American fossil fuel companies are tapping taxpayer money to invest heavily in energy-guzzling Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS), all to continue pumping out oil. This has serious ramifications for the climate and global efforts to decarbonise.
Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS) is commonly viewed as a potential large-scale carbon removal option, albeit one with limited environmental and social impact, besides its thirst for large volumes of additional renewable energy. However, worrying developments are afoot in the USA that could set the tone for what is to come in the European Union and globally.
Fossil fuel majors are investing in DACCS (pulling in taxpayer money in the process) to appear to offset fossil emissions and as a means to extend the life of oil/gas production. This clear strategy showcases why caution is needed for carbon removal development, especially regarding who can claim and use removals, which should always come a distant second to emission reductions. Recent developments at the European Parliament suggest that this fundamental principle is at risk: fossil fuels could be offset using removals in the EU as well.
The largest planned direct air capture (DAC) site (note the lack of the word ‘storage’) in the world is known as Stratos and is slated to remove 500,000 tonnes of carbon annually from 2025 onwards. This facility is being developed by Occidental Petroleum, aka Oxy (you guessed it, big oil). Oxy plans to build 100+ DAC plants globally by 2035 and has even bought up Carbon Engineering, a major company in DAC technology development.
Oxy is coy about where the captured carbon will end up. While they highlight that DAC can lead to permanent storage, captured CO2 might also be used to make what are referred to as ‘low carbon products’, which the company does not describe. The ambiguity on the permanence of storage is disconcerting, especially as ‘permanent storage’ could mean so-called enhanced oil recovery (EOR) – using captured carbon to squeeze as much oil out of reservoirs as possible.
Oxy is a key global player in EOR and claims to already be permanently storing up to 20 million tons per year. One snag: it is doing so almost exclusively for EOR, which spews out more than it swallows. Researchers have found that each tonne of CO2 “stored permanently underground” in this fashion actually leads to between 2.7 and 3.7 additional tonnes of CO2 emitted. EOR doesn’t help the climate – it helps oil and gas companies make more profit and greenwash.
Stratos is clearly aimed at providing Oxy and other companies with a route to offset continued emissions. A deal for 400,000 tonnes of offsets was closed with Airbus last year. Amazon has recently bought another 250,000 offsets. Other deals have been announced, including with shopify and Thermo Fisher. Using expensive and energy-intensive DAC to offset emissions is clearly flawed, even more so when their purpose is to extend the life of fossil fuels and, in the process, giving them a social licence to operate.
Oxy’s CEO Vicki Hollub has stated publicly that DAC could be a way to extend a lifeline to the oil and gas sector. “We believe that our direct capture technology is going to be the technology that helps to preserve our industry over time,” she said. “This gives our industry a licence to continue to operate for the 60, 70, 80 years that I think it’s going to be very much needed.”. This is not the first time fossil fuel majors have tried to greenwash their products.
Climate Wire has an excellent article on how other fossil majors (Exxon, Chevron, Total, Shell and more) are starting to invest in DAC – likely motivated by similar ideas to Oxy about offsetting emissions and giving themselves a deceptive green hue in the public eye.
The public good
Some of these projects will likely even be funded by the Biden administration under their DAC Hubs (the Stratos project has already been selected for taxpayer funding). Taxpayer funds being used to help fossil fuel companies offset their emissions should be a no-go. While public funding could help test and, if successful, mature these technologies, the removals it makes should then be public property, such as by helping to reach collective climate targets and Nationally Determined Contributions. US taxpayers should claim these removals. After all, they are subsidising them.
In the EU, this type of setup currently seems unlikely, but discussions over the EU’s incipient legislation for quantifying and certifying removals, the so-called Carbon Removal Certification Framework (CRCF), risk opening a back door.
Where removals end up and how they are used is critical to ensure that removals supplement, not substitute, emission reductions and do not lead to, at best, zero-sum offsetting.
The European Commission wilfully ignored the ‘use case’ of removals in its initial CRCF proposal, meaning that critical questions went unanswered, including which emissions can and cannot be balanced by carbon dioxide removals, and who gets to claim the CDR – is it companies or governments?
No to offsetting
This vital topic is also not getting enough attention in either the Council of the European Union or the European Parliament (the Draft Report – an initial negotiating document – ignores the issue as well). While many MEPs are hell-bent against offsetting, there is a realistic chance of allowing fossil fuel emissions to be offset using CRCF-certified removals. Negotiations on this topic are moving towards this position. Proposals by the Parliament’s lead negotiator suggest permanent removals would be eligible, but even temporary storage in soils could be used to offset some types of fossil emissions. This is unacceptable, and hinders the EU’s path towards climate neutrality by enabling blatant greenwashing.
CMW calls on EU policymakers to ensure that the CRCF bans the use of removals to offset emissions, and that any generated removals are used by the EU and its member states to reach climate targets. Removals should not be used as a marketing tool by those businesses that can afford it to greenwash their operations – through means including ‘double counting’ where a country and a company counts or declares the same removals towards different targets or claims. A lack of clarity over how removals are to be used makes certification more difficult: technical details for a robust certification methodology depend on what the goal of the certification is. Right now the EU doesn’t know what it is certifying for or why.
Investing time, money and energy in CDR only makes sense if removals are used correctly. Greenwashing oil and gas, or offsetting emissions that need to, and can be, reduced is simply the wrong way forward.