The U.S. Department of Energy announced on Thursday a significant investment in direct air carbon removal projects that could help our warming planet deal with climate change. These projects would function like giant vacuum cleaners that suck carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in rocks or in long-life products like concrete.
A promising Notice of Intent
The DOE released a Notice of Intent (NOI) to fund the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s $3.5 billion program for the development of these projects. Called the Regional Direct Air Capture Hubs program, this new venture will consist of four large-scale, regional direct air capture hubs.
These hubs will also create good-paying jobs, prioritize community engagement and environmental justice, and play a significant role in delivering on President Biden’s goal of achieving an equitable transition to a net-zero economy by 2050.
“The UN's latest climate report made clear that removing legacy carbon pollution from the air through direct air capture and safely storing it is an essential weapon in our fight against the climate crisis,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in the press release.
“President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is funding new technologies that will not only make our carbon-free future a reality but will help position the U.S. as a net-zero leader while creating good-paying jobs for a transitioning clean energy workforce.”
The DOE estimates that by midcentury these types of projects will need to be deployed at the gigaton scale to deal with the constant release of greenhouse gas emissions. "To put this in perspective, one gigaton of subsurface sequestered CO2 is equivalent to the annual emissions from the U.S. light-duty vehicle fleet—the equivalent of approximately 250 million vehicles driven in one year," read the DOE's statement.
Past projects have failed
However, the initiative needs to be approached with caution as some past projects have failed. In January 2022, a recent study by the human rights organization Global Witness revealed that oil giant Shell's Quest plant, which had been designed to capture carbon emissions from oil sands operations and store them underground to reduce carbon emissions, actually emitted more greenhouse gas emissions than it captured.
It was estimated that since 2015, it had prevented the release of five million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but it had also released a further 7.5 million tonnes. To put that into perspective, Global Witness stated that Shell’s plant appeared to have the same carbon footprint as 1.2 million gasoline-powered cars each year.
Details have not been revealed on which projects the DOE will be funding, but the press release does say that the "hubs will have the capacity to capture and then permanently store at least one million metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere annually, either from a single unit or from multiple interconnected units."
This is very promising news in a time where climate change mitigation is very much needed. Time will tell how well the projects perform, but the funding is without a doubt a step in the right direction.