DOE advances three new efforts under the Carbon Negative Shot
As big money flows to projects, the government’s leadership on building a high-accountability field is essential
by Sasha Stashwick, director of policy
The federal government sent us all into this weekend with big news about the Carbon Negative Shot, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) initiative aiming to bring carbon removal solutions to gigaton scale. The agency announced the first round of awards for the Regional Direct Air Capture (DAC) Hubs program, issued a Notice of Intent to fund a range of carbon removal approaches, including the launch of the first-ever government carbon removal purchasing program, and let us know they’re soliciting public input on an effort to push CDR developers to embed community engagement and accountability in their projects.
Alone, these announcements are exciting, but together they have the potential to be transformational. With this influx of federal support, the field sits at a nexus of opportunity (a chance to redress past injustices and create community benefits) and resources (the funding needed to build projects that can deliver on that vision). Successfully meeting this moment will depend on the government upholding its commitments to equity and justice not just on paper but at all stages of these proposed projects.
Our team took the last day to parse these announcements closely, and below is our early analysis of how these efforts from the Biden administration are targeting what’s needed for the field — and what needs to be done to guarantee that as we press on the gas to build a US carbon removal sector, we’re consistently headed in the right direction.
Funding is awarded to commercial DAC projects and early-stage efforts
Yesterday the federal government made its first awards for the Regional DAC Hubs program to the tune of over $1.2 billion for two commercial-scale plants in Louisiana and Texas, as well as 19 feasibility and design studies representing a real diversity in funded applications. These awards are an achievement two years in the making — announced in 2021, DOE has spent the interim defining what the program looks like in practice and how we’ll know if we’re marching towards success. Dubbed Project Cypress and the South Texas DAC Hub, these projects are the first to be awarded by the program but will also be the first of their size in the world, placing us at a pivotal moment in defining the DAC industry and public acceptance of technological carbon removal.
We applaud DOE for this milestone, but at the same time it’s imperative to recognize the serious questions and concerns communities in the Gulf Coast have about these projects, which are rooted in their lived experience as fenceline communities to the oil and gas industries. Carbon removal won’t succeed without buy-in from the people living near where projects might be deployed. DOE and project developers need to not only follow through on commitments to engage with these communities but set an example for this burgeoning field for how to actualize the wants and needs of residents in project design, deployment, and operation.
DOE has announced funding awards, but the road ahead includes a robust negotiation phase before the projects are formally greenlit and steel is in the ground. The Energy Department must lead on building a direct air capture industry that centers communities through every project phase — and it has the power to do so. The agency should use every milestone through project negotiations and contract signing to ensure developers are accountable to host communities, executing on their plans for community engagement that involve residents and implement feedback, including being prepared to make changes to projects based on stakeholder input.
Noteworthy is that neither commercial hub awarded by DOE will include enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Environmental justice advocates and other organizations have long opposed DAC being used for EOR, and we applaud the agency for this choice. There’s a real risk that DAC is seen as a way to greenwash continued reliance on fossil fuels. These are the earliest days of the direct air capture industry, and so we have an enormous opportunity to build it in a way that centers accountability, equity and justice, and is wholly independent from fossil fuels — establishing a carbon removal technology that’s just for the benefit of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and helping ensure a livable future where all can thrive.
DOE is funding exploration into future projects — and our application made the cut
Alongside investments in commercial-scale deployments, DOE is prioritizing continuous learning and improvement for DAC projects by funding a diverse range of feasibility and design studies. It’s a sharp approach reflective of DOE’s deep understanding of what’s needed to build the technological carbon removal field. These studies will support earlier stages of project development, like digging into the potential of certain locations to host a hub, novel options for ownership models, or defining technical requirements to reduce future risks.
We’re thrilled to say that one of the feasibility studies funded by DOE is the Community Alliance for Direct Air Capture (CALDAC), a coalition of universities, NGOs, and companies, including Carbon180. The group plans to use funds to explore how a direct air capture project could serve the community in California’s southern San Joaquin Valley, looking into both social and technical dimensions with the vision of putting forward a model for a community-driven and potentially publicly-owned DAC hub. Read more about our approach here.
