The Economist: David Keith on why carbon removal won’t save big oil but may help the climate

Occidental, an American oil major, recently agreed to buy Carbon Engineering, a Canadian carbon-removal company, for $1.6bn. The deal underlines big oil’s growing interest in carbon-capture technologies, which suck carbon dioxide from the air. What does it mean for the climate?

Suppose a trucker dumped a load of manure on your front lawn and then demanded a fee to haul it away. Big oil made the fuel that is cooking our planet, so the idea that it might profit from cleaning it up strikes many people as obscene.

Critics argue that big oil is using carbon removal as a tool to protect its core business. As Occidental’s chief executive, Vicki Hollub, sees it, carbon removal means “we don’t need to ever stop oil.” Defenders argue that big oil can help meet social demands for decarbonisation by pivoting to carbon neutrality while bringing technical expertise to new low-carbon markets.

Greenwash or swords-to-ploughshares? My guess—informed by my experience as a climate-focused academic and as the founder of Carbon Engineering (on whose board I still sit)—is that the oil majors will be unsuccessful at both. Greenwashing will not protect them; nor will they smoothly pivot from being oil suppliers to carbon removers. Yet big oil’s carbon-removal play may nevertheless yield substantial climate benefits, in part because it is unlikely to play out as well as the companies hope.

Big oil will trumpet its green achievements, both real and imaginary. This will dampen public disapproval and help recruit talent, but it is hard to see how it reduces the threat to the core business, which is driven by accelerating climate policies and the decreasing cost of electric vehicles.

A world with large-scale carbon removal is a world with carbon prices high enough and decarbonisation policies strong enough to drive oil demand down sharply. Permanent carbon removal is likely to cost over $150 per tonne of carbon dioxide for at least a decade or two. That is equivalent to a penalty of almost $70 per barrel of oil. Though it may provide a green aura, an oil company’s carbon-removal business, however successful, will not protect its legacy oil business from strong carbon prices and policies. Neither greenwashing nor green reality changes the fundamentals.

The feasibility of a swords-to-ploughshares pivot rests on the premise that expertise transfers from oil and gas to carbon removal—or even beyond to solar power and other clean technologies. Although engineering skills are transferable, the business pivot is less plausible. A management culture built to succeed at making risky bets on big hydrocarbon plays such as ultra-deep offshore oil is different from the management culture needed to succeed in clean energy or carbon removal.

Occidental, an American oil major, recently agreed to buy Carbon Engineering, a Canadian carbon-removal company, for $1.6bn. The deal underlines big oil’s growing interest in carbon-capture technologies, which suck carbon dioxide from the air. What does it mean for the climate?

Suppose a trucker dumped a load of manure on your front lawn and then demanded a fee to haul it away. Big oil made the fuel that is cooking our planet, so the idea that it might profit from cleaning it up strikes many people as obscene.

Critics argue that big oil is using carbon removal as a tool to protect its core business. As Occidental’s chief executive, Vicki Hollub, sees it, carbon removal means “we don’t need to ever stop oil.” Defenders argue that big oil can help meet social demands for decarbonisation by pivoting to carbon neutrality while bringing technical expertise to new low-carbon markets.

Greenwash or swords-to-ploughshares? My guess—informed by my experience as a climate-focused academic and as the founder of Carbon Engineering (on whose board I still sit)—is that the oil majors will be unsuccessful at both. Greenwashing will not protect them; nor will they smoothly pivot from being oil suppliers to carbon removers. Yet big oil’s carbon-removal play may nevertheless yield substantial climate benefits, in part because it is unlikely to play out as well as the companies hope.

Big oil will trumpet its green achievements, both real and imaginary. This will dampen public disapproval and help recruit talent, but it is hard to see how it reduces the threat to the core business, which is driven by accelerating climate policies and the decreasing cost of electric vehicles.

