‘False promise’: DOE’s carbon removal plans rankle community advocates

By Jean Chemnick | 09/25/2023 07:02 AM EDT

The Department of Energy plans to award $1 billion to two direct air capture hubs on the Gulf Coast. But many in those communities feel left in the dark.

President Joe Biden warns that climate change represents a "clear and present danger" at an event last year in Massachusetts.

President Joe Biden warns that climate change represents a "clear and present danger" at an event last year in Massachusetts. Some communities in Texas and Louisiana say they've been shut out of planning for direct air capture facilities. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration has championed carbon removal projects as better neighbors than the pollution-spewing industries of the past.

But the Department of Energy’s first two candidates for its $3.5 billion direct air capture program have conducted an opaque early outreach process in the disadvantaged Louisiana and Texas communities where the projects would be built. Some residents and advocates say they feel shut out of a process that was intended to protect them.

Battelle Memorial Institute and Occidental Petroleum Corp. are the project owners for the two selected DAC hubs in Calcasieu Parish, La., and Kleberg County, Texas. DOE announced last month that it was opening negotiations that could result in the two companies each receiving upward of $500 million in federal dollars. That’s a massive shot in the arm for a new industry that aims to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it permanently — in this case in underground injection sites.


But environmental justice groups in those areas say the announcement came as a surprise. They say DOE and the two companies did scant outreach before the projects were selected and worry the window for the public to have its say has already effectively closed.

“I think they’re working backwards,” said Elida Castillo, program director of Latino activist group Chispa Texas. Castillo is based in Corpus Christi, not far from the proposed Texas DAC site. “They’ve selected this location, and now the community engagement begins.”

Direct air capture and carbon capture are crucial parts of President Joe Biden’s plan to slash the country’s planet-warming pollution and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. But the administration’s efforts to quickly deploy the technologies have created tension with environmental justice groups, which say such projects would prolong the life of the fossil fuel industries that have blighted low-income minority communities for decades.

DOE has promised to make “two-way” engagement with would-be host communities a hallmark of the DAC hub program, offering citizens a chance to give input on project design and on local benefits from the projects. Brad Crabtree, who heads the department’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, stressed that point during this month’s Climate Week in New York City.

“It’s no longer good enough to have a public hearing or a community meeting and say, ‘Here’s our plans, this is the project’ and then start the project,” he said. “That doesn’t work anymore. Companies and governments need to go in before project designs are even finalized, before engineering studies are completed, before there are even permit applications, and engage with communities to find out what their interests and concerns are.”

DOE hosted an energy justice “roadshow” with stops along the Gulf Coast early this summer to tout a range of programs funded by recent climate and infrastructure legislation. Carbon removal was among them.

But many advocates based in Louisiana and Texas say the next thing they heard was the department’s Aug. 11 announcement that it would move forward with the Occidental and Battelle projects. DOE, they say, has been slow to provide project information to would-be host communities, let alone opportunities for input.

“As a community, we are already last on the list,” said Roishetta Ozane, an environmental justice advocate based in Louisiana’s majority-Black North Lake Charles neighborhood. “Everybody knows about this project, it was funded and everything. And now they want to come to the community when it should have been the other way around.”

“They’ve only engaged with our police, City Council, mayor, you know, the governor. They have not engaged with community members as of yet,” she added.

Both Ozane and Castillo participated in a call with DOE’s environmental justice lead Shalanda Baker and other department personnel that was held soon after the DAC hubs announcement. On it, they say Baker promised that communities would still have ample opportunity to co-create community benefit plans for the two projects. DOE declined to provide details of the call.

But the advocates feel it may be too little, too late.

“The issue with not consulting with the community from the beginning stages is that the community didn’t have the opportunity to say whether or not they even want this project in their community in the first place,” Ozane said. Like many environmental justice advocates, she sees carbon removal and capture as a false solution that could extend the life of fossil fuels.

