit warming at 1.5°C.

  • The world is close to exceeding its carbon budget: A significant but very small carbon budget remains to limit warming to 1.5° and the path to limit warming to 1.5° is extremely narrow. Pollution from hard-to-decarbonize sectors must be counterbalanced.
  • Carbon removal is needed to help close the gap: Carbon removal, which can counterbalance emissions in hard-to-abate sectors, with nature-based and technological solutions, can help ensure the world does not exceed its carbon budget if (and only if) it is paired with aggressive pollution reduction.  
  • We need to embrace all climate solutions: As the world gets close to exceeding our carbon budget, there is no silver bullet to solve the climate crisis. We need to double down on urgently reducing new climate pollution. This can happen in tandem with carbon removal and other climate technologies. Investing in carbon removal today can help answer questions on responsible carbon removal deployment, such as how to reduce costs and ensure that projects are developed with community input.


CO2 Pipelines: Navigating the Complexities and Nuances Through Expert Opinions

Authored by Jenn Brown

Prepared for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

The term “pipeline” tends to evoke strong reactions throughout many communities across the U.S. for various reasons. Many of these reactions are negative, and these feelings are not without merit. This concern around pipelines also expands beyond U.S. impacts as well, as the expansion of many pipelines is concomitant with the perpetuation of the fossil fuel industry.

In the United States, there are 2.8 million miles of regulated pipelines that carry oil, refined products, and natural gas liquids. These massive pipeline infrastructures have posed significant threats and damages to communities and environments throughout the country, and some of this can be attributed to aging infrastructure. For example, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, from 2001 to 2020, there have been 5,750 significant pipeline incidents onshore and offshore, resulting in over $10.7 billion worth of damages.[1]

This brings us to the issue at hand: how do pipelines that transport CO2 for both carbon dioxide removal and carbon capture utilization and storage fit into this picture?

It has become increasingly clear in recent years that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) will become a necessity for the global community to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The recent IPCC AR6 Working Group I report released in August of 2021 reiterates this point. Even with the most optimistic modeling used in the report, limiting warming to 1.5˚C necessitates about 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide removal per year by mid-century and 17 billion by 2100. Some approaches to CDR might involve transporting CO2 via pipelines, but there are also many other approaches that do not necessitate the need for pipelines, such as enhanced weathering, agroforestry, and blue carbon.

One method of carbon removal that has received a fair amount of attention is direct air capture (DAC) in part due to the recently launched Orca facility in Iceland by Swiss company Climeworks. Furthermore, the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021 includes $3.5 billion allocated to the construction of four “regional direct air capture hubs” and additional funding for CO2 pipelines.  This effort is made with high hopes from the federal government that these hubs will result in the creation of clean energy jobs.

The carbon removed with DAC can be injected into the ground right at the plant where the carbon removal takes place, as long as the facility is located over appropriate geological formations. This is an idea known as colocation, which prevents the need for transporting CO2 altogether. But DAC could also possibly, to some degree, come to rely on the utilization of pipelines to transport the captured COto sites where it can be injected into geological storage areas, or to facilities where it can be transformed into long-lasting carbontech products such as concrete.

These developments conjure an important question: are all pipelines created equal? Furthermore, does a CO2 pipeline intended for combating climate change warrant the same concern as oil and gas pipelines? Are pipelines needed to scale DAC or can CO2 storage happen onsite at a DAC plant?

As a starting point to help navigate this thorny and complex question, we turned to the expertise of three professionals working actively on these exact issues. Through these discussions, we sought out perspectives from the “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” stances on if the scaling of DAC depends on CO2 pipelines. As these viewpoints highlight, there is a range of perspectives when it comes to if the growth of DAC is reliant on CO2 pipelines or not.

The Experts

Xan Fishman, who is representing the “yes” perspective, is currently the Director of Energy Policy and Carbon Management at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Fishman previously worked for Congressman John Delaney as Chief of Staff. Through this experience, he became interested in DAC as a way of simultaneously addressing climate change and investing in various communities to create jobs, particularly in the Midwest.

Celina Scott-Buechler, who represents the “no” perspective, is a Climate Innovation Fellow at Data for Progress. Scott-Buechler’s work with the organization is on looking at how large-scale carbon removal can work in tandem with decarbonization in the U.S. Her work is also focused on promoting job creation and working alongside the environmental justice community to ensure these efforts do not fall into the traps of past infrastructure projects that did not have community support. She also served in the office of Senator Cory Booker through a one-year fellowship term working on natural climate solutions.

Rory Jacobson, who represents the “maybe” perspective, is Deputy Director of Policy at Carbon180, a D.C.-based NGO focused exclusively on carbon removal federal policy. Jacobson has spent the majority of his career focused on CDR, most recently at Natural Resources Defense Council researching near-term federal policies to incentivize deployment. As a graduate student at Yale, he advised Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry on myriad climate and energy issues.

What differentiates a CO2 pipeline from other types of pipelines?

