Later this year, on a site in the Permian Basin in Texas, a company called 1PointFive will break ground on a new “direct air capture” plant that can suck as much as 1 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere each year—the first facility of its size in the world. Now, the company, along with its partner Carbon Engineering, is figuring out how to quickly scale up: By 2035, it wants to build 70 similar plants.
“These are projects that can be standardized and actually mass manufactured, so that rather than sourcing and building one-off projects, we’re building essentially a big ‘gigafactory’ of those plant components,” says Lori Guetre, vice president and head of business development at Carbon Engineering, which developed the direct air capture technology. 1PointFive has calculated that under the current scenario of global carbon policy, it’s feasible to deploy dozens of new plants over a little more than a decade; with additional policy changes, the company could potentially build as many as 135 plants in the same time period.
Even 135 large plants, each capturing a million tons of carbon a year, could only address a small fraction of the problem: Humans currently emit around 43 billion tons of CO2 a year. As the world moves toward decarbonization by the middle of the century, by some estimates, we might need to be able to remove 10 billion tons of CO2 annually to account for emissions that can’t easily be eliminated. “If that were true, we’d need to be bringing online about 180 million tonnes of removal every year between now and 2050,” Guetre says.
In the nascent carbon removal industry—where startups are exploring solutions from plant-based bio oil that can be injected underground to seaweed farms controlled by robots—direct air capture technology is farther along than most. Carbon Engineering has been developing its tech since 2009. Climeworks, another direct air capture startup, opened its first commercial carbon removal plant at a smaller scale in Iceland last year. But the technology still faces challenges; it’s energy intensive, and still far more expensive than solutions like restoring forests. (Unlike trees, it does have the advantage that the captured CO2 can be permanently stored and not lost in a wildfire.) Some critics question whether direct air capture can feasibly address climate change because of the sheer size of the facilities and resources that would be necessary, though companies like Carbon Engineering argue that it can grow to a “climate relevant” scale.
1PointFive spun out of the oil company Occidental—and climate advocates also question whether fossil fuel giants should be leading the carbon removal industry. 1PointFive plans to use some of the captured CO2 from the first plant for enhanced oil recovery, a process that helps get more oil out of old wells. If the CO2 added to the well stays underground, it can make the extracted oil nearly carbon neutral when it’s burned. But critics say that’s the wrong solution, because it slows down the critical transition away from fossil fuels.
“Partnering with oil and gas companies in this way extends the social license of oil and gas companies by making it seem as if they’re partnering with the legitimate climate community to advance climate solutions, but they’re not doing this at all,” says Genevieve Guenther, founder of the climate advocacy group End Climate Silence and affiliate faculty at The New School. “They’re only using this technology to increase the efficiency of their extraction business.”
Still, 1PointFive announced earlier this year that it also plans to separately sequester CO2 without any oil extraction; Airbus, one customer, has already reserved 400,000 tons of CO2 that will be stored on its behalf. “In the voluntary market, what we’ve seen is 100% of customers so far have asked for pure sequestration,” Guetre says. “They just want to bury atmospheric CO2.” (The captured CO2 could also be used to make products, from sneakers to fuel, though permanently storing it underground is arguably the best solution for the climate.)
The voluntary carbon market, led by companies like Stripe that want to buy carbon removal as a service, is helping the direct air capture industry grow. “It’s really helping accelerate these projects to get financing,” Guetre says. “The technology can be ready and that capital can be there, but unless you have the business case closed, and the investors and lenders are willing to finalize the investment decision, then the project won’t get built.”
Climeworks, the direct air capture company with the plant in Iceland, has said that it doesn’t want to partner with oil companies. For Carbon Engineering, Guetre says that working with 1PointFive and other partners from the oil industry made sense because those partners have experience building large facilities and injecting CO2 underground, and could help bring investors on board. “There are some who see the energy transition in a bit of a binary way…if you were part of extracting fossil fuel from underground, then you can’t be part of the solution,” Guetre says. “We don’t really see it in that binary way. We’re looking globally to partners who can help us go fast. The problem’s urgent. We need to go fast.”