A world with large-scale carbon removal is a world with carbon prices high enough and decarbonisation policies strong enough to drive oil demand down sharply. Permanent carbon removal is likely to cost over $150 per tonne of carbon dioxide for at least a decade or two. That is equivalent to a penalty of almost $70 per barrel of oil. Though it may provide a green aura, an oil company’s carbon-removal business, however successful, will not protect its legacy oil business from strong carbon prices and policies. Neither greenwashing nor green reality changes the fundamentals.

The feasibility of a swords-to-ploughshares pivot rests on the premise that expertise transfers from oil and gas to carbon removal—or even beyond to solar power and other clean technologies. Although engineering skills are transferable, the business pivot is less plausible. A management culture built to succeed at making risky bets on big hydrocarbon plays such as ultra-deep offshore oil is different from the management culture needed to succeed in clean energy or carbon removal.

When oil companies build thriving carbon-removal businesses, the interests of these business units will be misaligned with the legacy oil business. Legacy oil wants low carbon prices and high energy prices. Carbon removal wants the opposite. Big institutional investors such as pension funds prefer pure plays, so they will push to cleave carbon removal from legacy oil. History suggests that incumbents rarely survive fundamental shifts in the underlying business. ibm was an exception, but it is now dwarfed by Apple and Microsoft. The benefits of synergy are usually outweighed by the costs and conflicts of maintaining the legacy business.

So even when big oil succeeds in carbon removal the most likely outcome is freestanding cleantech companies alongside legacy oil rather than successfully integrated conglomerates. Environmentalists can thus welcome big oil’s move into carbon removal for the skills it brings with guarded optimism that the swords-to-ploughshares pivot will do little to protect the legacy oil business.

And the skills are desperately needed. Building billion-dollar battery factories, hydrogen infrastructure or plants to extract carbon from the air requires engineering and management skills that are concentrated in industries like oil and commodity chemicals. Occidental, for example, plans to build plants that can remove and store up to 30m tonnes of carbon per year at King Ranch in Texas. That is the equivalent of decarbonising 30m-60m transatlantic passenger flights per year. Although Occidental has never built a direct-air-capture plant, Carbon Engineering’s technology knits together existing industrial processes to achieve the new goal of carbon removal, and Occidental has experience with almost all the components required for direct air capture, including potassium hydroxide, a chemical used in the process, and CO2 sequestration. A startup cannot build plants with tens of millions of tonnes of capacity without the skills of a company that has built industrial plants at scale.

Big oil’s pivot to clean should be celebrated as a marker of the power of environmental advocacy, not a sign of its weakness. These investments did not happen simply because big oil woke up feeling woke. The driving force is policy. Today’s most important driver is Joe Biden’s clean-energy incentives. But these incentives did not just happen because the American president woke up green. They are the fruit of decades of environmental advocacy.

Greenwashing is a risk. Environmentalists are right to worry. Big oil will try to use carbon removal to defend the status quo. But there is a political upside. In a decarbonising world in which big oil only does oil and gas, its only future is extinction and it will fight progress with its back to the wall. If, however, the industry is also in the decarbonisation business, its interests—and the interests of the communities that depend on it—are split, with the low-carbon business units fighting for strong climate policy even as the legacy businesses oppose it. My hope is that this blurring of interests will lubricate the political bargains needed to accelerate climate progress.

Original post on The Economist

The New York Times: What’s the Least Bad Way to Cool the Planet?

How to cool the planet?

The energy infrastructure that powers our civilization must be rebuilt, replacing fossil fuels with carbon-free sources such as solar or nuclear. But even then, zeroing out emissions will not cool the planet. This is a direct consequence of the single most important fact about climate change: Warming is proportional to the cumulative emissions over the industrial era.

Eliminating emissions by about 2050 is a difficult but achievable goal. Suppose it is met. Average temperatures will stop increasing when emissions stop, but cooling will take thousands of years as greenhouse gases slowly dissipate from the atmosphere. Because the world will be a lot hotter by the time emissions reach zero, heat waves and storms will be worse than they are today. And while the heat will stop getting worse, sea level will continue to rise for centuries as polar ice melts in a warmer world. This July was the hottest month ever recorded, but it is likely to be one of the coolest Julys for centuries after emissions reach zero.

