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Oil company plans to have machines suck carbon from the sky — as it still makes oil

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Giant machines sucking carbon dioxide out of the air to fight climate change sounds like science fiction, but it's poised to be reality, with billions of dollars of support from the U.S. government. And a key player in this growing industry is a U.S. oil company. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Earlier this year, on a windy, bare patch of red dirt near Notrees, Texas, a celebration kicked off.

(APPLAUSE)

DOMONOSKE: In a big white tent, there were sliders to eat, a stage, a robot dog for some reason.

What is the robot dog doing?

I never got an answer to that. This was a groundbreaking for Stratus, a billion-dollar plant to pull carbon dioxide out of the sky. Major climate groups say this technology will be essential to the fight against climate change. But this party was not thrown by climate activists, but by an oil company. Let's back up. We've spent more than a century filling the atmosphere with huge quantities of carbon dioxide, changing the climate of the entire planet. Most of that carbon came from burning fossil fuels. So the idea that we could just build machines to pull that carbon back out...

RICHARD JACKSON: It sounded almost too good to be true, to be honest.

DOMONOSKE: Richard Jackson is a top executive at Occidental Petroleum or Oxy, for short, a big American oil company. Several years ago, they started seriously considering this technology called direct air capture. This is about clawing back carbon already in the air. Take a deep breath. You just inhaled a lot of nitrogen, some oxygen and a tiny bit of carbon dioxide. These plants to suck out that carbon, they can be built anywhere.

JACKSON: You know, we drew a circle on the board and put a dot on it and said, OK, really, is that - you know, is that plant going to make a difference?

DOMONOSKE: The circle was the Earth, the dot, a direct air capture plant, a big industrial facility extracting that carbon from the sky so it can be used or stored instead of fueling climate change. Jackson was skeptical at first.

JACKSON: I guess we got comfortable.

DOMONOSKE: Comfortable enough to start planning billion-dollar projects. This technology is key to Oxy's unusual plan to stop contributing to climate change while still making oil. Oxy started partnering with a company called Carbon Engineering.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLINKING)

DOMONOSKE: In 2018, NPR took a tour of its industrial facility in rainy British Columbia.

(SOUNDBITE OF FANS WHIRRING)

DOMONOSKE: These are the sounds of huge fans moving air while flowing liquids absorb carbon dioxide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JENNY MCCAHILL: So you can actually hear - kind of sounds like a waterfall.

DOMONOSKE: Jenny McCahill, a chemist and engineer, was leading that tour. She explained the chemical reactions, why they need high heat and ultimately how...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MCCAHILL: Right now, we are capturing CO2 from the atmosphere.

DOMONOSKE: This is doable, but it takes a ton of energy. That means even more emissions you have to capture along the way. And it means this process is expensive. So expensive that just a few years ago it was an open question whether anybody would ever pay to do this at a huge scale. That is not a question anymore. McCahill, who led that tour back in British Columbia, she was also at that party in dusty, gusty Notrees, Texas. It was Oxy's party and a long-awaited dream come true for her.

(CROSSTALK)

MCCAHILL: We are at the groundbreaking for the direct air capture plants that we're building out here in Texas.

DOMONOSKE: Occidental Petroleum is now buying carbon engineering, and it plans to build a lot of these plants. The first one is designed to capture half-a-million metric tons of CO2 per year. And in one sense, that's nothing. The world will have released that much carbon by the time you're finished listening to this radio piece. In another sense, it's huge, 100 times bigger than anyone's built before.

MCCAHILL: It's really exciting to actually be able to see this all come together and the enthusiasm that's in the room.

DOMONOSKE: Or in the tent, rather. Outside, there wasn't much to see yet - a brand-new road and a couple of excavators.

MICHAEL AVERY: The earth is being moved and groundworks are being prepared.

DOMONOSKE: Michael Avery is the head of the Oxy arm that's building this plant. This project takes a lot of the same expertise as Oxy's oil and gas projects and just a fraction of Oxy's substantial cash. As Avery and I were speaking, the wind picked up, which was appropriate. In a couple of years, according to plan, a lot of air will be moving through here through huge fans, across huge air contactors, capturing lots of CO2, and then...

AVERY: The CO2 will travel on a short pipeline to a well in that direction, which is where it will be sequestered underground.

DOMONOSKE: Sucking carbon from the sky is expensive, but if you can prove you've stored it underground forever, the government and some companies will pay for providing that service to the planet. Alternately, if you inject that CO2 near an old oil well, you can squeeze more oil out of the ground. Occidental Petroleum plans to do both. But CEO Vicki Hollub prefers the make more oil option.

VICKI HOLLUB: You actually do produce a net zero barrel of oil.

DOMONOSKE: Net zero oil - she sees a huge market for it. And bigger picture, she wants to use this tech to allow the world to combat climate change and keep using oil.

HOLLUB: It's really going to take oil to be produced for decades to come. And if it's produced in the way that I'm talking about, there's no reason not to produce oil and gas forever.

DOMONOSKE: That sound you just heard was a lot of climate and energy experts screaming in frustration because, yes, the world will use oil and gas for decades at least. But the question, and it's a crucial question, is - how much oil will we burn? Climate advocates want to cut emissions sharply. Hollub focuses on canceling them out. The more we cancel, she argues, the less we have to cut, the more oil we can use. But carbon removal takes enormous amounts of energy. And for many climate advocates, this is not why they fought for this technology.

ERIN BURNS: No. Carbon removal - we have to remove carbon and reduce emissions. If we use carbon removal instead of reducing emissions, we are not going to meet our climate goals.

DOMONOSKE: That's Erin Burns, the executive director of Carbon 180. Her nonprofit vocally supports this tech but is skeptical of oil and gas involvement. It's one symptom of the sometimes-mixed feelings in the odd coalition of industry groups, green groups and Oxy that lobbied for all these government incentives. For so many years, the debate about this technology was whether it would happen. Now, with remarkable speed, things have shifted. Billions of dollars are being spent. Plants are being built. The big debate now is - what exactly are we using them for? Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

SUMMERS: NPR's Jeff Brady contributed to this report. For more on this carbon sucking technology and how Oxy wants to use it to make more oil, tune in to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED tomorrow and later this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEPECHE MODE SONG, "GHOSTS AGAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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