Fishman points to the fact that much of the opposition to existing pipelines, particularly oil and gas, derives from the risk of spills and the implications that has for communities and the environment. Additionally, this perception is influenced by what the pipeline is transporting, which in the case of oil and gas is related directly to climate change via the resulting emissions that will cause further harm to communities and the larger environment. On the other hand, COpipelines are part of the climate solution. Although careful consideration should be taken when siting pipelines, implementing safety precautions and regulations, CO2 pipelines are generally safe and do not carry hazardous waste, according to Fishman.

Scott-Buechler feels that how the public views these issues matters, and that pipelines, in general, have had very negative image “in particular because of the way these pipelines have been sited through indigenous lands without consultation, though environmental justice communities and other rural communities without consent, minimal consent, or at least with minimal information.” Due to this, combined with other prominent issues for many groups, especially within the environmental justice community, the idea of a pipeline is a nonstarter because of all the baggage it carries.

Jacobson points to the more technical aspects on top of important questions around equity and justice. “From an infrastructure and engineering perspective they (CO2 pipelines)are actually quite different from oil and gas pipelines, and this difference is quite important because we actually do not transport CO2  as a gas. We transport it as a supercritical fluid which means that the carbon dioxide is under such high pressures that it actually behaves like a liquid.” CO2 needs to be transported at 700 PSI higher than, for example, natural gas, meaning the pipeline walls have to be thicker than other types of pipelines. This also indicates that the repurposing of decommissioned oil and gas pipelines, although in some cases could be considered ideal, is not a feasible option. Even in instances in which engineering is perfectly compliant with regulation, past missteps nonetheless highlight the inadequacy of federal review for existing pipelines, and the need for greater oversight.

Are CO2 Pipelines Necessary for Scaling Direct Air Capture?

“The way that I think about direct air capture is that it is nascent. But to go from where we are right now to the scale we need to be a major factor in achieving net-zero, there is a long way to go…In general, the faster we are able to deploy, the faster we will be able to scale,” says Fishman. Additionally, he makes the point that in order to meet 2050 climate goals, it is more beneficial to begin scaling now versus 5-10 years from now. He also points to the fact that there are already 5,000 miles of COpipelines currently in existence in the US. The 2020 Princeton University report Net-Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure, and Impacts has indicated significantly more pipeline infrastructure will be needed to achieve climate goals.[2] Furthermore, storage requires investment. Currently, DAC facilities are not yet at scale to bring in massive amounts of carbon dioxide and will probably not be for some time. Therefore, there is likely not enough  CO2 being brought in by DAC technologies as of yet to warrant large investments into storage. However, there are many existing industrial sites utilizing carbon capture utilization and storage, and connecting those sites to existing sinks for sequestration requires pipelines. Sharing lines of transportation across sectors increases the likelihood that each of those industries will be able to get off the ground without having to build something from scratch. Fisherman argues that this makes economic sense and will assist in the overall success of DAC in the long run.

Scott-Buechler argues that more information is needed around how to make pipelines safer and better regulated, especially including community input. Furthermore, pipelines are likely to be a huge sticking point within many communities, therefore she predicts potential 5-10 year delays in CO2 pipeline rollout given the problematic history of other types of pipelines in the US. In looking at it through this lens, co-locations with DAC facilities will be key to deploying the technology (which is injecting CO2 captured from a DAC facility right where the DAC plant is located, such as the Orca plant in Iceland). She further points to the fact that there are enough opportunities for co-location and many other ways for the industry to consider storage in more creative terms. Therefore, Scott-Buechler makes the case that it is feasible to severely limit the number of pipelines needed to scale DAC.

Jacobson argues for the creation of a comprehensive task force responsible for building out both the geography and the safety standards required to ensure best practices. This entity would consider everything from pipelines to siting to public engagement, including designating appropriate locations for these pipelines with rich public engagement and consent, examining the construction, quality, and surrounding ecosystem of pipelines, and setting safety parameters for operation. Thoughtful planning of pipeline networks can help both limit the number of pipelines and the distances to which they transport CO2 from DAC projects. This is especially relevant in light of increased funding for carbon removal that we’re seeing in upcoming legislation and federal funding. In implementing projects such as the four regional DAC hubs included in the recent bipartisan infrastructure deal, federal agencies like the DOE can set the tone for future deployment, safeguards, and community engagement.

What are the factors behind these viewpoints?

Fishman takes into consideration the threat of climate change and looking at the IPCC’s recommendation for the removal of 5-10 gigatons of CO2 per year. “It’s not just about getting to net-zero, it’s about getting to net negative,” he says. There is also the possibility the global community will achieve collective climate goals later than needed, which will further increase the need for removals. In terms of looking at CO2  pipelines, he points out that other modes of transporting COas an alternative come with their own set of complications, such as additional emissions. “The stakes are so high that not investing in a solution that it turns out we need, and it is fairly obvious as a potential path right now, I think would be a terrible mistake…There is an extent to which we built our way into this problem (climate change), and the real solution available to us is to build our way out of it,” he says. But the key is ensuring these solutions are built the right way,  while also taking into consideration any environmental justice concerns.

