Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC. Now, we turn to our climate story of the week with a question, "Should oil and gas pipelines be replaced by carbon dioxide ones?" America's first carbon capture plants are now open, prompting the question, "Can the technology capture, move, and bury enough CO2 to be worth the risk? We will examine risks and benefits in this segment.
Here's a little background. New startups that aim to capture CO2 emissions that contribute to climate change have been in the news recently. One company in California takes the carbon dioxide it pulls from the air and seals the gas permanently in concrete. Another uses smushed plants to make bricks that get buried underground. There's a lot of doubt and there are a lot of questions about whether either approach is cost-effective and also about risks.
Scientists agree though that to mitigate some of the most severe effects of climate change in the future, at least some carbon needs to be captured from the atmosphere. Now, the International Energy Agency estimates that the world will need to be able to capture 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year by 2050. Right now, we're pretty far away from reaching that benchmark.
The total carbon capture worldwide amounts to just 4% of that goal. There are also risks, so let's discuss. Joining us now on how companies are attempting to make carbon capture profitable and safe and where the US stands on making it a priority is Shannon Osaka, climate reporter for The Washington Post. Shannon, thanks so much for joining us for our climate story of the week here on The Brian Lehrer Show. Welcome.
Shannon Osaka: Thanks so much for having me, Brian.
Brian Lehrer: You recently wrote about a startup called Graphyte, which aims to start operations in Arkansas next year. Want to just tell us a little about Graphyte as one example of a company trying to get into the carbon capture business?
Shannon Osaka: Yes, I get a lot of pitches and notes in my inbox all the time about different carbon removal companies, companies that are trying to suck CO2 out of the air and bury it underground or lock it up in various ways. I think what caught my eye in looking at this company was basically the simplicity of the approach that they were trying. There's lots of super complicated ways to try to remove CO2. You could use gigantic fans, you could be sprinkling rock dust on crops, all of these things. What this company is proposing is that they say that they can take plant waste, so we know that plants are some of the greatest absorbers of CO2 out there.
They have evolved to do this. They do it extremely well. They're proposing to take plant waste, squish it into these shoebox-sized bricks, and dehydrate them so that they don't decompose. Because the problem is that when you have trees that fall down, et cetera, they decompose and they release the CO2 back into the atmosphere. They're proposing wrapping these bricks in this sheath, and they call it carbon casting, and then burying them underground. They say that this can keep the carbon that's in that plant matter locked up for potentially thousands of years.
Brian Lehrer: If we're emitting so much CO2, and therefore having to make a lot of these bricks and bury them for thousands of years, that's a lot of carbon dioxide graveyard real estate that the world would need to set aside.
Shannon Osaka: Yes, it's a lot of space. I think that this is a question that we've had about a lot of different carbon capture and carbon removal technologies, which is just, "Okay, what are we going to do with all of the carbon that we are actually pulling out of the air?" Some people have talked about putting it into cement, which can then be used for building materials. That's a pretty safe way. This company is proposing doing a version of a landfill, but I think people don't really like the word "landfills." They don't really want to call it that.
Yes, it can take a lot of space. Their proposal is that this will be cheaper than some of the more complex engineering approaches like direct air capture where you're using machines to pull it out of the air. That is promising, but it's still going to be expensive. It will take them a while to show that they can really get to a lower cost than some of the other companies out there.
Brian Lehrer: Your description of the process that that company, Graphyte, uses in your article that it involves making these bricks out of smushed pieces of plants. I will say it's the first time I've seen the word "smushed" in The Washington Post. I mentioned in the beginning that a company called Heirloom recently opened a warehouse in California. Their approach, which I think you were just referring to, is to suck carbon from the air and then put it inside cement to prevent it from leaking out. Does that cement then become like a building material?
Shannon Osaka: Yes, it can be used for all sorts of things. I think that direct air capture, which is what Heirloom is doing out in California, that is a more accepted approach that people are doing. There's a plant in Iceland. There's various other plants that people are trying to start up around the world. The challenge with that approach is that, right now, no company will actually say exactly how much it's costing them, but experts estimate it's between $600 and $1,200 a ton.
