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Tina Casey headshot

Carbon Capture Gives Way to Carbon Recycling

By Tina Casey
Carbon Capture

Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy kicked off a new campaign to promote carbon capture technology, in partnership with a fossil energy advocacy organization called the U.S. Energy Association. The new campaign is clearly not aimed at keeping fossil fuels in the ground. However, carbon capture could become part of a more sustainable approach to incorporating biofuels in a low-carbon economy.

What is wrong with carbon capture and sequestration?

Carbon capture and sequestration has been proposed as an effective solution to the climate crisis. However, carbon capture does not address the root of the crisis, which is the transfer of carbon from under the ground into the atmosphere, in the form of coal, oil and natural gas.

If fossil energy stakeholders continue to produce at pace, carbon capture and sequestration will simply amount to wheel-spinning on a global scale, keeping up with the problem rather than resolving it.

Carbon capture is also beginning to lose its luster on bottom-line terms as studies indicate that simply planting trees at a massive scale can accomplish similar results, with far less disruption and expense. Falling costs for renewable energy and energy storage are also making the carbon sequestration picture less attractive from an economic perspective.

Costs and disruption related to infrastructure expenditures are also major considerations, and the Department of Energy does not skirt around those issues. The new campaign consists of a traveling seminar that will visit to six different cities, and it includes a session on infrastructures.

“The maturing carbon market is driving demand for CO2 pipelines and related (compression/oil/processing/gas/NGL/water) infrastructure,” explains the Department of Energy, listing tribal land rights and interstate law among the issues yet to be settled.

Carbon capture and recycling

Those infrastructure issues make tree-planting look even more attractive compared to technology-based solutions. As a nature-based solution, trees capture carbon at low cost, and they have the benefit of supporting additional economic activity in reforested and newly forested lands, such as recreation and tourism.

In addition, if forests are managed properly, trees can naturally recycle carbon in the form of lumber, paper and numerous other forestry products.

That recycling element is where the carbon capture field is beginning to sharpen its focus. As a means of extracting value from carbon, recycling could help make the investment in carbon capture technology and infrastructure financially viable.

The Department of Energy campaign supports carbon recycling as a chemical building block for fuels, plastics and other products, among other uses.

A biofuel connection for carbon capture

That still does not address the root of the climate crisis, but the picture changes when captured carbon is deployed to grow crops, including biofuel crops. That angle could provide a way forward for some fossil energy stakeholders. Most notably that includes ExxonMobil, which is a member of the U.S. Energy Association.

Unlike some of the other global leaders in the energy sector, ExxonMobil has resisted diversifying into wind, solar or electric vehicles. Instead it has doubled down on shale gas and petrochemicals.

One exception is in the area of algae biofuel. ExxonMobil has kept a hand in foundational research on algae biofuel since 2009 through the firm Synthetic Genomics, though its efforts to commercialize algae biofuel appear to be on semi-permanent hold.

ExxonMobil’s interest in commercial production could gain new life if carbon capture provides an economical pathway for enhancing the growth of algae biofuel crops.

The biofuel industry has faced criticism from a sustainability perspective. However, the field is becoming more sophisticated. With the advent of next-generation sources like algae, biofuel could help foster a more aggressive approach to decarbonization as a replacement for fossil fuels.

Evidence is emerging that carbon capture at fossil power plants may do more harm than good, but the same calculation does not apply to biofuels. In addition, the economic case for carbon capture may also prove more advantageous where biofuels are involved.

A more holistic approach to carbon capture

As it happens, the intersection of algae cultivation and bioenergy is one of the carbon capture angles that the Department of Energy is pursuing.

One important development occurred in 2017, when the agency held a workshop aimed at exploring the use of algae to capture carbon from biorefineries as well as fossil power plants and other industrial sites.

The Department of Energy has been following up since then. Earlier this month, the agency announced a new $15 million round of funding for carbon recycling research and development, part of which will go to projects that use captured carbon to grow algae.

On January 23, the Department of Energy also announced a new $100 million round of funding for bioenergy research that includes a robust focus on algae.

But algae is not the only focus of the Department of Energy’s activity. On January 10, the agency dedicated a new $75 million round of funding for bioenergy crop research focusing oilseeds and other non-algae biofuel crops.

Microsoft goes wide on carbon capture

The bioenergy angle also sheds new light on Microsoft’s new carbon-negative initiative. In a January 16 blog post, Microsoft announced an ambitious plan to achieve carbon-negative status by 2030, as a midway step toward a 2050 goal of removing “all carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.”

Part of the plan involves establishing a $1 billion fund to accelerate the development of carbon capture systems. According to Microsoft, the fund will focus specifically on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, along with forestry and soil projects and direct air capture.

Of particular note is the company’s strategy of deploying nature-based solutions until technology-based solutions scale up.

Microsoft also addresses the root of the climate crisis through other elements of the plan that slash fossil fuel consumption. In addition to converting 100 percent of its operations to renewable energy, Microsoft plans to lean on its supply chain to decarbonize — and to provide its customers with tools to reduce their own carbon footprints.

As Microsoft notes, the past practice of buying carbon offsets is not sufficient to decarbonize the global economy, and a far more urgent approach is needed.

The tech giant's plan is still no substitute for strong government policy, but fossil stakeholders like ExxonMobil will need to prepare for rapid decarbonization as more leading corporations ramp up their plans for survival.

Image credit: Kevin Ortiz/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey