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Tina Casey headshot

Clean Power Plan or Not, U.S. Air Force Supports New Carbon Recycling Technology

Despite the EPA having its regulatory authority dialed back, other branches of the government, including the Air Force, are pursuing a low-carbon economy.
By Tina Casey
Air Force

The 6-3 conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has pulled the regulatory rug out from under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with its decision in the West Virginia v. EPA case last month, but other branches of the federal government are still pursuing a more sustainable, low-carbon economy. One example is the U.S. Air Force, which has joined with a group of business leaders to support the carbon recycling startup Twelve. The vote of confidence has helped the company gather up $130 million worth of new funding to bring its technology to a wider market. 

Fossil energy stakeholders v. EPA

The Supreme Court’s decision in the EPA case was anticipated after former President Trump cemented the conservative majority when he appointed three new justices who were vetted and referred by the Federalist Society.

The Federalist Society’s role as the “casting couch” for judiciary appointments under Republican presidents pre-dates Trump, but it is especially relevant to the court’s recent decision against the EPA because of the money trail that leads from fossil energy stakeholders to The Federalist Society.

In the run-up to the EPA ruling, for example, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) took the Senate floor on June 14 to call attention to “the right-wing donors’ long-planned scheme to capture and control our Supreme Court.”

“What I will talk about today is that [the] scheme’s donor-funded doctrine factory, and a case in which The Court That Dark Money Built could weaponize dangerous, concocted doctrines to power up polluters and threaten a basic function of government,” he stated.

U.S. Air Force steps up for climate action

The Supreme Court decision does not prevent EPA from making rules altogether, but it does take away the agency’s authority to mandate a broad shift away from fossil energy in the power generating sector. 

In effect, the court has placed the decarbonization ball in the hands of business leaders.

Businesses leaders who purport to support a strong national defense have an additional motive to decarbonize, because decarbonization is also a key goal for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

The DOD recognizes climate change as a significant threat to national security, and it has been an early adopter and research funder of solar power, biofuels and other decarbonization tools. In particular, the Air Force has urged the entire DoD to go beyond carbon neutrality, and pursue a carbon-negative goal.

As part of that goal, in 2020 the Air Force’s Operational Energy branch gave its seal of approval for Twelve to set up a pilot-scale demonstration of its system for transforming airborne carbon dioxide into aviation fuel, under the proprietary name of E-Jet.

E-Jet comes under the growing category of e-fuels or electro-fuels. In contrast to synthetic fuels that are based on fossil energy inputs, e-fuels can be made with carbon captured from the air, along with green hydrogen produced from water and renewable energy.

Instead of having to purchase fuel from energy suppliers and ship it to bases around the world, carbon transformation would empower the Air Force to make its own fuel on site. 

“For the Air Force, the implications of this innovation could be profound. Initial testing shows that the system is highly deployable and scalable, enabling the warfighter to access synthetic fuel from anywhere in the world,” the Air Force explained in an article last fall. “Reliable access to energy and fuel is paramount to military operations. Recent joint wargaming and operational exercises have underlined the significant risk that transporting, storing, and delivering fuel poses to troops – both at home and abroad.”

An increase in efficiency by being able to tap into local sources of fuel would actually boost military strategy.

“If brought to scale, the platform would enable more agile operations and decrease dependence on foreign oil, while having the added benefit of mitigating carbon emissions — a Department of Defense key priority under Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III,” the Air Force added.

Going beyond carbon offsets...

Technology and logistical questions are yet to be settled, so it could be years before the Air Force can deploy the carbon transformation system at scale. In the meantime, Twelve has developed eyewear products with the company Pangaia and it is expanding into additional markets.

Along with the Air Force, Twelve lists Mercedes-Benz, Procter & Gamble, Shopify and NASA among its partners. The investment firm DCVC also began applying its “Deep Tech” strategy to the effort back in 2018, and last month DCVC spearheaded a round of Series B funding that infused another $130 million into Twelve, in combination with additional funding.

“As more companies and organizations adopt carbon-neutrality targets, they urgently need technologies like Twelve’s to rapidly green supply chains and corporate travel to reduce emissions at scale,” explained Zachary Bogue, who is a managing partner at DCVC. 

“Since leading Twelve’s seed round in 2018, we’ve only become more confident that their technology offers businesses a critical solution for not just offsetting emissions, but eliminating them,” Bogue added.

In fact, venturing even further beyond carbon offsets

Not too long ago, carbon offsets were one of the few scalable tools available to business leaders seeking to decarbonize. However, the limitations of tree-planting and other carbon offsets are beginning to show.

Carbon capture and sequestration was also once thought to be a scalable solution, but that is beginning to fade from the picture as the cost of renewable energy continues to fall. Twelve is in the vanguard of a new wave of innovation that provides manufacturers and fuel consumers with new opportunities to decarbonize their supply chains and promote the “green” or sustainable side to their brands.

In addition to jet fuel and eyewear, Twelve is leveraging its existing relationships to promote laundry detergent, car parts and a sustainable supply chain for NASA’s mission to Mars.

It appears that the sky’s the limit for re-using airborne carbon. Other innovators are pursuing high end vodka, perfumes and fabric as well.

As for the Supreme Court, it is worth noting that all six justices in the 6-3 majority were appointed by Republican presidents. With their decision in the EPA case, these six justices have effectively shredded their own party’s stake in a strong national defense.

Nevertheless, business leaders can stitch the pieces back together by continuing to advocate for a low-carbon economy and investing in new clean technology, but without the support of the highest court in the land it will be a longer, harder, slog.

Image credit: Jeremy Straub via 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