As the COP28 climate summit approaches, unproven direct air capture (DAC) technology is getting undue political and public support, warns an expert group that is urging leaders to prioritize policies and solutions that eliminate the burning of fossil fuels.
“Instead of replacing fossil fuels with renewables and gradually decommissioning fossil fuel infrastructure, oil companies want to continue emitting carbon dioxide and then suck it out of the air with DAC,” writes the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) in a new report.
But not only does energy- and emissions-intensive DAC fail to live up to the hype. The technology is also being promoted as a way to prolong fossil fuel operations, making it “Big Oil’s latest smokescreen,” CIEL says.
Vicki Hollub, CEO of Oxy—formerly Occidental Petroleum—explicitly said that DAC technology will preserve the oil industry over time. “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,” Hollub told an oil and gas conference in March.
DAC is a carbon removal technology like carbon capture and storage (CCS). But rather than capturing emissions from the source, like an industrial facility or power plant, DAC sucks carbon dioxide directly from ambient air. Much of the captured carbon from DAC and CCS is intended for a process called enhanced oil recovery (EOR), where oil companies inject CO2 into a depleted well to force hard-to-reach oil reserves to the surface to be burned, “thereby adding more carbon to the atmosphere, rather than removing it,” CIEL explains.
DAC remains unproven at scale, and because of its similarities to CCS, CIEL expects it to have a similar failure rate. Seven of 13 “flagship” CCS projects have underperformed, two have failed, and one was mothballed, found the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
Oil major Oxy is one of DAC’s biggest proponents, CIEL writes, with plans to use carbon captured at its Stratos facility for oil recovery. “If the claimed 500,000-tonne capture capacity of Stratos were used each year for EOR, it would actually add around 350,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere once its own emissions and that of the produced oil are included.”
And now, “with climate talks around the corner, and with help from this year’s COP presidency, Oxy is turbo-boosting DAC, a dangerous distraction from real climate action,” CIEL adds. The report says Oxy has leveraged its lobbying ties with the United Arab Emirates to promote DAC to COP president Sultan Al Jaber, who is also CEO of UAE’s state-owned oil company, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). The two companies already have strong ties on the matter—this past October, ADNOC announced a deal with Oxy to explore investing in Oxy’s U.S. DAC plants and for some potential UAE-based DAC facilities.
Those plans have received support in the U.S., where CCS continues to have an outsized role in projected carbon reduction strategies, and where generous subsidies available for CCS and DAC projects mean “the push for DAC is largely being bankrolled by public funds,” CIEL says.
“Oxy stands to receive US$130 per tonne of carbon captured through DAC, even if it then uses the carbon to produce more oil.”
CIEL says Oxy could collect up to $215 per tonne by stacking subsidies and tax incentives from various sources, adding up to nearly half of the company’s expected income. Oxy also plans to sell credits for captured carbon, which would further add to its revenue while enabling corporations “to use these credits to greenwash their image and to justify their continued pollution, slowing or hindering their transition to a truly fossil-free economy.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that technofixes like DAC could delay more effective—and urgently needed—emission cuts, prolong the phaseout of fossil fuels, and increase the chances of missing climate targets. “If deployed, DAC will do much more harm than good by perpetuating the lifespan of fossil fuel infrastructure and diverting resources away from far more effective and proven climate solutions like renewable energies and energy efficiency,” CIEL warns.