Scott-Buechler has worked closely with environmental justice groups for quite some time, both on and off Capitol Hill, and has come to view issues around carbon removal through that lens. She indicates that potential leakage is a large factor behind the mistrust, and sees pipelines as a nonstarter with these groups. She points to Standing Rock, stating “pipelines at large have developed this larger than life personality when talking about carbon removal infrastructure…generally siting and permitting will be something that we as a carbon removal community will contend with.” She also points to the DAC hubs laid out within the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, arguing that these hubs need to prioritize development in communities, led by those communities and other public groups rather than private industry, especially in communities transitioning away from economic reliance on fossil fuel industries. Further, researchers and policy communities should focus funds in these areas to fill existing gaps in information.

Jacobson explains that equitable construction, development, and input are critical to communities that would potentially host these projects, and that thoughtful quantitative analysis can better articulate the need for if and how much DAC needs CO2 pipeline infrastructure. Other types of pipelines have resulted in infringement on tribal sovereignty and other disasters, and Jacobson says that resistance to pipelines comes for a good reason. “These groups have already bared the environmental injustice that the oil industry and natural gas sector have placed on them, and accordingly, we would like to not have another pipeline of risk in their community and backyard. That is completely understandable.” He makes the case that strong federal regulation paired with public engagement and science-based communication with the communities is the only path forward. Additionally, Rory acknowledged that there is likely to be a lot of resistance from wealthy and privileged communities not wanting to see these pipelines in their backyard, and likely have more resources than lower-income communities to push back — something that should also be considered and remedied in policy and process.


[1] Depending on the type of pipeline, what it is transferring, what it is made of, and where it runs, there are various federal or state agencies that have jurisdiction over its regulatory affairs. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission oversees Interstate pipelines. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration oversees, develops, and enforces regulations to ensure the safe and environmentally sound pipeline transportation system. The United States Army Corps of Engineers oversees pipelines constructed through navigable bodies of water, including wetlands. State environmental regulatory agencies are also involved when it comes to pipelines that run through waterways.

[2] 21,000 to 25,000 km interstate CO2 trunk pipeline network and 85,000 km of spur pipelines delivering CO2 to trunk lines.


Why Orca matters: long-term climate policy and Climeworks’ new direct air capture facility in Iceland

Authored by David Morrow & Michael Thompson

Prepared for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

Earlier this week, the Swiss company Climeworks fired up its new Orca direct air capture facility in Iceland, which will remove 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year and turn it into stone.

Obviously, 4,000 metric tons is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to today’s emissions. Each year, Orca will clean up about three seconds’ worth of global CO2 emissions at today’s rates.

But that’s not the point. Orca is a baby step toward a larger carbon removal industry that could one day clean up emissions from the hardest-to-abate sectors or, even better, start cleaning up “legacy carbon” that remains in the atmosphere from our past emissions. Without baby steps like Orca, though, we would never get there. In that respect, Orca is a bit like the tiny, 3.5 kilowatt solar power station that NASA’s Lewis Research Center installed on the Papago Indian Reservation in 1978; it’s only the beginning. Global solar power capacity now stands at more than 200 million times the capacity of that little installation. While direct air capture isn’t likely to grow at such a pace, the point is that we shouldn’t judge the potential of an industry by its output in its earliest days.

One reason that direct air capture won’t grow at the same pace as solar power is because solar panels provide energy, whereas direct air capture consumes it. So, at least for the next couple of decades, it will almost always make more sense, from the perspective of climate change mitigation  and energy justice, to spend money on installing more clean energy and replacing old fossil fuel infrastructure than on building more direct air capture facilities. The reason to spend some money on direct air capture now, though, is to help the technology grow so that once we’ve drastically reduced our emissions, we can use direct air capture and other approaches to carbon removal to get to net-zero and maybe even net-negative emissions. By analogy, four decades ago, the reason to spend money on solar panels was not because they offered a cost-effective way of reducing emissions or supplying energy, but because those investments helped the technology grow. If everyone had dismissed solar at the time as too small and too expensive, we wouldn’t have the solar industry that we do today.

At any rate, one of the compelling things about Orca is that it’s running on renewable geothermal energy that was basically stranded in Iceland. Because Iceland already runs almost entirely on renewables, the clean energy that Orca uses couldn’t easily have been used to displace dirty energy instead. (Arguably, one could have instead built a facility to produce green hydrogen to ship to Europe or North America, but again, the point of Orca isn’t to reduce emissions today but to help build a technology that will be useful in the future. Besides, there’s plenty of renewable energy to go around in Iceland, so why not both? Build a hydrogen plant there, too!)

Another compelling thing about Orca is that it sits atop the perfect geology for mineralizing CO2. Orca can inject its captured CO2 directly into basalt, where it will turn to stone in a matter of years. 

The combination of abundant, stranded clean energy and good geology for sequestration makes Iceland an ideal place to build early direct air capture facilities—which raises an interesting question: where else in the world can we find that combination?