Stopping emissions stops making the climate worse. But repairing the damage, insofar as repair is possible, will require more than emissions cuts.

To cool the planet in this century, humans must either remove carbon from the air or use solar geoengineering, a temporary measure that may reduce peak temperatures, extreme storms and other climatic changes. Humans might make the planet Earth more reflective by adding tiny sulfuric acid droplets to the stratosphere from aircraft, whitening low-level clouds over the ocean by spraying sea salt into the air or by other interventions.

Yes, this is what it comes down to: carbon removal or solar geoengineering or both. At least one of them is required to cool the planet this century. There are no other options.

Carbon removal would no doubt trounce geoengineering in a straw poll of climate experts. Removal is riding a wave of support among centrist environmental groups, governments and industry. Solar geoengineering is seen as such a desperate gamble that it was dropped from the important “summary for policymakers” in the United Nations’ latest climate report.

Yet if I were asked which method could cut midcentury temperatures with the least environmental risk, I would say geoengineering.

Lest you dismiss me, I founded Carbon Engineering, one of the most visible companies developing technology to capture carbon directly from the air and then pump it underground or use it to make products that contain carbon dioxide. The company’s interests could be hurt if geoengineering were seen as an acceptable option. I was also an early proponent for burning biofuels like wood waste, capturing the resulting carbon at the smokestack and storing it underground. I am proud to be a part of the community developing carbon removal. These approaches can help manage hard-to-abate emissions, and they are the only way to reduce the long-term climate risks that will remain when net emissions reach zero.

But the problem with these carbon removal technologies is that they are inherently slow because the carbon that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution must be removed ton by ton. Still, the technology provides a long-term cure.

Geoengineering, on the other hand, is cheap and acts fast, but it cannot deflate the carbon bubble. It is a Band-Aid, not a cure.

The trade-off between geoengineering and carbon removal depends on one’s time horizon. The sooner cooling is pursued, the greater the environmental and social impacts of carbon removal.

Suppose emissions were under control and you wanted to cool the planet an additional degree by midcentury. How would removal and geoengineering compare?

Carbon removal could work. But it will require an enormous industry. Trees are touted as a natural climate solution, and there are some opportunities to protect natural systems while capturing carbon by allowing deforested landscapes to regrow and pull in carbon dioxide as they do. But cooling this fast cannot be achieved by letting nature run free. Ecosystems would need to be manipulated using irrigation, fire suppression or genetically modified plants whose roots are resistant to rot. This helps to increase the buildup of carbon in soils. To cool a degree by midcentury, this ecological engineering would need to happen at a scale comparable to that of global agriculture or forestry, causing profound disruption of natural ecosystems and the too-often-marginalized people who depend on them.

Industrial removal methods have a much smaller land footprint; a single carbon capture facility occupying a square mile of land could remove a million tons of carbon from the air a year. But building and running this equipment would require energy, steel and cement from a global supply chain. And removing the few hundred billion tons required to cool a degree by midcentury requires a supply chain that might be smaller than what feeds the construction industry but larger than what supports the global mining industry.

The challenge is that a carbon removal operation — industrial or biological — achieves nothing the day it starts, but only cumulatively, year upon year. So, the faster one seeks that one degree of cooling, the faster one must build the removal industry, and the higher the social costs and environmental impacts per degree of cooling.

Geoengineering could also work. The physical scale of intervention is — in some respects — small. Less than two million tons of sulfur per year injected into the stratosphere from a fleet of about a hundred high-flying aircraft would reflect away sunlight and cool the planet by a degree. The sulfur falls out of the stratosphere in about two years, so cooling is inherently short term and could be adjusted based on political decisions about risk and benefit.

