Don’t hamstring carbon removal
California needs to steer in developing critical carbon removal technologies
Assessments by the IPCC have made clear that essentially the most feasible way for the world to satisfy its goal of restricting climate change to below two degrees Celsius of warming includes rapid and big expansion of carbon removal technology – technology that will extract carbon dioxide and permanently sequester that carbon dioxide underground. California has long been a pacesetter in decarbonization, but proposed laws in Sacramento would hamstring California’s efforts to advance carbon removal.
Carbon removal technology takes two possible forms – one involves removing carbon dioxide from the exhaust of business systems (reminiscent of refineries or gas plants); the opposite involves removing carbon dioxide within the ambient air. The carbon dioxide then is transported to a geological formation where it may well be sequestered permanently. Within the case of carbon removal related to industrial systems, the method prevents increased emissions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Within the case of carbon removal from the ambient air (what is usually called direct air capture or DAC), the method reduces the concentration of carbon dioxide in the worldwide atmosphere.
Carbon removal shall be central to decarbonization efforts in the following several a long time. We’ve a rapidly diminishing capability within the atmosphere and oceans to soak up carbon emissions, and extreme weather events from the past few years clarify that the carbon emissions which have already occurred are causing real harm globally. DAC carbon removal allows for us to remove carbon pollution from the atmosphere – which may each buy us time to cut back emissions, and in addition within the long-run reduce the harm attributable to past carbon emissions. Carbon removal related to industrial operations could also be crucial for industries that require high levels of thermal combustion to operate, and so may require combustion of carbon-based fuels.
The challenge, nonetheless, is driving the investment in carbon removal needed to advance technology, reduce costs, and deploy at the huge scale required. We’ve seen two major success stories in decarbonization investment and technological change up to now – renewable electricity, and advances in battery storage for electrifying transportation. Nevertheless, each of those success stories were driven partly by revenue from sales of a product: Renewable electricity might be sold (like other electricity), and electric vehicles might be sold to consumers who want transportation.
Carbon removal is different. Absent a public subsidy to support it (reminiscent of through a payment for every unit of carbon removed and sequestered), there isn’t much of a market where persons are willing to pay for carbon to be removed and stuck underground. There was some investment by various corporations to support these efforts, driven by a desire to advance carbon neutrality for his or her operations, but the quantity of investment is removed from what’s required to scale up the technology, and the investments should not generally a part of the core revenue model for the businesses, making them vulnerable to cuts in a recession. Various other revenue models for carbon removal – reminiscent of using captured carbon to provide carbon-neutral fuels – are still highly speculative.
There may be one revenue model for carbon removal that’s currently economically viable at scale – for a long time, oil corporations have injected carbon dioxide from geologic sources into the bottom to facilitate the extraction of oil. If oil corporations were paid, or required, to make use of carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere or industrial facilities in these projects, that will create a marketplace for the captured carbon. The oil that’s produced and sold then provides a revenue stream to support future investments in carbon removal. Carbon dioxide injected in these projects might be permanently stored – indeed, if enough carbon dioxide is stored per barrel of oil removed, one may even make the oil extracted carbon neutral or negative.
California has been aggressive in pushing carbon removal technology, and existing state law even provides a major monetary incentive to make use of captured carbon dioxide for oil and gas extraction through the state’s Low Carbon Fuels Standard – a regulatory program that has also significantly advanced electric vehicle deployment.
Nevertheless, proposed laws would stop the usage of captured carbon dioxide for the extraction of oil and gas in California. SB 1314, introduced by Senator Limon (D-Santa Barbara), would prevent the state from approving any injection of captured carbon dioxide into oil fields within the state. The goal, in accordance with the Senator, is to stop carbon capture from “creating more fossil fuels.”
Unfortunately, the results of the laws could be to foreclose one among our most promising pathways for advancing carbon removal technology within the near future. And time is urgent – we are going to have to massively scale up carbon removal on a world scale to realize goals like limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and that in turn requires investments today in technology and price reductions.