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.

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.

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.