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Scaling up carbon capture to create an impact

There has been a rush to invest in direct air capture, but some advocates worry that the carbon capture process may not be scaled up fast enough to make an impact.

Direct air capture is a new technology that vacuums carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The CO2 is trapped by a special filter inside a giant collector – each the size of a shipping container. In Iceland, home to the world’s first commercial direct air capture plant, the CO2 is then sent to be buried deep underground in porous volcanic rock, where it solidifies into rock in less than two years.

Scientists estimate that carbon capture would require the removal of 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, at a time when fossil fuels are strictly in short supply. ORCA, which CBS News correspondent Bill Whittaker visited in Iceland, can emit about 800 cars or 4,000 tons of CO2. Scaling direct air capture is a huge challenge.


As it currently exists, direct air capture is expensive and energy intensive. In Iceland, that energy is geothermal—renewable and green.

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Carolos Haertel is the Chief Technology Officer of Climeworks, the Swiss company that developed ORCA. He told Whittaker that technically the scaling up process could be done, but it was not a decision that a company could make alone.

“Whether we’re taking the right direction will depend more on social issues than technical issues,” Hertel said. “Am I optimistic as an engineer? I am, absolutely. Am I optimistic as a citizen? Maybe half. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

The International Panel on Climate Change, which works with the world’s top climate scientists, has endorsed direct wind capture as part of a suite of new technologies that could reduce oil and gas emissions.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), about 40 billion tons of oil and gas emissions are released into the atmosphere each year, primarily from the transportation, construction, and power industries. The heat-trapping effect of carbon dioxide makes it by far the most harmful greenhouse gas and Contributors to climate changeNOAA said in a 2022 report.

As it currently exists, direct air capture is expensive and energy intensive. In Iceland, where ORCA is located, that energy is geothermal—renewable and green. This is not the case anywhere else. Governments in Europe and the United States have dangled billions of dollars in subsidies and tax incentives to encourage companies to take the plunge.


Direct air capture is a new technology that vacuums carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

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Occidental Petroleum leads the direct air capture business in the U.S. and has committed more than $1 billion to build the world’s largest direct air capture plant, CEO Vicki Holub said. Oil companies have been capturing and injecting CO2 for decades, not to bury the CO2, but to extract more oil. It’s called enhanced oil recovery, and many in the carbon capture industry are wary that the technology will give oil companies cover to pump more oil.

Kari Helgason of CarbFix, the Icelandic company that pioneered the method of injecting captured carbon into the ground, told 60 Minutes that carbon capture can never be an excuse for business as usual. Many others in the field agree.

“We must stop emissions and wean ourselves off fossil fuels. We need to do it now,” Helgason said. “On top of that, we must also reduce the amount of carbon we store in the atmosphere. Only then can we reach our climate goals. So, carbon capture can never be an excuse to continue doing business as usual.”

But Holub argues that extracting more oil by using carbon dioxide to suck it out of the air means that the oil produced is carbon neutral.

“The oil we’ll make with CO2 injection will emit less carbon than the CO2 we injected to get it,” he said. “So we’re putting more—at least equivalent—and sometimes more CO2 into the ground than the oil that would be emitted when we use it.”

He said producing oil in this way is essential for 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 that using CO2 to get oil helps keep a lid on emissions.

Holub knows that critics of big oil are skeptical and that many think the industry is not moving fast enough to avoid climate catastrophe. On that point, he disagreed. Holub said Occidental Petroleum plans to build 130 more direct air capture plants around the world by 2035.

“We’re going to speak up. That’s the only way to do it. Words will never convince anyone,” the CEO said. “We need to capture direct wind and put it to work. And we need to make it better, make it more economical, and start developing it around the world.”


Bill Whittaker and Occidental Petroleum CEO Vicki Holub

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Meanwhile in Iceland, CarbFix is ​​working around the clock to build a massive underground disposal site for CO2, capable of handling 3 million tonnes a year. It is the first industrial-scale waste disposal site for CO2. Helgason sketches out a new world in which tankers—running on green methanol—would transport carbon dioxide from European businesses to Iceland.

Still, Helgason admits he doesn’t know if that will happen fast enough to help climate change.

“To be perfectly honest, we’re demonstrating here the first mineral storage hub on a megaton scale,” Helgason said. “Whether it happens on time or not is not entirely up to us. It is up to politicians, governance, financiers, society.”

Climworks ORCA is now building a new plant 10 times the size in Iceland While both CarbFix and ClimWork will expand into the U.S., neither plans to work with the oil industry.

“Our product is removing carbon from the atmosphere. It’s fundamentally a contribution to securing the future. That’s true,” Haertel said. “And the climate emergency we’re in has to get the value and attention it deserves.”

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