As climate change gains attention on Capitol Hill from legislators on both sides of the aisle, proposals are increasingly referencing carbon removal technologies as a means of addressing global carbon emissions.

Categories of Carbon Removal Technologies

There are two distinct methods of carbon removal, differentiated by the source of the carbon dioxide (CO2). One method reduces the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere from carbon-emitting sources. The second removes CO2 in the atmosphere directly from the ambient air.

Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage

Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) is a climate change mitigation technique that reduces the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere from point sources such as power plants. The technology captures CO2 before it is released and transports the gas either for use as a commodity, or for permanent storage. At various levels of purity, captured CO2 could be used in a number of different industries, including the food industry to carbonate soft drinks, the paper industry to aid in pulp and paper processing, and the construction industry for use in the production of concrete and aggregate, among others. Captured CO2 could also be used in enhanced oil recovery processes. While some uses of the captured CO2, such as beverage carbonation, may re-release CO2 into the atmosphere during the product’s lifecycle, other uses, such as underground storage or concrete storage, permanently store the gas.

Today, there are eighteen CCUS commercial projects around the world. Three of the largest demonstration projects — Petra Nova, Air Products, and Archer Daniels Midland — are located in the United States. According to Steven E. Winberg, Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy in the Department of Energy (DOE), “these projects have captured, utilized, and stored almost 9 million metric tons of CO2.” However, more governmental funding is necessary to further advance the CCUS technology and fully commercialize it.

Atmospheric Carbon Removal — Negative Emissions Technology

Technologies that capture existing CO2 directly from the atmosphere are considered negative emissions technologies (NET). Some NETs naturally capture CO2 from the air, while others use chemical processes. Natural NETs include:

  • Reforestation and Afforestation: Forests worldwide can store up to about two billion tons of CO2 a year.
  • Enhanced Weathering: A method that involves spreading ground silicate or carbonate minerals on land. These minerals naturally bind to CO2 when dissolved in rainwater.
  • Ocean Fertilization: A method of inducing the growth of phytoplankton by adding iron into the ocean. Phytoplankton capture CO2 and convert the gas into organic matter that gets stored at the bottom of the ocean when the phytoplankton sink.
  • Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS): A hybrid NET that uses emission mitigating efforts and natural processes to capture CO2 directly from the air. This process uses vegetation or biomass to naturally remove CO2 from the air through photosynthesis. The vegetation is then burned and used to generate electricity, and the CO2 from the exhaust gasses is captured and stored using CCUS.

Direct Air Capture (DAC) is a new chemical process of capturing CO2 directly from the air. Essentially, the ambient air flows through the system where a solid or liquid sorbent chemically binds to the CO2 and separates it from the rest of the air. The CO2 is then released as a concentrated stream for storage or later use.

DAC benefits from placement flexibility, reducing the need for long-distance pipelines when geological sequestration locations are available. DAC also allows for manipulation of CO2purity for its future use in particular markets. However, DAC requires large equipment to process the vast amount of air that passes through the system and it may impact nearby plant life due to the effects of low CO2 availability on surrounding vegetation. In addition, DAC is currently more expensive than CCUS in capturing the same amount of CO2 because CO2 in the air is approximately three hundred times more diluted. Thus, the CO2 is harder to separate in a DAC system. However, a recent study suggests that the levelized DAC cost of CO2 captured has recently fallen from a range of $673 to $1,172/metric ton to a range of $124 to $325/metric ton.

Currently, a handful of privately funded companies are working to develop and commercialize DAC, including Carbon Engineering, Climeworks, Global Thermostat Infinitree, and Skytree. However, these DAC technologies are still at the beginning of the development process and have been hindered by the limited financing available. Proponents of DAC research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) urge for more federal funding in this area to bring down costs and fully commercialize DAC technology. For more information on recent arguments in favor of DAC RD&D, see our post on the recent Rhodium Group Report.

Regulatory Status and Responses

The federal government has invested over $3.7 billion across numerous forms of carbon removal-related RD&D projects since 1993. The majority of this funding has gone towards two types of projects — geological sequestration, or underground CO2 injection and storage (receiving 49% of investments) and terrestrial and bioenergy projects, seeking to use plant biomass to produce electricity (receiving 26% of investments). DAC-specific RD&D received less than 1% of federal funding for carbon removal-related RD&D, or approximately $10.9 million since 1993. While state and federal programs such as California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard program and the Federal Section 45Q tax credit support carbon removal technology generally, many DAC researchers and proponents argue that this alone is not enough to commercially expand the technologies. Two bills introduced in Congress this term provide for increased federal funding for DAC and general carbon removal technology RD&D.

The Enhancing Fossil Fuel Energy Carbon Technology Act (EFFECT Act), sponsored by democratic Senator Joe Manchin, works to expand the DOE’s RD&D for its CCUS technology programs. The bipartisan bill calls for the addition of four programs specifically aimed at coal and natural gas technology, carbon storage validation and testing, carbon utilization, and carbon removal. Additionally, the bill authorizes funding for each of the programs, allocating $45 million for carbon removal technology RD&D in FY 2020, and $181 million for FY 2024. The EFFECT Act has the support of the DOE, environmental scholars, and oil and gas companies. This bill was introduced in the Senate on April 11, 2019, where it was referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The Committee held hearings on May 16, 2019, and has yet to issue a report on its findings.

The Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies Act (USE IT Act) is another bipartisan bill introduced in Congress this term, which supports CCUS, DAC, and CO2 pipeline RD&D. Using existing authority in the Clean Air Act, the USE IT Act would direct the Environmental Protection Agency and DOE to research the long-term effects of using CCUS and DAC, and would support the development and research of both existing and emerging projects in this area. With the increasing amount of CO2 being captured, stored, and utilized, infrastructure, such as pipelines, are necessary to support and accelerate the RD&D process. Currently, the bill has a total of fourteen co-sponsors in the Senate and twenty-five co-sponsors in the House. Representatives from electric companies, existing DAC developers, and environmental non-profits support the bill. Moreover, the Carbon Capture Coalition has publicly endorsed the bill. The bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife in the House this past February, and the Committee on Environmental and Public Works in the Senate has held a hearing and issued a report recommending the bill pass without amendment. A series of energy-related amendments, including the USE IT Act, is expected to be included within the Senate’s fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

Expected Industry Impact

The efficiency of reducing CO2 emissions and the future economic prospects of CO2 utilization has led to an increasing push for federal funding in carbon removal technology. Further RD&D in this area is expected to accelerate this technology’s advancement toward commercialization and allow DAC to play an increasingly significant role in climate change mitigation discussions. However, until DAC developers have access to consistent capital, this technology’s development may continue to progress slowly.