by Noah Deich and Eliot Reali
Since the beginning of 2019, three of the largest oil companies in the world have announced partnerships with carbon removal startups whose technologies suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Occidental and Chevron have both invested in the Canadian-based Carbon Engineering, and most recently ExxonMobil signed a joint-development agreement with the U.S.-based Global Thermostat.
On the face of it, these partnerships seem like a win-win. The direct air capture startups focused on improving and scaling their tech gain access to unparalleled technical expertise, capital, and political clout. In turn, they provide oil giants a way to make more, cleaner oil (via enhanced oil recovery) and to transform themselves down the line into CO₂ use-and-storage companies that can profit from ever stricter and more imminent climate regulations.
But what do other stakeholders in the fight against climate change make of these announcements? What do organizations like the IPCC, the National Academies, the World Resources Institute, and the Environmental Defense Fund, who have expressed support for carbon removal in the past, think about bankrolling efforts to decarbonize the economy with investments from the same companies that have spent decades stoking climate change denial and hindering serious carbon regulations?
What do labor unions think about oil companies leading the charge on an emerging class of technologies with the potential to create and transform hundreds of thousands, if not millions of industrial jobs?
How do environmental justice groups feel about relying on groups that have polluted U.S. communities, disproportionately those of color and lower income, and been a party to human rights violations around the world? Direct air capture has the potential, after all, to fundamentally change where and how hydrocarbons are “extracted” and refined, with significant implications for equity, justice, and environmental quality everywhere.
The answer to all of these questions? We don’t know, because the proponents of direct air capture (us included) have done a poor job asking.
Carbon removal done the oil industry way might prove to be a win for the climate, but not for society.
We can’t delay finding out, either. To reverse the warming trend the planet has been on for decades, carbon removal solutions aren’t just nice to have — they’re essential. Scientific consensus says we’ll likely need to capture and store roughly as much CO₂ from the atmosphere as the global oil industry extracts and burns today.
Seeing direct air capture technology deployed at a commercial scale will take a host of changes to the status quo: policies that create and encourage more investment in research and development for innovative technologies, incentives for more businesses to adopt or support this approach, substantial sums of private sector capital, and cooperation between uncommon, even unexpected political allies. Recent legislative steps taken toward that goal, like the 45Q tax credits and the USE IT Act, demonstrate that broad, bipartisan coalitions like the Carbon Capture Coalition are fundamental to making change. A team-up of startups and oil majors alone is not going to suffice.
Still, oil companies do have the technology, capital, and political sway that the climate effort desperately needs. In 2018 alone, oil companies invested around $500 billion in technology and infrastructure to extract oil and gas, compared to less than $50 million invested cumulatively in direct air capture. Even a small percentage of this upstream capital could be instrumental in removing the cost constraints associated with this tech. Oil companies could also direct their tremendous lobbying power toward securing public funding for a national research and development effort meeting the recommendations of the National Academies, as well as incentives and regulations that allow the technology to scale up.
(See this recent report from the Rhodium Group for more on the promise of low-cost direct air capture at commercial scale.)
If we reach a stable climate in a way that makes for a worse future, then we haven’t actually done good.
The operative mood here is “could.” It’s reasonable to be skeptical of oil companies, whose long histories of anti-climate lobbying and climate change obfuscation create a real risk their participation is not in good faith: they may slow progress to protect business-as-usual operations or delay decarbonizing on the premise that they will use direct air capture in the future to do so. Carbon removal done the oil industry way might prove to be a win for the climate, but not for society.
It would be folly not to start asking these questions today, when the trajectory of carbon removal technologies and other related solutions can still be shifted. We need to start the hard work of building a bigger tent of carbon removal champions, and that begins with understanding where politically, economically, and socially diverse groups of people can find common ground. Direct air capture startups and oil companies have a headstart in charting that path, but there is still plenty of time for more to weigh in and shape the circumstances.
After all, we don’t care about climate change because a stable climate is inherently valuable. We care because it offers a better future for people of the world. If we reach that stable climate in a way that makes for a worse future, then we haven’t actually done good.