Direct Air Capture: 5 Things You Need to Know About This Climate Scam

Categories

Climate and Energy

by Oakley Shelton-Thomas and Mia DiFelice

We know that the window is quickly closing for us to slash emissions and avoid climate change’s worst effects. So it’s easy to get excited about direct air capture: technology designed to suck carbon dioxide straight from the atmosphere. 

But oil and gas companies have vested interests in DAC. As a kind of carbon capture and sequestration technology, DAC projects will receive hefty federal tax credits

Now, DAC boosters are drumming up hype that masks real problems — notably, that direct air capture is a scam that won’t help solve the climate crisis. With time running out on climate change, we can’t waste resources on this dangerous and speculative technology. Here are five reasons why.

1. DAC Wastes Tons of Cash on a Few Drops in the Bucket

In August, oil giant Occidental proposed a new direct air capture facility in Texas. The facility stands to become the largest DAC facility in the world — at the cost of $811 million. But even as the world’s largest, Occidental’s facility would, at most, capture just .01% of our country’s annual CO2 emissions.

As this project highlights, we’re not getting much bang for our buck with DAC. Capturing just a quarter of our country’s annual emissions would cost at least $700 billion each year. That includes the hefty bill we’ll receive as taxpayers. Under the current system of tax credits, capturing that quarter will cost us more than $153 billion.

All that cash would be better spent on clean energy. A renewable energy transition would be far more efficient and cost-effective. Our research finds that investing in solar and wind to reduce emissions would be fifteen times cheaper than using DAC to suck them from the sky.

2. DAC Emits More Than It Captures

Direct air capture uses a lot of power. Let’s say the U.S. transferred all the electricity it currently generates to DAC. We would still only capture a quarter of our annual emissions.

The technology’s high energy needs could lead to a lot of climate pollution — more than it can remove. Our research finds that capturing 1 ton of CO2 with fossil-powered DAC would emit the equivalent of 3.5 tons of CO2

Some proponents argue that using renewables to power DAC would solve this problem. Sure, that might be better than using fossil fuels — but it would be far worse for the climate than just transitioning the grid to renewables. 

Using renewables for DAC would require a huge buildout with very little benefit. And it would pull renewable energy from more important and efficient uses, like transport and household power. 

3. Carbon Capture Relies on Toxic Solvents

Direct air capture not only threatens the climate — it threatens our public health and safety, too. That’s because the most “promising” carbon capture technologies rely on two kinds of toxic solvents

The first, aqueous hydroxide solutions, produce deadly and corrosive chlorine gas, which has been used as a chemical weapon. Scaling DAC would produce vastly more chlorine gas than we currently use, raising questions about whether it could be disposed of safely. Capturing just a quarter of U.S. annual CO2 emissions would produce triple the amount of chlorine gas that we use globally

The second, amine-modified solutions, release chemical carcinogens during DAC that harm human health, even at very low levels. DAC releases one kind of amine-modified solution at a rate that exceeds toxicity limits for drinking water and aquatic ecosystems. 

The truth is, DAC comes with some nasty side effects — and we don’t have any sustainable or economical solutions to dispose of all these toxic chemicals.

4. “Long-Term Storage Solutions” are Super Risky

The highlight of carbon capture is the sequestration part: burying the carbon deep underground, where it will (supposedly) never again see the light of day. But even getting the carbon down there is a dangerous game, with lots of risks — notably, the risk for leaks.

Leakage may arise from the mere injection of carbon into storage wells, which can fracture the well’s protective layers. Injection may also cause leaks by causing earthquakes (which also threaten the safety of nearby communities). Additionally, as CO2 is often stored in or around oil and gas wells, the original well bores can create pathways for leaks.

Ultimately, there’s no guarantee that “sequestered” carbon actually stays sequestered. The process faces leaks at every turn. So why is the U.S. spending so much money on such a doubtful bet, when the stakes for lowering emissions are so high? For one:

5. DAC Projects Subsidize and Power More Drilling

While proponents proclaim DAC will pull our emissions out of the sky, they ignore a key fact: currently, 95% of our country’s captured carbon goes to enhanced oil recovery. This process injects CO2 and other chemicals into wells, to flush out the last dregs of oil. 

That’s right; the vast majority of captured carbon goes to extracting — and ultimately burning — more oil, resulting in more emissions. In fact, one ton of CO2 used in enhanced oil recovery will lead to 1.2 tons of CO2 emissions when that oil is burned.

Right now, direct air capture isn’t a climate solution — it’s a climate wrecker. What’s more, its greenwashing claims allow fossil fuel giants to continue drilling, fracking, and polluting — subsidized with even more taxpayer dollars. It may even net them more oil, through enhanced oil recovery.

We don’t need expensive, dangerous technology that doubles as a boon for Big Oil. Funding for a complete transition to renewables would be far more effective and efficient, and more people- and planet-friendly.

To save the climate, we need clean energy — not Big Oil boondoggles like direct air capture.