Jim Klein, a Corpus Christi City Council member and president of the Coastal Bend Sierra Club Group, said it reminded him of the petrochemical industry’s playbook on community engagement.

“That’s kind of normal operating procedure down here in South Texas, to kind of organize things about 90 to 95 percent of the way completed before bringing it to the public and then asking for input,” he said.

Ideals meet reality

DOE has called equity its “North Star” as it begins to dole out the billions of dollars Congress authorized in 2021 and 2022 for clean energy technologies.

That includes the DAC hub program, which aims to jump-start development of the carbon removal technologies that scientists say will be needed to keep global warming in check. DOE plans to select four regional DAC hubs, each capable of sucking at least 1 million tons of CO2 out of the air each year when fully operational. The two in Louisiana and Texas are the first — selected in part because of the Gulf Coast’s historical reliance on fossil fuel industries.

When it launched the program last December, DOE pledged ”early, frequent, and meaningful engagement” with so-called fence-line communities.

Applicants to the program were required to provide a detailed blueprint for ensuring their projects would benefit host communities, identifying vulnerable populations and conducting consultations. These community benefit plans (CBPs) account for 20 percent of DOE’s criteria for picking the eventual winners.

DOE also issued guidance to applicants that stressed the need to engage with local labor, government, businesses and civic groups even before submitting applications by a March 2023 deadline.

“Building relationships with stakeholders takes time and transparency,” DOE’s guidance states.

It’s a standard that DOE is seeking to establish for the entire nascent DAC industry, not just projects participating in its hub program.

On Aug. 11, the same day that it announced plans to move forward with the Louisiana and Texas DAC hubs, DOE proposed a new voluntary “Responsible Carbon Management Initiative” that would urge companies to communicate with would-be host communities in a “timely and transparent way.” Companies that sign on to the initiative would be rewarded with a “robust recognition program.” The department is still taking public comment on the proposal.

But some environmental justice advocates say DOE hasn’t lived up to its own stated ideals on community engagement, with Occidental’s South Texas DAC Hub and Battelle’s Project Cypress doing little of the outreach that is supposed to be tied to federal funding.

DOE has refused to make the projects’ community benefit plans public until negotiations with Occidental and Battelle conclude — at which point the plans will be final, along with the rest of the project details included in the DAC hubs’ contracts with DOE. Observers expect contract negotiations to wrap up in January, but DOE told E&E News that it had not committed to any timeline.

“There’s this false promise that came from DOE that these new investments will come with all of these community benefits, but we don’t know what those community benefits are,” said Jennifer Hadayia, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. “We haven’t seen them. It’s hard to see them. They’re not making them public.”

DOE tapped outside reviewers to vet the community benefit plans, including environmental justice advocates and critics of industrial carbon management. But their names and comments have not been released. Reviewers that E&E News spoke to said they were required to sign nondisclosure agreements.

In an email to E&E News, DOE said department personnel and the project developers “will continue to reach out to community members to ensure robust and meaningful participation.”

But the agency declined to answer questions on why the community benefit plans were not made public or who in the affected communities had access to them.

Plans under wraps

DOE’s CBP guidance states that the department won’t make the plans public while negotiations are ongoing. But it does allow project owners to share information “at their own discretion.”

But neither 1PointFive — Occidental’s carbon management subsidiary — nor Battelle would release the plans to E&E News.

William Fitzgerald, a spokesperson for 1PointFive, said the South Texas hub plan “promotes local hiring, workforce development opportunities, educational initiatives and community engagement and investment to further support equity, justice and quality job creation in the region.”

T.R. Massey, a spokesperson for Battelle, said the companies behind Project Cypress — which include technology providers Climeworks and Heirloom Carbon Technologies — plan to “work with the community so they have input on the framework for future detailed plans.”

“We’ll be in a much better position to talk about this after we’ve completed negotiations with the Department of Energy,” he said in an email to E&E News.

Both Fitzgerald and Massey said the projects’ community outreach is in full swing. But they declined to provide the names of groups or individuals that had been offered the opportunity to give input.