Adding two million tons of sulfur to the atmosphere sounds reckless, yet this is only about one-twentieth of the annual sulfur pollution from today’s fossil fuels. Geoengineering might worsen air pollution or damage the global ozone layer, and it will certainly exacerbate some climate changes, making some regions wetter or drier even as it cools the world. While limited, the science so far suggests that the harms that would result from shaving a degree off global temperatures would be small compared with the benefits. Air pollution deaths from the added sulfur in the air would be more than offset by declines in the number of deaths from extreme heat, which would be 10 to 100 times larger.

Geoengineering’s grand challenge is geopolitical: Which country or countries get to decide to inject aerosols into the atmosphere, on what scale and for how long? There is no easy path to a stable and legitimate governance process for a cheap, high-leverage technology in an unstable world.

Which is better? Carbon removal is doubtless the safest path to permanent cooling, but solar geoengineering may well be able to cool the world this century with fewer environmental impacts and less social and economic disruption. Yet no one knows, because the question is not being asked. Geoengineering research budgets are minuscule, and much of the work is accomplished after hours by scientists acting outside their institutions’ priorities.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assumes enormous use of carbon removal to meet the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), but not because scientists carefully compared removal and geoengineering. This was a glaring omission in the I.P.C.C. report, given that one of the very few areas of agreement about geoengineering is that it could lower global temperatures.

Research is minimal because geoengineering has influential opponents. The strongest opposition to geoengineering research stems from fear that the technology will be exploited by the powerful to maintain the status quo. Why cut emissions if we can seed the atmosphere with sulfur and keep the planet cool? This is geoengineering’s moral hazard.

This threat is real, but I don’t find it a convincing basis to forgo research, particularly given evidence that support for geoengineering research is stronger in regions that are poorer and more vulnerable to climate change, regions that would benefit most from cooling.

Some will no doubt exaggerate the benefits of solar geoengineering to protect the fossil fuel industry. But this threat is not unique to geoengineering. Carbon removal may pose a stronger moral hazard today. Activists like Al Gore once opposed adaptive measures such as flood protection, out of fear it would distract from emission cuts. They now embrace such measures, yet support for emissions cuts has never been higher, proving that support for one method of limiting climate risks need not reduce support for others.

Emissions cuts are necessary. But pretending that climate change can be solved with emissions cuts alone is a dangerous fantasy. If you want to reduce risks from the emissions already in the atmosphere — whether that’s to prevent forest fires in Algeria, heat waves in British Columbia or floods in Germany — you must look to carbon removal, solar geoengineering and local adaptation.

Emissions monomania is not an ethical climate policy because those three approaches together do what emissions cuts cannot: They reduce the future harms caused by historical emissions and provide a reason to hope that collective action can begin repairing Earth’s climate within a human lifetime.

Perhaps the best reason to take cooling seriously is that benefits seem likely to go to the poorest countries. Heat reduces intellectual and physical productivity with economywide consequences. Hotter regions are more sensitive to extra degrees of warming, while some cool regions may even benefit. A year that’s a degree warmer than normal will see economic growth in India reduced by about 17 percent, while Sweden will see growth increased by about 22 percent.

Poor people tend to live in hot places. This, combined with the fact that an added degree causes more harm in warmer climates, explains why the costs of climate change fall heaviest on the poor — and why the benefits of cooling will be felt the most in the hottest regions.

This dynamic explains why the one study to quantitatively examine the consequences of geoengineering for global inequality found that it might reduce economic inequality by about 25 percent, similar to the impressive reduction the United States achieved in the four decades following the New Deal.

Cooling the planet to reduce human suffering in this century will require carbon removal or solar geoengineering or both. The trade-offs between them are uncertain because little comparative research has been done. The fact that one or both are taboo in some green circles is a dreadful misstep of contemporary environmentalism. Climate justice demands fast action to cut emissions and serious exploration of pathways to a cooler future.

