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Can Carbon Capture Be Part of the Climate Solution?

This is the final installment in the Visionaries series, which looks at figures who are trying to transform the way we live.

Every year, humans pump around 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. According to numerous successive and increasingly forceful reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to avoid the worst effects of a warming planet, that number needs to fall to zero by 2050.

But after decades of inaction in the face of this scientific consensus, emissions have grown so high that reductions from things like increasing energy efficiency and transitioning to renewable electricity will only get us so far. “We know how to do 40 gigatons,” said Julio Friedmann of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “That means you need 10 gigatons of removal.”

He was referring to carbon capture and storage, known as C.C.S. — essentially sucking the carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere, or from its emissions source, and locking it away somewhere.

Nearly two decades ago, Jennifer Wilcox realized that removal would be key to getting to net-zero emissions. As a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University, Dr. Wilcox recognized that nature-based solutions — planting trees and rehabilitating wetlands, both of which are really good at absorbing carbon dioxide — could only do so much: Carbon would also need to be captured from the air. So, in 2012, she wrote the textbook on how it’s done. The National Academies of Science came around to Dr. Wilcox’s point of view in 2018, reporting that technologies would need to be developed and advanced to remove the amount needed.

Ms. Wilcox, 45, now has a leading role in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, where she is charged with doing just that. But directing $10 billion to investments in carbon capture and storage is just part of the job. Proven technologies must be made cheaply and at scale, and in some cases integrated with other systems. They must be deployed both at sources of carbon dioxide, such as power plants and factories, and in the wild, through systems known as direct air capture. And places must be found where the captured gas can be stored for centuries, which can get tricky. Dr. Wilcox “has described every aspect of this work path,” said Dr. Friedmann, who has known her for decades. “She wakes up every day thinking how do we deploy clean energy technology.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What’s holding back carbon capture and storage today? Is it the technology?

Types of carbon capture are often conflated with each other. There’s point source carbon capture, which is retrofitting an existing facility and avoiding emissions from entering the atmosphere. Then there’s carbon dioxide removal — direct air capture. Technology for both approaches exists.

But then there’s the question of, what do you do with all the CO2? The one approach that scales is the depleted oil and gas reservoirs: injecting it deep underground. So to me, it’s absolutely not the technology.

Is underground storage safe, achievable and cost-effective in the long term?

Deep underground storage of CO2 is not new — the oil industry has been doing it for nearly 40 years through enhanced oil production, which is a commercial-scale activity today. Through this industry, we have gained expertise in safe and secure storage, and the same skills, work force, and expertise will apply for dedicated CO2 storage projects. Similar trapping mechanisms that allowed oil and gas to be formed over millions of years deep underground will ultimately trap CO2 as we work toward reversing the flow of carbon back underground, and we’re working to build out the infrastructure.

Where do you think carbon capture and storage will be in 10 years? Do you see point source systems being in place by then?

I see C.C.S. in a decade being deployed on industrial point sources that are hard to decarbonize today — cement, primarily, and in some cases, steel. Carbon capture on a cement plant really helps to drive down the carbon intensity of that product. And we’re looking at pulp and paper as well.

Do customers want to purchase low-carbon paper?

Yes. Apple, Amazon — anybody that uses a lot of paper. They’re willing to pay for low-carbon supply chains, but those don’t exist today. So they have to pay for very high-priced carbon removal.

And my point is: How about financing the low-carbon cement, low-carbon steel, low-carbon paper by adding C.C.S. to their production? It’s a lot cheaper to avoid the emissions than taking it back out afterward. I don’t think those sectors are hard to decarbonize today.

I absolutely do not see carbon capture as the tool to offset emissions that we know how to decarbonize. But asking the question of who’s willing to pay for these projects can help drive some of them, and the bipartisan infrastructure law that President Biden signed in November will support at least two demonstrations.

When we spoke a year and a half ago, you said, “There needs to be government spending and incentives and investments associated with putting an economic benefit to putting more carbon in the earth than products produced when we use them.” Now, that’s actually your job description.

Can you believe it? Thank you for reminding me of that. Because honestly, this is a hard job. But every day, I’m so thankful that I got to be selected to be in this position. My work previously has provided just model extrapolations of what costs could be, but the reality is we need the funding to actually build them. And it needs to be transparent so that the policies are priced right for the private sector to then take it the rest of the way. The Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management’s work can build the more costly first-of-its-kind demonstrations.

How do you execute your vision through government bureaucracy?

We flipped the mission upside down. The Office of Fossil Energy’s previous mission was to increase the production of fossil fuels domestically. Now it is centered around investing in approaches and technologies that minimize climate and environmental impacts of our continued dependence on fossil fuels.

What do you see as the challenges that carbon capture and storage faces for widespread deployment on the scale necessary to achieve 10 gigatons of removal a year?

The lack of education and effective communication. An example that I have in my textbook is that the same chemistry that captures CO2 also captures the acid rain gases, sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides, which also affect human health. The first stage of carbon capture is actually cleaning up the particulate matter. In some communities where this technology could be deployed, there are air pollution concerns, so it’s really important to understand those aspects. And part of what we’re doing in this administration is being very thoughtful about citing projects and making sure that we make it very clear that there are benefits that the communities will see.

One possible use for the CO2 that’s captured through C.C.S. is to inject it into oil wells to facilitate fossil fuel extraction. What do you say to critics who argue that carbon capture and storage can be a license for oil and gas companies to pollute and that it is a dangerous strategy given the need to focus on emissions reduction?

I say they’re right. It could be that. But this administration is about putting guardrails in place, is about valuing other metrics like benefits to health, benefits to communities, reducing air pollution. But if we are distracted in the near term, and thinking that utilization for fossil fuel extraction is the only outcome of these investments, then we are frozen, we are paralyzed, and we are not acting, and that is more harmful.

You raise chickens, you grow vegetables, you have solar panels on your home. Are individual efforts to reduce one’s carbon footprint going to be enough? Do you think maybe that time would be better spent pressuring governments and companies to hasten the energy transition and to stop deforestation, since those are much bigger drivers of climate change?

I think all of the above. But I think that people’s individual decisions are a mode of communication. If your neighbor sees you put solar panels up, you talk about it. And I think that sending a message by example is a really critical element. So efforts that start with people’s individual decisions ultimately have an impact.

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