Massey said Battelle was “following the Department of Energy’s lead on the people with whom we’re engaging” and that no community members based near the project’s proposed site in rural Calcasieu Parish had offered any input.

Occidental’s 1PointFive tapped Carbon Direct, a New York-based carbon removal firm, to craft its community benefit plan for the South Texas DAC hub. In an email to E&E News, the firm said that 1PointFive had held “dozens of stakeholder meetings with landowners, local religious-, youth- and education-focused community-based organizations, environmental advocacy groups, labor and workforce development groups, local government and elected officials, media, and local educational institutions including grade-schools, community colleges, and universities.”

Carbon Direct didn’t respond to a follow-up inquiry asking for the names of these groups and how they were chosen.

Fitzgerald of 1PointFive referred questions on the community benefit plan to Manny Salazar, president of the Kingsville, Texas, Chamber of Commerce.

Salazar said the chamber had helped the Occidental subsidiary with community outreach on the project. He declined to say who was briefed on the project, citing privacy concerns. But he lauded 1PointFive for committing to hire locally, which he said would have “a huge impact on our community, who has a poverty rate at twice the average for the state of Texas.”

“The 1PointFive team has been in the Greater Kingsville area for well over a year now,” Salazar said, noting that representatives had attended local meetings to answer community questions about the project.

“It was also nice to see them at our local livestock show, which for a small ranching town in South Texas is a very big deal,” he said.

Heirloom — one of the companies involved with Project Cypress in Louisiana — did hold Zoom calls with environmental justice advocates.

Shamell Lavigne of Rise St. James told E&E News she participated in Zoom calls with Heirloom representatives about direct air capture in May, but the discussion didn’t include details about Project Cypress or its community benefit plan. The environmental justice group, which is based in an area three hours’ drive from the proposed site, is a member of a nonprofit coalition that campaigns against industrial carbon management.

DOE stressed that negotiations with the selected projects are still in progress.

“If projects are awarded, DOE and the awardee will have frequent, meaningful engagement with the impacted local community and impacted workers throughout the lifecycle of the project,” the department said in an email.

But Emily Grubert, who was a senior DOE carbon management official when the DAC hub program was being stood up, told E&E News that the two projects were already “far down the design track” if the department had opened contract talks with them.

“I think the way that both statutory requirements and implementation decisions made by the agency have moved forward, there is limited stuff that a community can do once a project is selected, unfortunately,” she said.

‘Necessarily incomplete’

DOE planned to hold two meetings in September to kick off the public phase of its stakeholder engagement on the two DAC hubs and inform local stakeholders about “DOE’s process and opportunities for community involvement.”

But one of the meetings — for Project Cypress in Louisiana’s Lake Charles area — was canceled, with DOE citing scheduling conflicts for some participants. It is rescheduled for Nov. 7, Massey said.

That’s only two months before DOE has said it plans to conclude negotiations with Occidental and Battelle. DOE did not respond to questions from E&E News about whether additional time might be allocated for community engagement in Calcasieu Parish in light of the meeting’s postponement, or on whether there would be earlier opportunities for residents to hear about Project Cypress. Massey of Battelle said the January timeline was more of a goal than a deadline.

“We’ll be done when we’re done,” he said.

DOE and representatives from Occidental’s 1PointFive did meet with residents in Kingsville, Texas, on Wednesday evening. DOE said it sent representatives from both the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations and the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity — DOE’s environmental justice team helmed by Baker.

Slides provided to E&E News by someone who attended last week’s meeting show that 1PointFive touted its parent company’s past success in safely storing CO2, and promised the South Texas Hub project would be continuously monitored to ensure safety. DOE and 1PointFive provided contact information for community members who wanted to stay informed or participate in community engagement.

It’s unclear how much public notice was provided for the meetings. A short bulletin item on the (later canceled) Project Cypress meeting appeared in the American Press — a local paper. But DOE declined to provide E&E News with the dates or locations of the meetings when asked for this story.