Now, I think a lot of people don't have a sense for what a ton of CO2 really is, but if you fly from New York to Europe and back, you're emitting a ton of CO2. You're probably not going to want to spend $600 to $1,200 to put that CO2 back into the ground or into cement. These technologies, they exist. They're up and running. Some people are buying those-- they're paying to have that carbon removed from the air, but it's super expensive.
Brian Lehrer: Listeners, we can take some phone calls on the risks and benefits and cost-effectiveness of carbon capture technology as one means of dealing with climate change. 212-433-WNYC, 212-433-9692. Call or text 212-433-9692 on our climate story of the week with Shannon Osaka, climate reporter for The Washington Post. Let's take a call right now. Tim in Brooklyn, you're on WNYC. Hi, Tim. Thanks for calling in.
Tim: Hi. Good morning, Brian. Most of the carbon-capture discussion and startups are pure greenwashing. All you have to do is look at who's funding this stuff and it's fossil fuel interests. I am certain we're going to be using fossil fuels for the next few 100 years. I'm not an extreme environmentalist, but this is ridiculous. Look at the tonnage of carbon we emit every day, millions of tons. The idea of sucking that out of the air in just small fractions of a percent is crazy. Just do some math on the tonnage of carbon and the energy it would take to extract it, let alone where to put it, and it just doesn't make sense with the current technology. Planting a tree in the right environment is far more effective and takes a lot less energy.
Brian Lehrer: Tim, thank you. Thank you. Let's kick this around.
Tim: Thank you.
Brian Lehrer: Tim, thank you. An important call. I want to talk about both ends of what Tim brought up. First of all, Shannon, is carbon capture or is a discussion of carbon capture or even development of carbon capture technology related to greenwashing by fossil fuel companies trying to make people feel, "Well, it's okay if we keep using a lot of fossil fuels because we can remove the carbon from the atmosphere, but it's really crazy expensive and has other risks to do so"?
Shannon Osaka: Well, I want to distinguish between two different things here. One is carbon capture and one is what people are calling carbon removal. They sound really the same, but let's discuss them. Carbon capture is often more when a fossil fuel company is capturing CO2 at the source, so from an oil well, from a natural gas plant, et cetera. I think you could make a very compelling argument that a lot of that is greenwashing because sometimes they are capturing that CO2.
Then as I wrote about a month ago, they are then turning around and using it to extract actually new oil. The carbon is going back into the ground, but it's in use to pull out more oil. Then on the other side, we have carbon removal. I think the story there is more complex. Carbon removal is when you are taking the CO2 out of the atmosphere, the CO2 that's already there. I think there's a mix of actors here.
There are fossil fuel companies. There are also big tech companies that are trying to look greener, that are trying to green their operations. I'm not saying that these are totally positive actors, but they have more mixed incentives than fossil fuel companies do. A lot of people think we're going to need some carbon removal. If, for example, we overshoot 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is looking like we're going to do, we might need that to help us get back down. I think it's a little bit more complicated.
Brian Lehrer: Oh, I'm glad you explained that difference and even designated that difference between carbon capture and carbon removal. I didn't understand that. I'm sure a lot of listeners didn't, so thank you. On the other side of what the caller Tim brought up, he said, "Wouldn't it be more efficient just to plant a lot more trees," but can we plant that many trees?
Shannon Osaka: Yes, so trees, it's very interesting because I think there's two types of carbon cycles. There's a sort of short-term carbon cycle, which is really the biosphere and trees and plants. Then there's the long-term carbon cycle, which is when we're digging coal and fossil fuels out of the earth, we are disturbing the long-term carbon cycle. We are taking stuff that could be stored there for thousands of years and bringing it up. The problem is when you plant a tree, it has great immediate impacts, right?
That tree will start pulling in carbon right away. The tree's lifetime, the tree might die. It might decay. It might burn in a wildfire. If any of those things happen, it will release that carbon back into the atmosphere. Planting trees is a great thing. It is very positive for the environment. It is positive for CO2 emissions, but we can't guarantee that by planting a tree that CO2 will stay in the tree forever. That's one of the problems that people are wrestling with in thinking about, "Okay, how can we lock this stuff up as it was before we started to dig up fossil fuels?"
