Technology

King Ranch will be the site of the largest carbon capture project yet

Oil giant Occidental announced an enormous escalation of its plans to take planet-heating carbon dioxide out of the air. It signed a lease agreement on 106,000 acres in Kleberg County, Texas, where it would build up to 30 new facilities capable of drawing CO2 out of the ambient air. The land sits within the historic King Ranch in South Texas, where up to 3 billion metric tons of CO2 could be stored underground in geologic reservoirs.

Despite being one of the biggest oil producers in the country, Occidental is trying to position itself as a leader when it comes to deploying new climate tech. The Direct Air Capture (DAC) plants Occidental envisions for its new digs in King Ranch would filter CO2 out of the air to keep it from building up in the atmosphere and heating up the planet.

Despite being one of the biggest oil producers in the country, Occidental is trying to position itself as a leader when it comes to deploying new climate tech

Never mind that Occidental’s petroleum products create that carbon dioxide pollution in the first place. And climate research overwhelmingly shows that the world needs to phase out fossil fuels to prevent more catastrophic climate change. Occidental plans to keep pumping out oil, and carbon removal is a big part of that plan.

Occidental, its subsidiary 1PointFive, and climate tech company Carbon Engineering broke ground this year on a highly anticipated large-scale Direct Air Capture plant in Ector County, Texas. The oil giant is already using that project to sell “net-zero oil.” It’s a pretty wild attempt at re-branding oil as less environmentally damaging. To make the claim, Occidental plans to use some of the captured carbon in a process called enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Fossil fuel companies have used EOR for years to extract hard-to-reach oil reserves by shooting CO2 into the ground. While that takes CO2 out of the air and stuffs it underground, it still leads to more polluting fossil fuels. Occidental has just slapped a sustainability label on the process.

Slated to come online in 2024, the Ector County DAC plant alone would be orders of magnitude larger than all of the world’s current capacity for carbon removal. Fewer than 20 DAC plants around the world can collectively capture just 0.01 million metric tons of CO2 each year. The Ector County DAC plant is expected to capture up to a million metric tons a year once it’s fully operational.

Occidental has just slapped a sustainability label on the process

Now, Occidental envisions up to 30 plants just as large as that one at King Ranch. It will continue to use Carbon Engineering’s direct air capture technology. Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act was “a key enabler for the acceleration of DAC projects across the U.S.,” Carbon Engineering said in a press release. The sweeping climate package expanded incentives for developing nascent and still very expensive direct air capture technology, which can cost upwards of $600 per ton of captured carbon.

One key factor at King Ranch, one of the largest ranches in the world, is that it has ample space for simply sequestering carbon dioxide underground instead of using that carbon to extract more oil. “The site will not be used for enhanced oil recovery,” 1PointFive spokesperson William Fitzgerald told The Verge in an email.

If the CO2 is stored underground, the DAC operations at King Ranch could act as a sort of carbon offset project for Occidental. But while that might offset some of the oil company’s climate pollution, it doesn’t help to curb the world’s addiction to fossil fuels. Ending that dependency is what it will take to limit climate change; everything else is just a band-aid.

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