Original post on New York Times

Joule · 2024

A Process for Capturing CO₂ from the Atmosphere

David W. Keith, Geoffrey Holmes, David St. Angelo, Kenton Heidel

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Boston Review: David Keith response to The New Nature

By David Keith

Jedediah Purdy is right to wish for a democratic Anthropocene, one with new institutions to facilitate democratic decision-making about the environmental choices we face. In the case of climate change, a necessary first step is to recognize that there are hard choices between alternate futures, not simply a political fight about carbon pollution.

The way we frame a problem shapes attempts to solve it, so thinking of environmental dilemmas as pollution invites an obvious, almost axiomatic solution: less pollution. If the problem is just an unintended side effect of economic production, we can draw on the neoliberal architecture of markets to manage the externalities. All we have to do is weigh the costs of pollution cuts against the benefits to find the social optimum and then decide how to distribute the costs. Problem solved.

But this framing takes far too much for granted, and it blinds us to the normative choices that underlie the most significant environmental problems we face.

The pollution frame does work well for certain problems, such as lead in gasoline, which cut the IQs of people born in my age cohort by several points. Though one can imagine that the tetraethyl lead lobbyists argued that it was not cost-effective to cut emissions too fast, I am confident that none of them wanted more lead in their kids’ blood. But pollution is a wholly unsatisfactory way to think about landscape-management choices such as the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone or the possible re-creation of wooly mammoths.

If environmental problems span a continuum with lead pollution on one end and rewilding on another, where does climate change fall? It would fall closer to pollution if climate changes were uniformly harmful and if carbon emissions from energy production were the only way humans influence the climate.

But climate change is change, not pollution.

Over the last few millennia, the biosphere has experienced what may be among the lowest carbon dioxide concentrations in geologic history, low enough to force plants to adapt in novel ways to manage the low-carbon environment. This doesn’t mean that increasing carbon dioxide concentrations is “natural” or right. While an increase in carbon concentration will bring some benefits, such as higher growth rates for some crops, there can be no doubt that the harms of climate change will outweigh the benefits, particularly when the climate changes quickly. From humanity’s crops to the location of our cities on the current coastlines to the physiology of our sweat, we have adapted to the current climate.

The pollution frame suggests that the only way we affect the climate is by carbon emissions. But there are many more tools in the carbon-climate toolbox. We can also engineer adaptations to a changing climate for us and for other species. We can move carbon from the atmosphere to the active biosphere or even put it back underground (carbon geoengineering), and we can directly alter the earth’s climate by changing the amount of sunlight the earth absorbs (solar geoengineering). Whether to pursue these approaches is a question for Purdy’s democratic institutions, but it and many others are invisible from within the pollution frame.

In the short term our focus should be on cutting emissions, and for this objective “carbon pollution” is both an effective political label and a sensible guide to action. But looking further ahead, climate change poses deeper dilemmas that do not offer obvious answers. Grappling with them is a job for Purdy’s democratic Anthropocene: it is my hope that ours becomes, as Oliver Morton neatly puts it in The Planet Remade, his new book on geoengineering, “the deliberate planet.”

Original post on Boston Review

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences · 2024

An air-liquid contactor for large-scale capture of CO₂ from air

Geoffrey Holmes and David W. Keith

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International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control · 2024

Evolution of hydrogen sulfide in sour saline aquifers during carbon dioxide sequestration

Seyyed M. Ghaderi, David W. Keith, Rob Lavoie, Yuri Leonenko

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National Commission on Energy Policy · 2024

Biomass co-utilization with unconventional fossil fuels to advance energy security and climate policy

James S. Rhodes and David W. Keith

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Capturing CO₂ from the atmosphere: Rationale and Process Design Considerations · 2024

Capturing CO₂ from the atmosphere: Rationale and Process Design Considerations

David W. Keith, Kenton Heidel, and Robert Cherry

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Science · 2024

Why Capture CO₂ From The Atmosphere

David W. Keith

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