Brian Lehrer: A few more minutes in our climate story of the week, which we've been doing every Tuesday on the show all this year today with Shannon Osaka, climate reporter for The Washington Post, who's covering recent developments in carbon capture and carbon removal technology. Let's take another call. Oh, she's not ready? All right, how about Mike in Madison? You're on WNYC. Madison, New Jersey. Hi, Mike.
Mike: Hi there. The suggestion is put the carbon bricks or whatever they are into old abandoned mines. I actually have another thought about abandoned mines. They could be adapted to turn into pumped storage by putting tanks deep down and up near the surface. Two thoughts.
Brian Lehrer: Thank you, Mike. Abandoned mines as a place to bury the CO2 bricks. Shannon?
Shannon Osaka: Yes, I'm not sure. I think that they are aiming for possibly those areas but other areas as well. I think that there's a lot of different solutions that people are banding around of how can we use old coal mines, old fossil fuels, spaces, and stuff like that to turn into renewable energy, turn into solar. There's lots of options there.
Brian Lehrer: Of course, how much cubic footage of abandoned mines are there anyway compared to the amount of carbon dioxide that would need to be buried, right?
Shannon Osaka: Yes.
Brian Lehrer: Let's take another call. Mooc in Cupertino, California, you're on WNYC. Hi, Mooc.
Mooc: Hi, good morning. I just wanted to ask a question about how we value a reduction in carbon like the societal value and how that might compare to what types of things we do when it comes to carbon capture and storage. I know the value of carbon differs from place to place and sometimes the government increases the estimates of the value of carbon. How does that influence decision-making around what do we do with carbon capture and storage? Thank you so much.
Brian Lehrer: Thank you, Mooc. Shannon?
Shannon Osaka: Yes, this is an amazing question. Economists usually refer to this as the social cost of carbon. The federal government has its own method for generating a number for the social cost of carbon that they use to make internal decisions, to make decisions about various projects. A problem that we have in this country is that we do not have any sort of real price on carbon. That makes it a lot harder for technologies like this to get off the ground. It also makes it harder for us to reduce fossil fuels to the amount that we want, right?
If there were a price on carbon of, let's say, $90 a ton, that would materially change what you see at the gas station. I think a lot of Americans would not like that. I don't think I would like that, but it would change behaviors such that people would be pushed to say, "Okay, this natural gas plant, this is not serving me anymore. I need to switch to an electric vehicle," et cetera. Putting a price on carbon as a society in the US has been very challenging politically. I think that a lot of people on the left have basically given up on it for the time being because it's been so politically unpopular.
Brian Lehrer: Does President Biden's Inflation Reduction Act, which we've, of course, talked about on the show as the largest investment in reducing carbon pollution in US history, maybe it's not enough, but it's, by far, the largest in US history to address it, is carbon capture a factor in that bill at all?
Shannon Osaka: Yes, it absolutely is. The bill includes various tax credit, so it offers a tax credit to fossil fuel companies that are doing carbon capture at a point source, so at their fossil fuel plants. Then it also offers a separate tax credit for these companies that are removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere. There's various grants and things as well. I think that the Biden administration has said, "We need to develop these technologies." The question is which technologies are going to win out and are they actually going to get cheap enough that they could be used widely and not just by quite rich tech companies that can pay for them?
Brian Lehrer: You said earlier that some of this captured or removed carbon is used to make concrete. Listener texts the question, "Doesn't making concrete generate CO2? Also, concrete is porous," which I guess implies that it might leak out.
Shannon Osaka: Yes, so my understanding-- and I say this not as a material scientist, but my understanding is that putting CO2 into concrete is a pretty safe way. It is not leaking CO2 as far as scientists understand it currently, but the listener is correct that making cement at all does release carbon emissions. There are several companies that are actively looking at this and trying to figure out a low-carbon way to produce cement. Cement, I believe, is considered the most-used material in the world after water. This is going to be a bigger and bigger problem, especially as we have more countries developing and building. We do have to figure out a way to make greener cement and that has been challenging.
Brian Lehrer: Leah in Queens, you're on WNYC. Hi, Leah.
Leah: Hi. I wanted to say that carbon dioxide is what man breathes out and what plants breathe in, and then we get oxygen from plants. I don't understand where this whole thing is about calling carbon dioxide a sort of poison or something in climate change. If there's any climate change, it comes from the fact that they are destroying carbon dioxide or reducing it or whatever, and plants are not getting it. The plants are dying and then it looks like it's an environmental thing, but it really isn't. This is stuff that I learned in third grade. It's a life cycle.
