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How carbon capture can help slow climate change

Last month the world’s top climate scientists issued a dire warning. Their massive report to the United Nations boils down to one message: act now before climate disruption becomes unstoppable. According to the report, the extreme weather forced millions of people from their homes and destroyed food supplies. Oil and gas emissions is at a record high. The UN report calls for a drastic reduction in fossil fuels. But if our old technologies got us into this mess, can new ones get us out? Among politicians, corporations and billionaires, a new technology is gaining traction. It’s called direct air capture, which vacuums carbon dioxide out of thin air and locks it underground. Sound like science fiction? We thought so too, until we went to Iceland to see the world’s first commercial direct air capture plant in operation.

Here on a frigid plain near the Arctic Circle, the worry of an overheating planet seems far away. Yet tiny Iceland has placed itself at the forefront of a new kind of machine that will fight climate change by sucking carbon dioxide from the air. This is ORCA – the world’s first commercial direct air capture plant

Bill Whittaker: What are these fans? How does it work?

Carlos Hertel: Here you can see the back side of these collectors where the air is being pulled through the system with this fan.

Carlos Hertel is its Chief Technology Officer Climworks, the Swiss company that developed ORCA. He told us, when the fans blow in the air, the carbon dioxide is trapped by a special filter inside this huge collector – the size of each shipping container. The captured CO2 is then sent to storage tanks. We had to scream as strong fans as the bitter wind around us.


Direct air capture vacuums carbon dioxide out of thin air and locks it underground.

60 minutes

Bill Whittaker: So you didn’t come for this nice weather?

Carlos Hertel: No, we didn’t. We knew winter was harsh, but it was also a good real-life test for plants.

Bill Whittaker: What you’re describing sounds almost like science fiction, but what you’re saying is we can actually do it?

Carolos Hertel: People never doubted its basic physics or chemistry. But realizing it in real life situations is a different matter altogether. And that is what this system shows. It could be.

Climworks is now building a new plant in Iceland that will be 10 times the size of the ORCA that will look like this—a modular design that Haertel told us can be easily assembled. But capturing CO2 is only half the story.

Sandra Osk: So this is where the magic happens.

The second half begins here in this metal igloo, where CO2 is sent to be buried in Iceland’s porous volcanic rock.

Sandra Osk: So this pipe is actually filled with water.

Sandra Osk is a geologist at CarbFix, an Icelandic company that pioneered the ground-breaking injection method.

Sandra Osk: Here we have CO2 and CO2 actually dissolves in water. So, it’s actually just fizzy water.

Bill Whittaker: Just fizzy water?

Sandra Osk: Yes and this fizzy water is being injected into the injection well here. this–

Bill Whittaker: How low does it go?

Sandra Osk: It actually reached down a mile.

Bill Whittaker: A mile down?

Sandra Osk: Yes.

Fiji water is shot like a soda stream into Iceland’s basaltic rock, where it reacts with minerals and hardens into stone in less than two years.

Bill Whittaker: So what does fizzy water turn into?

Sandra Osk: Yes.

Bill Whittaker: In just a few years?


Sandra Osk and Bill Whittaker

60 minutes

Sandra Oske: So you—so you take this gas that you can’t see, we turn it into water, and then it turns into rock, and you don’t have to worry about it.

Bill Whittaker: Turned to Stone. It’s quite amazing.

Carbfix didn’t invent the process. Nature did. But nature takes millennia. After years of testing in Iceland’s grueling outdoor labs, CarbFix figured out how to speed things up. Space engineer Carlos Haertel tells us ORCA is a milestone. Now, the hard part begins: scaling up climate change fast enough to slow it down.

Carlos Hertel: Whether we are taking the right direction will depend on social issues rather than technical ones. Am I optimistic as an engineer? Me, absolutely. Am I optimistic as a citizen? Maybe half. I haven’t made up my mind yet.

Bill Whittaker: This goal is technologically achievable. Do we have the political and social will to do it?

Carlos Hertel: I think that’s the right way to look at it.

Investment has been interrupted. Microsoft, Airbus, insurance giant Swiss Re have poured in millions of dollars, but it’s a staggering challenge. ORCA is designed to remove the emissions of about 800 cars, or 4,000 tons of CO2 a year—a tiny fraction of the 1 billion tons annually scientists say we need to remove from the atmosphere.

Kari Helgason: This is the problem of our generation. It’s like a moon shot.

Kari Helgason is an astrophysicist at CarbFix. He told us that studying space helped him think big. We met him on a barren stretch of rock that could be Mars, but Helgason told us he saw potential.

Kari Helgason: We need big solutions. We need to return the carbon to where it came from, which is the Earth.

Bill Whittaker: Tell me what are you doing here?

