Big Oil Is Once Again Throwing Money at Sucking Carbon From the Sky

Shell and Equinor have invested in an Israeli direct air capture startup that is making big promises.

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A coal plant in Germany.
A coal plant in Germany.
Photo: Lukas Schulze (Getty Images)

Big Oil has a fancy new piece of climate technology to sink money into. As Bloomberg reported on Monday, both Shell and Norwegian oil giant Equinor have helped a new Israeli direct air capture startup, called RepAir, raise a cool $10 million in funding—despite the company only having a shoebox-size prototype for a technology it says could one day suck tons of carbon from the sky.

Direct air capture, or the process of removing carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, may sound like the silver bullet for climate solutions. But the technology is monstrously expensive, thanks in part to the large amount of energy needed to separate carbon dioxide from the air. Climeworks, which operates the world’s largest direct air capture plant, currently prices its removal at 1,000 euros ($1,050) per ton.

Regardless of this steep price tag, the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change said in its latest report issued earlier this year that we will need at least some carbon dioxide removal—a suite of techniques that includes direct air capture—to help stave off the worst impacts of climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, there are currently 18 direct air capture plants operating around the world; the Biden administration earlier this year earmarked $3.5 billion to fund four direct air capture plants across the U.S. Direct air capture proponents have set an ambitious goal of eventually bringing the price of capturing a ton of carbon to $100/ton, which they claim can be done by aggressively scaling up the technology.

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RepAir says that its proprietary technology will make it stand out from the pack by creating a form of direct air capture that is less energy-intensive than its competitors. The company has a working “shoebox”-size prototype, Bloomberg reported, that it’s using as a proof-of-concept to raise money. In the next six months, the company aims to build a larger prototype that can capture 1 metric ton of CO2 each year; eventually, it plans to build another model to capture 200 tons a year. With this technology, which the company claims is 70% more energy efficient than other forms of direct air capture, RepAir says it could eventually drive costs down to an astronomically low $70/ton.

On the one hand, we should be putting resources toward developing technologies to make the direct air capture process more efficient and less expensive. The largest current direct air capture plant in the world, Climeworks’s plant in Iceland, captures some 4,000 tons each year—four thousand times more than RepAir’s planned prototype. And even this is dwarfed by the minimum amount of carbon capture that conservative estimates project we’ll need each year. Experts have estimated that capturing just 1 gigatonne of CO2—on the lower end of ranges of necessary carbon capture set out by the IPCC—using direct air capture would gobble up 10% of the world’s total electricity consumption. It’s clear we’re going to have to make the process a lot more efficient.

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On the other hand, the enormous effort to boost the carbon capture industry does not exist in a vacuum. Many companies, individuals, and other entities that have shown enthusiasm in developing new and exciting (and potentially profitable) technologies to suck carbon out of the air have paid comparatively little lip service to existing—but potentially less sexy—techniques to decarbonize, despite those techniques being able to help us draw down emissions now. It’s notable that most carbon capture boosters, including Elon Musk’s XPrize, will often say that projections call for 10 to 15 gigatonnes of carbon removal per year by the end of the century as evidence of the industry’s need to grow—despite the fact that that number is the higher end of the range of removal experts say we may need, one we need to hit only if we don’t succeed in decarbonizing using simpler, less expensive tactics such as transitioning to renewables.

Oil companies investing in direct air capture companies is nothing new. After all, they have a vested interest in developing technologies that will deflect attention from the fact that they are continuing to explore new fossil fuel resources, even though it’s imperative that we cease all new fossil fuel exploration as soon as possible. It’s far easier to push for a future with a lot of technology—even if that future isn’t actually feasible and doesn’t take advantage of the tools we have at our disposal now.

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“My position is that people calling for the double-digit gigatonne scale carbon dioxide reduction, whether they like it or not, are aligning with the narrative and incentives from polluting industries and for-profit interests,” Toly Rinberg, a Ph.D. student at Harvard University specializing in the science and governance of carbon dioxide removal, told Earther earlier this year. “By saying that carbon dioxide reduction will be big in the future, it reduces political pressure to sharply decarbonize today.”

There’s also the question of whether or not direct air capture will ever be profitable, or if it should be—it’s almost analogous to waste disposal and arguably a public good. Some experts have claimed that the industry’s goal of getting costs under $100/ton for removal is impossible, given the realities of scaling up the technology. What happens if RepAir isn’t able to lower carbon dioxide removal prices at the almost gargantuan level it’s setting out to do? What happens if Climeworks, which attracted a jaw-dropping $650 million in a fundraising round earlier this year, isn’t able to meet its aggressive pricing goals? While one could certainly argue that oil companies like Shell and Equinor should be on the hook to pay for carbon dioxide removal, right now they’re betting on this technology being one day cheap enough to offset their continued pollution.

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We’re going to need processes like this to help us in the climate transition, but it’s hard not to wonder about the message oil companies are sending when they choose to throw cash at companies like RepAir. Perhaps the world would be better off if Shell and Equinor took some of the cash they funnel toward far-off technological dreams and used it to figure out how we can consume less of their product in the short term.