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California has endorsed the use of direct air capture to reverse engineer the climate crisis with technology. The controversial method already has Big Oil’s support—and the Trump administration’s.

Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Kim Brown: Both California and the Trump Administration have advanced a controversial form of geoengineering, a technological proposal to alter the natural environment in an attempt to offset climate change and reverse engineer the climate crisis. The two, often at odds with one another on climate policy, have quietly found common ground on this issue. Geoengineering is a climate solution favored by Big Oil. That’s the case because it does not ask them to reduce emissions or their carbon footprint, but simply invest in more technology.

Muffet: It’s the idea that rather than addressing the root causes of climate change, which are the massive and unsustainable burning of fossil fuels, we will instead either mask the impacts of climate change by modifying the amount of sunlight coming that reaches the earth or we will magically suck carbon out of the atmosphere even while we continue to burn massive amounts of fossil fuels.

Kim Brown: At a February third hearing, Mary Nichols, who was the head of California’s Air Resources Board, the state’s climate regulatory agency, became the first major state leader to praise one form of geoengineering called direct air capture.

Speaker 3: There are a number of very small at the moment pilot projects that are looking at direct air capture of CO2. We need to be at the forefront of looking at these technologies and figuring out how we can pioneer some of them.

Kim Brown: Weeks later, California law makers introduced legislation calling for the state to subsidize direct air capture. The Trump Administration has followed suit. On March 30th the Department of Energy announced $22 million in financing for research efforts aimed at commercializing the technique. Muffet is wary of direct air capture.

Muffet: Many people are familiar with the idea of carbon capture and storage, which is also a profoundly wasteful and energy inefficient way to deal with carbon emissions. Direct air capture is substantially worse because instead of pulling carbon out of an industrial waste stream out of a pipe, you’re actually trying to suck it out of the atmosphere. It is profoundly energy intensive. It’s not been demonstrated at any meaningful scale.

Kim Brown: Proponents of it see it differently. Here’s George [Perytis 00:02:30] , a researcher for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a California based science research center funded by the federal government testifying at a February third hearing.
George P.: The third approach involves using machines that scrub CO2 from the air in a process called direct air capture. This can be applied anywhere that we have geothermal heat or natural gas, and we can rely on this strategy to make as large a contribution to our goal as we choose.

Kim Brown: Perytis has reason to support geoengineering. He formerly worked as a staff scientist advocate with the National Resources Defense Council, a group often seen as the establishment by the environmental movement. The groups reliant on insider relationships with liberal political leaders often come into conflict with more grassroots oriented climate justice groups. The push for geoengineering in California is part of a larger national push supported by Big Oil. An example of that are subsidies to bolster direct air capture already doled out by Congress.

Muffet: On carbon dioxide removal including direct air capture, the federal government adopted massive subsidies for these technologies in legislation that was adopted about a year and a half ago called 45Q. And so we are already seeing the government supporting the sinking of massive money into the idea that we can suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

Kim Brown: 45Q is a tax provision subsidizing power plants and other industrial actors to vacuum in and store CO2 instead of emitting it into the atmosphere. The FUTURE Act, a bill included as a provision within the budget bill in 2018 signed into law by President Donald Trump extended the tax credit. According to the lobbying disclosure forms reviewed by The Real News, the FUTURE Act received a lobbying support from oil giant ExxonMobil and coal giant Peabody Energy. Companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Occidental Petroleum have also poured money into scaling up direct air capture.

Speaker 5: It reflects the way technology is further permeating the environmental movement right now and the perpetuation of these types of futuristic solutions as opposed to addressing the root causes of the climate crisis, which is our dependence on fossil fuels and extractive industry.

Kim Brown: Ultimately, Muffet views the whole conversation surrounding geoengineering as a distraction.

Muffet: They’re sucking up valuable energy, valuable political will, and valuable resources from real solutions. There are ways for California and other states to act, but direct air capture sends us in precisely the wrong direction at precisely the wrong time.

Kim Brown: For The Real News Network, I’m Kim Brown. This piece was produced by our climate reporter, Steve Horn.
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Production: Steve Horn

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Kim Brown has been covering national and international politics for over 10 years and has been a sought-after voice on issues on race and culture.