Brian Lehrer: Wow. With all respect, Leah, it sounds like something more like you learned from a very fringe media outlet of some kind. Shannon, is that reminiscent of any climate denial propaganda that you've heard that maybe Leah has been exposed to?
Shannon Osaka: Yes, I've heard a lot of stuff in this vein, and I think that a problem is that people have not learned the differences between the two types of carbon cycles. Again, that short-term carbon cycle and the much longer-term carbon cycle where we're digging up the carbon that were in plants and animals and algae that lived millions of years ago. Those are two very different things. I totally understand. Everyone is influenced by the media and the people that they surround themselves with. That could be very powerful.
Brian Lehrer: Leah, consume a lot more news sources, is my advice to you after that call, but keep calling us. One more because it's not every day we have a microbiologist calling in, but that's what Douglas in San Diego says he is. Douglas, you're on WNYC. Hello.
Douglas: Hello, Brian. Thank you very much for taking my call. I want to talk turkey with this individual. Carbon is not being captured. If carbon is being captured, I want to see it. I want to see how the carbon is being captured. I want to see where it's being captured and how much of it. If it's bricks, let's see the bricks. I'm a scientist, microbiologist. This is a kin to what is happening in the organic food sector. We have the technology now. If you want to buy an organic vegetable, you can be told what field your vegetable is coming from. None of this is happening. This is all a smokescreen and a scam. There is no organic food like people think, not in the way that people think.
Brian Lehrer: Uh-oh, I think we've got two conspiracy theorists in a row here. Douglas, is your point about carbon capture that companies are saying it's happening, but it's not really happening?
Douglas: Yes, it's not a conspiracy theory. We're talking about molecules in vegetables. If the vegetables are clean, then we can measure that. They can be sent to a laboratory. We can also know where the vegetable came from. We have the technology to do it, but no one will show us this information.
Brian Lehrer: Are you saying there's no such thing as organic vegetables or most of the vegetables we see labeled as such on store shelves aren't really?
Douglas: I'm not saying there's no such thing as possible. I'm saying it's not being presented to us honestly and authentically at all. I'm very, very friends with the ex-regional manager of Whole Foods. He took me out back in Kansas City to see the trucks. All of the trucks, all the vegetables are coming from the Imperial Valley of California, et cetera. Anyone can do this. You don't have to believe me. You can just go to Whole Foods out back. Look where the vegetables are coming from.
Brian Lehrer: Meaning that those are not organic fields?
Douglas: Not at all. He's saying not at all. He's saying there's not enough organic food in the world, possible, for even Whole Foods to find organic food, let alone all of the rest of the organic food that's ostensibly being sold.
Brian Lehrer: All right. Very interesting. Maybe a topic for us to follow up on and see what's actually there on another day. Not actually part of our climate story of the week, but the part that was there, Shannon, and this will be the last question for today, I guess, is this, to some degree, a sham because we don't really know what the companies that claim to be capturing their carbon emissions are doing?
Shannon Osaka: I think that we've seen this a little bit with carbon offsets where there have been claims that companies are saying, "Look, we're protecting this forest and we're protecting more carbon than we would have if we hadn't come in." There have been various exposés that have said, "Look, these forests are not taking up as much carbon as these companies claim." That means that several airlines, et cetera, have gotten away with emitting more than they should because they claimed that their emissions were being offset.
This is a real problem. I don't think that it means that we should necessarily throw the baby out with the bathwater. It just means that there is a really big important role for monitoring, for verification, for having third-party experts come in and say, "Yes, we can confirm that the carbon that they claimed was being stored is still being stored. It's not leaking out in the form of methane or anything else." This is really important and this is going to be where the rubber hits the road of carbon removal making sure that it really works.
Brian Lehrer: All right. Listeners, a future segment to come on what actually makes an organic vegetable as opposed to a labeled organic vegetable. For today, that's our climate story of the week, today on carbon capture and carbon removal technology, the costs, the risks, the benefits with Shannon Osaka, climate reporter for The Washington Post. Thanks so much for coming on.
Shannon Osaka: Thanks for having me.
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