Most of the environmental justice advocates E&E News talked to said they heard about the two meetings through emails from DOE or the project developers, or because they knew someone else who received such emails.

Celina Scott-Buechler, a senior resident fellow at Data for Progress, said that while DOE’s move to involve communities more fully in project development is “laudable,” “it is also necessarily incomplete.”

“DOE does not have boots on the ground in each of these communities to know, who are the trusted community groups? What are the kinds of concerns that maybe some of the folks who they wouldn’t think to reach out to might have? And how do they collect those perspectives?” she said.

Castillo of Chispa Texas said DOE officials told her that the DAC hub program faced a tight timeline set by the infrastructure law to get four projects up and running.

“What we keep hearing, the reason why they’re moving forward so quickly on this is because they got a mandate from Congress,” she said.

Scott-Buechler and some of her Data for Progress colleagues held local stakeholder workshops in four Gulf Coast communities last spring — including Lake Charles — because she said she had an “intuition” that DOE would choose to put a DAC hub there.

The goal was to get a “pulse check” not only on local support for carbon removal but on the benefits that locals wanted these projects to offer their communities.

“We saw the writing on the wall that a lot of the benefits to communities would be pitched in terms of jobs,” said Scott-Buechler.

But participants at the small convenings said they had questions about the longevity of the jobs DAC hubs would bring to their community. They also wanted assurances that developers were considering local conditions — including Gulf Coast geology and the risk of extreme weather — when planning for transport and storage of carbon. And they wanted plans in place to protect residents from being adversely impacted by an influx of out-of-town workers.

They also wanted veto rights over the projects if projects didn’t meet their needs, according to Data for Progress’ report on the meetings.

“Given these serious concerns, any DAC hubs sited in underserved communities in regions captured by fossil fuel interests like the Gulf Coast must be co-developed with communities through meaningful partnerships, honoring their right to refuse projects,” the report states.

Seventeen regional and national environmental justice groups signed a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm this month making similar demands.

They proposed that when DOE negotiates contracts for projects in places “overburdened by extractive industries” — like Kleberg County and the Lake Charles area — it obtain partial ownership of those projects for the local community.

The letter — signed by groups including We Act for Environmental Justice, Air Alliance Houston and the Port Arthur Community Action Network — also asked the department to make community benefit plans public before contract negotiations begin.

“DOE must make CBPs legally binding as part of the award, and, if companies fail to comply with the agreed-upon CBP, communities should be compensated with a reward level three times that of the original CBP value,” they wrote.

Another demand: that fossil fuel companies, like Occidental, be ineligible for DOE’s DAC awards.

The promise of jobs

Some in Kleberg County and Calcasieu Parish see the DAC hubs as a welcome addition to the local economy.

Robert Vela, president of Texas A&M University, Kingsville, said the South Texas DAC Hub had proposed a collaboration with the university to develop a curriculum for local high school students that would allow them to earn a post-secondary technology certification while earning their diploma.

The program will be “a game-changer in our region and provide the Hub with the highly skilled workforce they need,” he said in an email.

Nic Hunter, mayor of Lake Charles — the closest large town to the proposed Project Cypress site — said he’d met twice with representatives from Battelle and its partners but had not seen the community benefit plan.

He said he had urged Battelle to make a permanent investment in Lake Charles that would offer continuous employment for the city’s diverse population. Lake Charles has been a hub for heavy industry and refining for decades, and Hunter said its minority population had borne the brunt of its pollution.

A permanent headquarters or jobs center in Lake Charles “would make, I think, a good transformative change, as opposed to some of the ways that these industrial investments have happened in the past,” he said.

Hunter said Battelle seemed receptive, but “time will tell.”

Reporter Carlos Anchondo contributed.

Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that DOE has not publicly committed to a timeline for concluding negotiations with the Battelle Memorial Institute and Occidental Petroleum.