May 28, 2024

If one were interested in manifesting positivity, recent news about Mammoth and the state of direct air capture technologies offers a mixed bag of evidence. Climeworks has long been considered an industry leader in capturing carbon. Doing so is massively energy intensive, and the company’s Iceland facilities can draw on that country’s abundant, zero-carbon geothermal energy. That’s certainly not the case for the raft of carbon capture projects being enthusiastically subsidized by and in the United States. And unlike Climeworks, which injects captured carbon into rock formations, 79 percent of the world’s carbon capture facilities send the carbon they capture out to be used in enhanced oil recovery—that is, to get more fossil fuels out of the ground. Vicki Hollub, CEO of Oxy—a fossil fuel company which has rebranded itself as a “carbon management” company—said recently that carbon capture “gives our industry a license to continue to operate for the 60, 70, 80 years.”

Oxy plans to open a facility in Texas next year that will reportedly be able to remove 500,000 tonnes of carbon from the air annually, and has already started selling carbon removal credits to the likes of Amazon. Other oil companies’ track record doing this hasn’t been great. A report from Greenpeace Canada found that, from 2015 to 2021, Shell sold millions of dollars worth of carbon credits for greenhouse gas emissions reductions that never happened. Credits were sold through Alberta’s carbon market, mostly to other oil and gas companies as a means to offset their own emissions. Yet the amount of credits Shell sold off vastly outnumbered the amount of carbon captured and stored at its Quest facility, 93 percent of which has been funded by government subsidies. As the report notes, Shell sold 5.7 million of so-called “phantom” credits, which corresponded to no carbon removal.

This isn’t to suggest that capturing carbon is unimportant. I also don’t mean to imply that it’s a ploy cooked up by the fossil fuel industry. The government probably shouldn’t scrap all of its still somewhat modest backing for carbon removal technologies. The world will very likely need to capture a lot of carbon, largely to decarbonize industrial processes like those that produce steel and cement, for which there currently aren’t currently workable, low-carbon alternatives. But being able to do that at any meaningful scale—much less in a way that’ll be profitable enough to attract investors—seems very far away. Like most things on earth, carbon removal isn’t clear-cut evidence for either doom or optimism. It just is.