Clean Energy Company Partners With Big Oil Companies: An Irony

A drone shot of Carbon Engineering's Squamish, British Columbia plant. Screenshot from Video "Carbon Engineering pilot plant – May 2018" in Carbon Engineering's website

Carbon Engineering (CE) gets investments from Bill Gates, BHP, Occidental Petroleum, and Chevron amounting to $68 million. 

CE is a Canadian clean energy company using Direct Air Capture technology to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. The CO2 captured by the company is then processed and reproduced into fuel. In theory, with this technology, the Earth will have a fighting chance against climate change.

With Gates and Big Oil’s investment, CE can start the commercialization of its carbon dioxide removal technology to make synthetic fuels. Before the stakes, the company estimates a cost of $600 per ton of CO2 captured. However, with the $68 million raised, the price was downsized to a minimum of $100 per ton. 

CE has acquired investments from Chevron and Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, LLC (OLCV), a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, in January 2019. By March, BHP joins the partnership with an undisclosed sum.

In May, CE has announced their partnership with OLCV in building the biggest Direct Air Capture and sequestration facility. Located in the Permian Basin, CE estimates that the proposed plant would capture 500 kilotonnes of atmospheric CO2 each year. 

According to CNBC, the IPCC special report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage has renewed the interest of big companies in investing in clean energy companies, particularly related to carbon dioxide removal. The world will have to keep the temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius to mitigate global warming. Currently, this target temperature cannot be feasible without the help of carbon dioxide removal. 

Process of Converting CO2 into Synthetic Fuel

For CE, its Direct to Air Capture applies the following process to converting CO2 into synthetic fuel. 

The air is sucked into the plant using large fans. The air goes through a device called an “air contractor.” The air gets coated with a liquid chemical as it passes a honeycomb-like filter which captures carbon and produces a carbonate solution. 

The solution will then be heated in high temperatures to produce calcium carbonate. After which, it will again undergo extreme high processing for it to release the carbon dioxide which will be processed and stored at an underground facility.

The CO2 stored in CE’s facilities are then processed to create synthetic fuel. In June 2018, CEO Steve Oldman shared that the company decided to create carbon-neutral liquid fuel that could be processed as gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel. 

All the chemicals used in CE’s process is recycled. 

CE’s Direct to Air Capture is just one of the ways to remove CO2 from today’s atmosphere. 

Aside from lessening the CO2 footprint, technologies like bio-energy with carbon capture and storage and seawater capture are available. However, financing these facilities can be expensive. 

The most natural way of removing CO2 is to continue planting trees. However, there’s a time element in planting trees that may not immediately solve our global warming problems now.  Oldman claims that CE’s scalable plant can reduce CO2 that amounts to the work of 40 million trees.

According to Fiona Wild, BHP Vice President for Climate Change and Sustainability, “We need more renewables. We need more Direct to Air Capture. We need more carbon capture and storage. We need more nature-based solutions. We need more informed policy development. Because the challenge of climate change means that the time for picking winners is gone.”

Related: Climate Change Update: Act Now Before It’s Too Late!, Carbon Dioxide Levels Reach Highest In History

Backed by Big Oil: Irony

Although the potential of CE being financially stable to continue their mission of cleaning our air should be good news, some do not see it that way.

Most energy analysts think that CE’s partnership with Big Oil companies will continue encouraging Big Oil to produce more fossil fuels and continue to damage the environment. This means that CE’s mission of cleaning the air is now counter-intuitive.

Dan Kammen, Professor of Energy from the University of California, Berkley, says “Partnering with an oil company is absolutely a step in the wrong direction and there’s no way to soft-pedal that story. If you say you’re part of the solution and that your technology won’t be a shill, a cover, a front to a fig leaf for fossil fuels, then you can’t partner with that same industry.” 

“You either need to be part of the effort to grow the green energy economy without perpetuating the dirty energy one that must be gotten rid of,” Kammen adds. 

David Keith, CE’s Acting Chief Scientists and Board Member, acknowledges that CE’s partnership with Big Oil companies seems “like a crazy idea,” but assures that the partnership only works because of world government’s efforts of requiring more cleaner fuels in the market. 

Unfortunately, without bringing synthetic fuel to the market, CE cannot be financially viable to continue with its CO2 removal options.  

Drone shot of Carbon Engineering’s Plant in Squamish, British Columbia | Video: Carbon
Carbon Engineering pilot plant – May 2018 in Carbon Engineering’s website

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