Oil company plans to have machines suck carbon out of the sky, since it’s still producing oil: NPR

The US oil company Occidental Petroleum is building machines to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and inject it underground. Is the goal of technology to save the planet or the oil industry?

Joanna Summers, host:

Giant machines that suck carbon dioxide out of the air to combat climate change sound like science fiction, but they’re about to become reality, with billions of dollars in support from the US government. The main player in this growing industry is an American oil company. NPR’s Camila Domonoske reports.

Camila Domonoske, TL: Earlier this year, the party began in a windy, barren red-dirt area near Nottrees, Texas.


Domonoske: In a big white tent, there were dining slides, a stage, and a robot dog for some reason.

What does a robot dog do?

I didn’t get an answer to that. This was a groundbreaking achievement for Stratos, a billion-dollar plant to pull carbon dioxide from the sky. Major climate groups say this technology will be essential to combating climate change. But this party was not held by climate activists, but by an oil company. Let’s make a backup. We’ve spent more than a century filling the atmosphere with massive amounts of carbon dioxide, altering the climate of the entire planet. Most of this carbon comes from burning fossil fuels. So the idea that we can just build machines to pull that carbon back…

Richard Jackson: It sounded too good to be true, to be honest.

Domonoske: Richard Jackson is a senior executive at Occidental Petroleum or Oxy, for short, a large US oil company. Several years ago, they started seriously considering this technology called Direct Air Capture. It’s about taking back the carbon that’s already in the air. take a deep breath. You just breathed in a lot of nitrogen, some oxygen, and a little carbon dioxide. These plants absorb carbon and can be built anywhere.

JACKSON: You know, we drew a circle on the board and put a dot on it and said, well, really, does this — you know, would this plant make a difference?

Domonoske: The circle was the Earth, the point, the Direct Air Capture Station, a large industrial facility that extracts this carbon from the sky so it can be used or stored instead of fueling climate change. Jackson was skeptical at first.

Jackson: I think we got a break.

Domonoske: Comfortable enough to start planning multi-billion dollar projects. This technology is key to Oxy’s extraordinary plan to stop contributing to climate change while still producing oil. Oxy started partnering with a company called Carbon Engineering.

(sound of metal clinking)

DOMONOSKI: In 2018, NPR toured its manufacturing facility in rainy British Columbia.

(Sound of fans humming)

Domonoske: These are the sounds of huge propellers that move air while flowing liquids suck in carbon dioxide.

(Audio from archived NPR broadcast)

Jenny McCahill: So you can actually hear sounds like a waterfall.

Domonoske: Jenny McCahill, chemist and engineer, was leading that tour. She explained chemical reactions, why they need high heat, and finally how…

(Audio from archived NPR broadcast)

McCahill: Right now, we’re sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Domonoske: It’s possible, but it takes a lot of energy. And that means more emissions to pick up along the way. This means that this process is expensive. So expensive that only a few years ago it was an open question whether anyone would pay to do it on a large scale. This is not a question anymore. McCahill, who headlined that tour in British Columbia, was also in attendance at that concert in Notrey’s, Texas. It was an Oxy party and a long awaited dream came true for her.


McHale: We’re groundbreaking for the direct air capture stations that we’re building here in Texas.

Domonoske: Occidental Petroleum is now buying Carbon Engineering, and plans to build a lot of these plants. The former is designed to capture half a million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. In a sense, this is nothing. The world will have released that much carbon by the time you finish listening to this piece of radio. In other words, it’s huge, 100 times bigger than anything anyone’s built before.

McCahill: It’s really exciting to be able to see all of this together and the excitement in the room.

Domonoske: Or rather, in the tent. Outside, there wasn’t much to see yet – a brand new road and a couple of diggers.

Michael Avery: The ground is being moved and the groundwork is being prepared.

Domonoske: Michael Avery is the president of the Oxy branch that’s building this plant. This project required much of the same expertise as Oxy’s oil and gas projects and only a fraction of Oxy’s big money. While Avery and I were talking, the wind picked up, which was appropriate. In two years, according to the plan, a lot of air will move here through huge fans, through huge air ducts, capturing a lot of carbon dioxide, and then…

Avery: The carbon dioxide will go through a short pipeline to the well in that direction, where it will be trapped underground.

Domonoske: It’s expensive to suck carbon out of the sky, but if you can prove that you’ve stored it underground forever, the government and some companies will pay to provide this service to the planet. Alternatively, if you inject carbon dioxide near an old oil well, you can extract more oil from the ground. Occidental Petroleum plans to do both. But CEO Vicki Hollub prefers the option to produce more oil.

Vicki Hollub: You’re actually producing zero net barrels of oil.

Domonoske: Net zero oil — you see a huge market for it. And the bigger picture, it wants to use this technology to allow the world to fight climate change and keep using oil.

Hollub: It will take decades to produce oil. And if it’s produced the way I’m talking about, there’s no reason why oil and gas can’t be produced forever.

Domonoske: That voice you just heard was a lot of climate and energy experts screaming in frustration, because the world will be using oil and gas for decades at least. But the question, and it is a crucial one, is: How much oil are we going to burn? Climate advocates want to cut emissions sharply. Hollub is focused on canceling them. And you see that the more oil we eliminate, the less we need to cut production, the more oil we use. But removing carbon requires huge amounts of energy. For many climate advocates, this is not the reason they fight for this technology.

Erin Burns: No. Decarbonization – We have to decarbonize and reduce emissions. If we use decarbonization instead of reducing emissions, we will not be able to achieve our climate goals.

DOMONOSKI: This is Erin Burns, CEO of Carbon 180. Her nonprofit is vocal about this technology but is skeptical of the oil and gas stakes. It is a symptom of the sometimes mixed feelings in the odd alliance between industry groups, green groups and Oxy that have pushed for all these government stimulus. For many years, the debate about this technology was whether it would happen. Now, with remarkable speed, things have changed. Billions of dollars are being spent. Plants are built. The big debate now is: what exactly are we using it for? Kamila Domonowski, National Public Radio News.

SUMMER: NPR’s Jeff Brady contributed to this report. To learn more about this carbon capture technology and how Oxy wants to use it to produce more oil, catch up on All Things Considered tomorrow and later this week.

(Audio of the DEPECHE MODE song, “Ghosts Again”)

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