After many years of sowing doubt about climate change and its causes, the fossil fuel industry is now shifting to a brand new strategy: presenting itself because the source of solutions. This repositioning includes rebranding itself as a “carbon management industry.”

This strategic pivot was on display on the Glasgow climate summit and at a Congressional hearing in October 2021, where CEOs of 4 major oil firms talked a couple of “lower-carbon future.” That future, of their view, can be powered by the fuels they provide and technologies they might deploy to remove the planet-warming carbon dioxide their products emit – provided they get sufficient government support.

That support could also be coming. The Department of Energy recently added “carbon management” to the name of its Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management and is expanding its funding for carbon capture and storage.

But how effective are these solutions, and what are their consequences?

Coming from backgrounds in economics, ecology and public policy, we now have spent several years specializing in carbon drawdown. We have watched mechanical carbon capture methods struggle to show success, despite U.S. government investments of over US$7 billion in direct spending and not less than a billion more in tax credits. Meanwhile, proven biological solutions with multiple advantages have received far less attention.

CCS’s troubled track record

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, goals to capture carbon dioxide because it emerges from smokestacks either at power plants or from industrial sources. So far, CCS at U.S. power plants has been a failure.

Seven large-scale CCS projects have been attempted at U.S. power plants, each with a whole lot of tens of millions of dollars of presidency subsidies, but these projects were either canceled before they reached business operation or were shuttered after they began resulting from financial or mechanical troubles. There is simply one commercial-scale CCS power plant operation on the earth, in Canada, and its captured carbon dioxide is used to extract more oil from wells – a process called “enhanced oil recovery.”

In industrial facilities, all but one among the dozen CCS projects within the U.S uses the captured carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery.

This expensive oil extraction technique has been described as “climate mitigation” since the oil firms are actually using carbon dioxide. But a modeling study of the complete life cycle of this process at coal-fired power plants found it puts 3.7 to 4.7 times as much carbon dioxide into the air because it removes.

The problem with pulling carbon from the air

Another method would directly remove carbon dioxide from the air. Oil firms like Occidental Petroleum and ExxonMobil are in search of government subsidies to develop and deploy such “direct air capture” systems. However, one widely known problem with these systems is their immense energy requirements, particularly if operating at a climate-significant scale, meaning removing not less than 1 gigaton – 1 billion tons – of carbon dioxide per 12 months.

That’s about 3% of annual global carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences projects a must remove 10 gigatons per 12 months by 2050, and 20 gigatons per 12 months by century’s end if decarbonization efforts fall short.

The only form of direct air capture system in relatively large-scale development at once should be powered by a fossil fuel to realize the extremely high heat for the thermal process.

A National Academies of Sciences study of direct air capture’s energy use indicates that to capture 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide per 12 months, such a direct air capture system could require as much as 3,889 terawatt-hours of energy – almost as much as the full electricity generated within the U.S. in 2020. The largest direct air capture plant being developed within the U.S. at once uses this technique, and the captured carbon dioxide might be used for oil recovery.

Another direct air capture system, employing a solid sorbent, uses somewhat less energy, but firms have struggled to scale it up beyond pilots. There are ongoing efforts to develop more efficient and effective direct air capture technologies, but some scientists are skeptical about its potential. One study describes enormous material and energy demands of direct air capture that the authors say make it “unrealistic.” Another shows that spending the identical amount of cash on clean energy to exchange fossil fuels is more practical at reducing emissions, air pollution and other costs.

The cost of scaling up

A 2021 study envisions spending $1 trillion a 12 months to scale up direct air capture to a meaningful level. Bill Gates, who’s backing a direct air capture company called Carbon Engineering, estimated that operating at climate-significant scale would cost $5.1 trillion yearly. Much of the price can be borne by governments because there isn’t a “customer” for burying waste underground.

As lawmakers within the U.S. and elsewhere consider devoting billions more dollars to carbon capture, they need to contemplate the results.

The captured carbon dioxide should be transported somewhere to be used or storage. A 2020 study from Princeton estimated that 66,000 miles of carbon dioxide pipelines would should be built by 2050 to start to approach 1 gigaton per 12 months of transport and burial.

The issues with burying highly pressurized CO2 underground might be analogous to the issues which have faced nuclear waste siting, but at enormously larger quantities. Transportation, injection and storage of carbon dioxide bring health and environmental hazards, akin to the chance of pipeline ruptures, groundwater contamination and the discharge of toxins, all of which particularly threaten the disadvantaged communities historically most victimized by pollution.

Bringing direct air capture to a scale that may have climate-significant impact would mean diverting taxpayer funding, private investment, technological innovation, scientists’ attention, public support and difficult-to-muster political motion away from the essential work of transitioning to non-carbon energy sources.

A proven method: trees, plants and soil

Rather than placing what we consider to be dangerous bets on expensive mechanical methods which have a troubled track record and require many years of development, there are methods to sequester carbon that construct upon the system we already know works: biological sequestration.

Trees within the U.S. already sequester almost a billion tons of carbon dioxide per 12 months. Improved management of existing forests and concrete trees, without using any additional land, could increase this by 70%. With the addition of reforesting nearly 50 million acres, an area concerning the size of Nebraska, the U.S. could sequester nearly 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per 12 months. That would equal about 40% of the country’s annual emissions. Restoring wetlands and grasslands and higher agricultural practices could sequester much more.

Storing carbon in trees is inexpensive per ton than current mechanical solutions.
Lisa-Blue via Getty Images

Per ton of carbon dioxide sequestered, biological sequestration costs about one-tenth as much as current mechanical methods. And it offers worthwhile side-benefits by reducing soil erosion and air pollution, and concrete heat; increasing water security, biodiversity and energy conservation; and improving watershed protection, human nutrition and health.

To be clear, no carbon removal approach – neither mechanical nor biological – will solve the climate crisis without a direct transition away from fossil fuels. But we consider that counting on the fossil fuel industry for “carbon management” will only further delay that transition.

This article was originally published at