Learn more in our full report on DAC:

The Clean Water Act At 50: How We Got Here And Where We Need To Go

Categories

Clean Water

by Mary Grant

On this day 50 years ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. This cornerstone environmental law of the 20th century aimed to eliminate all polluting discharges into our nation’s waterways. 

For many people, the 1969 fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River is the symbol of the pre-Clean Water Act era. More than a dozen fires had erupted on that one river. Many more rivers in cities from Buffalo to Detroit caught fire from industrial oil slicks and pollution.

And while the Clean Water Act has been instrumental in cleaning up these waterways and waterways across the country, much more work is necessary.

The Clean Water Act Brings A New Era of Federal Water Regulation

Historically, the federal government took a hands-off approach to water quality regulation. Restrictions on water pollution were left mostly to states and localities under a patchwork of weak regulatory regimes

That began to change in 1948, when Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. However, this first national framework for water quality regulation, fell flat because it failed to provide adequate federal oversight. 

The Clean Water Act of 1972 was a complete revision of that decades-old law. It had two major parts: 

  1. federal funding for publicly owned wastewater treatment plants, and 
  2. regulations to stop pollution discharges into waterways. 

The Clean Water Act emerged following an era of social change and activism amid the anti-war movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, and a wave of environmental activism. Responding to popular pressure, on October 18, 1972, Congress overwhelmingly voted to override a veto from President Nixon, passing the Clean Water Act into law. 

Because of the Clean Water Act, the water quality of many of our nation’s rivers, lakes and wetlands has improved significantly. Wastewater systems now provide advantaged treatment for more than 16 times as many people as before the law passed. The regulations reduced most types of major water pollution, and more surface waters are now safe for fishing and swimming. 

The Clean Water Act proved a clear win for public health and the environment and enjoyed widespread public support at the time. So why did President Nixon oppose it? The funding. Nixon deemed the bill’s $24 billion price tag “unconscionable.” 

Clean Water Act Funding Sparks Battles For Decades

Federal funding has long been a key battleground in the fight for clean water. 

The 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act created an unsuccessful construction loan program for wastewater treatment facilities. In 1956, after it failed to spur construction, Congress replaced that loan program with a new construction grants program. These grants were wildly popular and demand quickly outpaced available funding. 

Over the following decades, Congress battled with Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon to scale up investments. In 1960, President Eisenhower, who wanted to eliminate the program, vetoed legislation passed by Congress that would nearly double the funding. He argued that water pollution was a “uniquely local blight” that shouldn’t be the responsibility of the federal government.

That November proved what we’ve learned since — elections matter for clean water. When John F. Kennedy became president, he signaled a renewed federal commitment to clean water. In his first year of office, he signed into law amendments to expand federal oversight and double the construction grants program. Kennedy recognized water quality as “a serious National problem requiring a strong National program.” 

The size of the construction grants program continued to grow in the years leading up to the Clean Water Act, which authorized a substantial increase in funding (about $175 billion in today’s dollars). Then, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed amendments that committed to further long-term funding for public sewage systems. 

From 1972 to 1984, the federal government provided nearly $41 billion in funding for wastewater infrastructure. It was the largest nonmilitary public works program since the Interstate Highway System. 

Source: Jonathan L. Ramseur, Congressional Research Service testimony to U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, March 2022.  

President Reagan Ended the Clean Water Act’s Construction Grants Program 

In the 1980s, President Reagan began targeting the construction grants program, seeking to eliminate it by 1990. His administration claimed that the program had accomplished its goal and that most remaining projects were insignificant because they were largely in small and rural areas. 

Congress responded to Reagan’s pressure with the Water Quality Act of 1987, which authorized a final $18 billion over 9 years to the grants program and to the newly established Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which replaced those grants. Despite winning his sought-for phase-out, Reagan vetoed the legislation, lambasting the additional funding as “loaded with waste and larded with pork.” 

But Congress once again voted overwhelmingly to override the veto. The construction grants program was phased out in 1990. Today, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund program provides low-interest loans to build and improve wastewater systems. 

The Path Forward, From The Clean Water Act to The WATER Act

From the start, federal funding has been a major political fault line in the fight for clean water. It is all too often on the chopping block during federal spending battles between Congress and the Presidential administrations.

That’s why Food & Water Watch, since our founding, has been fighting for a national trust fund to provide dedicated support for safe and clean water. 

Since peaking in 1977, federal funding for water infrastructure has plummeted 77% in real terms, or 84% on a per capita basis. But the EPA estimates our water infrastructure needs at least $744 billion in investment over the next 20 years, or more than $35 billion a year. 

We know the costs of inaction. We see it every day as our aging infrastructure breaks downs and fails. Climate change-fueled storms overload these faltering systems, and billions of gallons of sewage continue to spill into waterways every year. 

The WATER Act is the only comprehensive approach to fund improvements to our drinking water and wastewater systems. It will create the much-needed trust fund, providing $35 billion in annual funding to update and repair our water infrastructure. And it will help achieve the vision of clean water in every community.  

Tell your congress members to cosponsor the WATER Act today!