Kari Helgason: This will be a first-of-its-kind carbon mineral storage terminal, which means we’re going to bring in CO2, transport it from industrial point sources in Europe, and ship it here and inject it for full mineral storage.

It will be the world’s first industrial-scale underground disposal site for CO2, capable of handling 3 million tons a year. Helgason sketches out a new world in which tankers—running on green methanol—would transport carbon dioxide from European businesses to Iceland.

Bill Whittaker: Is it going to happen fast enough to help us with climate change?


Kari Helgason of CarbFix talks to Bill Whittaker

60 minutes

Kari Helgason: I don’t know. To be perfectly honest, we are here demonstrating the first mineral storage hub on a megaton scale. Whether that happens in time or not is entirely up to us. It depends on politicians, governance, financiers, society and quite frankly, we are running out of time.

Direct air capture as it currently exists is expensive and energy-intensive. In Iceland, that energy is geothermal—renewable and green. This is not the case anywhere else. So, governments in Europe and the United States have dangled billions of dollars in tax breaks to encourage companies to take the plunge. But there is a bigger question than who writes the check.

BILL WHITAKER: Are you afraid that people will think “Oh well, we can clean the air now. We can just take CO2 out of the air, so we can carry on with business as usual?”

Kari Helgason: All the time, yes. But that’s not how it works. We must stop emissions and wean ourselves off fossil fuels. We need to do it now. After all, we must also reduce the carbon we put into the atmosphere. Only then can we reach our climate goals. So, there can never be an excuse to continue business as usual.

But it’s that “business as usual” that critics are warning against, as direct aerial capture expands in the US because, here, oil companies are one of the biggest boosters of the technology. They have been capturing CO2 to inject into oil wells for decades. It does not bury, but flush out more oil. For Carbfix’s Kari Helgason—and many others—it’s a non-starter.

Kari Helgason: We don’t see a need to work in the oil and gas sector.

Bill Whittaker: Well, if the oil and gas industry can directly help finance wind capture, why not team up with them?

Kari Helgason: We don’t need them for direct air capture. And obviously, we don’t want the oil and gas industry to be around in 40, 50 years.

Vicki Holub: In 50 years there will still be an oil industry. I have no doubt about that. I think our company will be a different company by 2050.

That company is Occidental Petroleum and Vicky Holub is the CEO. He wants to turn Oxy into a carbon management company. It has allocated more than a billion dollars to build the world’s largest direct air capture plant in Texas


Bill Whittaker and Occidental Petroleum CEO Vicki Holub

60 minutes

Vicky Holub: So that would represent the CO2 equivalent of taking 200,000 cars off the road.

Holub showed our Texas version of how CO2 would be sucked out of the air.

Vicky Holub: These are air contact towers…

Some of the captured CO2 will be locked underground – just like we saw in Iceland. Some will use still more oil extraction. But Holub told us that carbon used to be sucked out of the air, meaning new oil is produced that he calls carbon neutral. That was hard to wrap our heads around.

BILL WHITAKER: But you use the carbon that you’re capturing and taking out of the air, to produce more oil, which produces more carbon?

Vicky Holub: But, oil will emit less carbon than the CO2 we inject to get it. So using oil puts more—at least equivalent—and sometimes more CO2 into the soil than the oil would emit.

Holub tells us that producing oil this way is essential to the transition to a green economy. For example, airlines and ships must run on fossil fuels until a sustainable alternative is found. That could take years. Until then, Holub argues, using CO2 to get oil helps keep a lid on emissions.

Bill Whittaker: Your critics will say “you can’t trust any oil company to talk about reducing CO2,” that your mission here amounts to greenwashing.

Vicki Holub: Let me first say that we are not going to spend $1.2 billion on greenwashing. So we have a big job ahead of us. The way the CO2 enhanced oil recovery process works is that we can reduce more out of the atmosphere than what would be emitted when using our products. And so, if it’s not an idea that people can get, then we–we won’t–we won’t have a chance to achieve what we need to achieve.

Holub told us he knows big oil’s critics are skeptical and many think the industry isn’t moving fast enough to avoid climate catastrophe. On that point, Holub disagrees. With tax incentives, Occidental plans to build 130 more direct air capture plants by 2035, he told us.

Vicki Holub: We know how to make it happen. We know how to dig wells. We know how to separate it safely.

Bill Whittaker: We were in Iceland and we were talking to some direct air capture companies. And frankly, they don’t quite trust you.

Vicki Holub: We’re going to talk. That’s the only way that it does it. Words will never convince anyone. We need to capture the air directly up and work. We need to um make it better, make it more economical and start improving it all over the world.

The next decade will be critical if the direct air capture industry is to grow large enough to make an impact. Both CarbFix and ClimWorks have told us they do not plan to work with the American oil industry to expand into the United States.

Produced by Heather Abbott. Associate Producer, Lacroy Mitchell. Edited by Patrick Lee.

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