Carbon removal, at county scale

Roads to Removal charts the future of US carbon removal through a magnifying glass

6 min readDec 11, 2023
Image: Kelsey Knight

by Charlotte Levy, PhD, managing science and innovation advisor

Roads to Removal is the latest brainchild of the Department of Energy and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — and it’s unlike any report you’ve read before. County by county, researchers give an exhaustive analysis of the potential for carbon removal throughout all 50 US states. This study is anchored in regional economic and capacity information addressing carbon removal pathways like biomass with carbon removal and storage (BiCRS) and direct air capture (DAC). Critically, it’s not a prescriptive policy agenda; rather, it uses the latest data to outline a wealth of opportunities. By pinpointing the best locations for removal, this report can support decision-making by advocates and policymakers to choose the projects that will most benefit local communities and the climate. Follow along for major findings and some C180 perspectives.

Opportunities across all fifty states

It’s no secret: the US is replete with resources. From geologic storage to biomass to renewable-powered DAC, we have what it takes to remove 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year — while protecting our natural resources, promoting environmental justice objectives, and empowering our economy.

All regions of the country have some road to carbon removal that suits their particular context. In the northeastern United States, for instance, urban waste — that would otherwise be sent to landfills at considerable cost — can be turned into a feedstock for fuel and carbon removal. In the southwest United States, there are synergistic opportunities for renewables build-out, geologic storage, and adsorbent DAC that may offer green jobs and spur new industry. Due to its abundant agricultural waste, the Great Lakes region presents some of the best opportunities for BiCRS development in the country, along with California and the Midwest.

Image: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Direct air capture, conditionally

This report examines DAC through a microscope, using county-scale estimates of both renewable energy and carbon storage potential to understand opportunities across the US. The results paint a promising picture: over 14 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide could be removed by DAC in the US per year, at a price of $250 per ton. We’re excited to see that these estimates for DAC’s potential remain high even with the use of additional renewable power and on-site storage. Stakeholder communities want to know that DAC can expand without competing for renewable energy, or relying on major pipeline construction — possibilities that this report confirms.

BiCRS means competition for land

Scenarios for BiCRS consider the limitations of biomass production. Results are broken down by whether we use currently existing waste biomass or convert new cropland. And if you’re looking for a deep dive, you can even explore a future where biomass becomes abundant as we shift from ethanol to electric vehicles. The authors suggest that with conservative assumptions (no cropland is reconverted for feedstocks), domestic BiCRS could remove 700 million metric tons of CO2 per year, at a net cost below $100 per ton of CO2. This scenario would prevent BiCRS scale-up from making our current food and fiber systems more expensive.

However, it’s important to remember that land is a competitive resource. One scenario found in the report assumes that farmers will readily convert idle cropland for biomass production. In reality, though, farmers often have important economic and cultural reasons for idling land that preclude converting it for biomass production. In another scenario, Conservation Reserve Program land is converted, despite the fact that this land is already being used for important ecological restoration work and for regenerative practices such as agroforestry. A true no-conversion scenario needs to consider farmer preferences and broader regenerative goals.

Storage and transportation

Let’s not forget that both DAC and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage rely on a good understanding of our geologic storage resources — a place where Roads to Removal really delivers. Two entire chapters are dedicated to exploring not only the latest in onshore sedimentary storage but also their cost. The report adds new and fine-scale data that improves estimates of project costs, allowing them to break down storage availability at different price points. The authors found that high-quality, low-cost sites were available below the surface of 22% of the United States, at an average cost of <$20 per ton.

Not to be discounted either is a detailed chapter on transportation options for both biomass and carbon dioxide. The authors go big in proposing (and mapping) scenarios for transportation build-out across the United States, comparing not only costs of the different approaches but also the respective concerns or opportunities they may raise for communities. Trains, pipelines, trucks, and barges are each carefully analyzed for their risk of accident, potential for job creation, and ways to minimize harms and maximize benefits.

Cropland and forests

Cropland management is expected to provide big wins via soil carbon storage. This report identified locations where climate-smart strategies could prevent erosion and build healthy soil, such as the lower Great Lakes or the lower Mississippi River. If farmers are incentivized at a rate of $40 per metric ton, practices such as cover cropping and field borders could remove 130 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between 2025 and 2050. However, these estimates also include transitioning some land in conventional annual crop cultivation to instead grow new perennial biomass crops. Policymakers will need to consider whether they are willing to plant crops dedicated to biomass production, rather than food or fiber, as part of their carbon removal strategy.

The chapter on forestland is the only one to forgo a country-scope, county-scale approach. Instead, the report acknowledges the regional nature of forest management in the United States and highlights three target regions: northeastern lumber forests, drought-prone western forests, and plantation-dense southeastern forests. The authors estimate that managing these forests — for disaster resilience, fire prevention, and high density plantings respectively — could remove over 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2050. Again, some of these strategies, such as pairing fire prevention with BiCRS or prioritizing fast-growing monoculture tree plantations, require deeper discussions about community needs and priorities.

Our final thoughts

Reports like this one unlock new possibilities and shape the future of the carbon removal industry. Credible and detailed reports of carbon removal potential lend confidence to investors, inspire innovators to stand up new companies in new places, and provide clear reference points for communities and policymakers in choosing between different futures.

Alert readers will notice what has not been included: marine carbon removal, coastal blue carbon mineralization, and several BiCRS pathways were not covered due to a lack of sufficient county-scale cost data. Enhanced rock weathering and adaptive grazing were covered qualitatively, but the authors were not able to provide fine geographic resolution. As carbon removers, this report is a terrific call to action to build out public data that supports these pathways — without research, planning becomes that much harder.

Roads to Removal offers the highest and most granular view of carbon removal yet. Breakthroughs in public data and research are critical to scaling carbon removal efficiently, safely, and equitably. The deeper our bench of information, the more clear-eyed we can be in generating new ideas, measuring progress, and enforcing accountability. We can’t wait to see our collective understanding of carbon removal potential — and its unique, place-based risks and opportunities — continue to evolve from reports like Roads to Removal.

Edited by Tracy Yu

Subscribe to a Carbon180 newsletter and find us on Twitter to stay up to date on carbon removal.




A new breed of climate NGO on a mission to reverse two centuries of carbon emissions. Newsletters 👉