Stepping up support for R&D, pilot projects, MRV, and public procurement of CDR
DOE also announced its intent to fund a slew of carbon removal projects and prizes through the Carbon Negative Shot that could have massive implications for stimulating a diverse portfolio of CDR solutions, pulling levers that are uniquely suited to what the field needs today. For a carbon removal sector that must ultimately operate at the billion-ton scale, we need a package of policies to speed deployment of existing solutions, catalyze innovation, and de-risk emerging technologies. The federal government is well positioned to offer this kind of end-to-end innovation support including investments in R&D, pilot projects across plausible long-duration CDR approaches, and monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) to enable accountability and spur a race to the top in terms of project standards.
A US government purchasing pilot program
One piece of the Carbon Negative Shot that’s big news in its own right is the announcement of a first-of-its-kind federal purchasing program for carbon removal. Never before has a government stepped up to purchase carbon removal as a public good like they have in other areas, such as in the public health sector for vaccines. Doing so is essential because unlike physical, commercially traded commodities, carbon removal doesn’t generate revenue within a market — rather, carbon removal is a public good that needs policy support to exist. Beyond that fact alone, the federal government can play a unique role in setting high standards for the carbon removal market. This would support myriad efforts to grow a high-quality, equitable and just carbon removal sector, including improving private, voluntary markets that tend to have low climate impacts and buoying international efforts from other governments. It also means that while the government invests to bring forward a diverse portfolio of highly durable and verifiable carbon removal solutions at various levels of technology readiness, it is also committing to purchase tons of carbon removal that meet that high standard. This is smart and holistic policy at work.
While this $35 million pilot procurement program is a start, industry, climate advocates, and a growing cohort of policymakers agree that doing this on a larger scale could be catalytic. At Carbon180, we’ve been touting the benefits of public purchasing for some time, and a robust public procurement program is our long-term vision for gigaton-scale carbon removal.
Aligning on markers for responsible carbon removal, then setting a course to reach them
Finally, in pursuit of field-wide transparency and information sharing, the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM) at DOE announced that it is welcoming public comment on a new effort, the Responsible Carbon Management Initiative. The Initiative aims to encourage project developers and other stakeholders to uphold the highest levels of safety, environmental stewardship, accountability, community engagement, and societal benefits across carbon management projects, including carbon removal.
FECM will first develop and publish principles for responsible project development, which companies can pledge to and describe how they’ll meet. The office will also provide technical assistance for developers to turn plans into practice, an important avenue of support for companies that might not have the knowledge or tools to begin efforts around workforce development, data transparency, and more.
Though currently voluntary, this Initiative could provide a strong framework and technical support for setting and meeting field-wide standards of responsible deployment. FECM additionally plans to evaluate companies’ progress towards their goals, so it’s essential they build in methods to guarantee accountability and ensure developers’ actions are in line with their commitments, something not currently robustly reflected in the Initiative. With comments open until September 11, carbon removal stakeholders across the field have an opportunity to share thoughts on how to strengthen this effort.
The path forward
These announcements can be transformational for the field — billions in funding, innovation support across all plausible durable carbon removal pathways, and a foundation for the kind of public purchasing program that we believe is the future of the carbon removal market if we are to reach the scale we need. For any of these efforts to be successful long term and ensure carbon removal delivers on its potential as a source of social and climate benefits, the federal government needs to ensure all projects and programs are held to high standards of accountability, equity, and justice. The only field we have time and reason to build is one where community voices shape projects and removal efforts are robustly monitored, reported, and verified. The government will play a critical role in ensuring this comes true.
Edited by Emily Reich
Catching up on DAC hubs?
The DAC Hubs program aims to grow and shape the direct air capture sector at large, and by delivering tangible benefits to communities along the way, the program has the potential to help build social and political support for a set of technologies that will be an essential piece of addressing climate change. Carbon180 is part of a project funded by the DAC Hubs program to explore community-led and possibly community-owned DAC in California’s Central Valley.
Direct air capture helps us clean up CO2 in the atmosphere, not increase oil production. The DAC Hubs program will be the first megaton scale deployment of carbon removal in the world and is an immense opportunity to deploy DAC not only quickly but responsibly — but opportunity doesn’t determine outcome.
The federal government is backing DAC — with a record-setting $3.5 billion for four regional hubs. This is our opportunity to define the field with high-quality projects that create robust environmental and public health benefits, jobs and economic opportunities, and broad community support. Our 2022 white paper lays out key recommendations for a durable, just, gigaton-removing DAC Hubs program.
Direct air capture (DAC) hubs will soon begin to come online and set the US on a course to remove millions of tons of CO₂ — but the field currently lacks clear, shared markers of success. This white paper from early 2023 offers an original framework to assess progress and ensure these hubs empower innovators and communities.