The Department of Energy is funding nearly two dozen direct air capture projects. But only one of them aims to be community-led — and maybe even community-owned.
The Community Alliance for Direct Air Capture (CALDAC) is in line to receive $3 million to study the feasibility of sucking massive quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The coalition of researchers, start-ups and nonprofits will explore building a carbon removal facility in the economically hard-hit San Joaquin Valley — home to California’s declining oil and gas industry.
Their main focus: creating a model for how local communities can help design, govern and perhaps even own the major industrial facilities built in their midst.
“We’re thinking about feasibility both in terms of technical and engineering terms but also fundamentally in social and justice terms,” said Celina Scott-Buechler, a senior resident fellow at Data for Progress who participated in the grant application.
In August, the Department of Energy tapped projects for grants under a $3.5 billion DAC hub program, authorized in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law. About $1 billion will likely go to two Gulf of Mexico projects to build hubs that aim to remove 1 million metric tons of CO2 each year.
CALDEC is among 14 “phase zero” applicants who received much smaller grants to test whether their proposals were practical. Five other projects also received midsize grants for design and engineering.
The hub program is part of the Biden administration’s bid to jump-start a new industry that scientists say will be needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change this century. Few carbon removal facilities exist today, and they capture and store only a few thousand metric tons of CO2 per year.
The CALDAC proposal is one of four DOE-funded projects that are weighing construction of a hub in or near Kern County — the epicenter of California’s oil and gas production.
But CALDAC — led by the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE) at the University of California, Berkeley’s law school — plans to not only demonstrate technology that could help reverse climate change. CLEE and its partners are also looking to pioneer a new style of project governance and ownership they say could work for other large-scale industrial facilities.
“We want to do community engagement in a way that we can draw out community vision and concerns and desires and have that inform the governance and technical design of the project,” said Louise Bedsworth, executive director of CLEE and the lead on the application to DOE.
The alliance plans to work with San Joaquin Valley residents and civil society to determine whether the project should ultimately be built. That includes the traditional technical feasibility analysis to determine whether the installation should move forward to the design phase.
But Bedsworth and other project leads say they’ve also voluntarily created a set of “go/no go” decision points to determine whether it’s feasible for the project to operate in a way that enjoys community support and provides needed benefits.
That’s a test that project developers have rarely had to meet. Alliance members say they’re still ironing out the details — many of which will be co-constructed with the community once DOE releases the grant.
“We’re really flipping things on its head right now. It’s never been done before,” said Ugbaad Kosar, director of environmental justice at Carbon180, who, like Scott-Buechler, is focused on community engagement for the project. “So we’re really learning a lot in the process.”
Community veto power
Like other DOE hub candidates, the project has been tight-lipped about who it is interacting with and declined to release their DOE application, citing ongoing contract negotiations.
But Data for Progress said it held a roundtable in Bakersfield before DOE’s August award announcement to gauge what the public knew and thought about direct air capture. Project partners followed that with a stakeholder meeting this summer. They say conversations are ongoing and will continue even after a hypothetical future project is built.
“I would argue that community engagement should be part of a project from where we are now — at the conceptual phase — all the way through to building and operating,” said Bedsworth. “Community engagement should never end. It may look different, but it should be a part of it all the way through.”
But some environmental justice advocates are wary of building a direct air capture facility in any town.
Daniel Ress, a staff attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty & Environment’s Delano, Calif., office, said that while they appreciated CALDAC’s approach to community engagement, they oppose the project for now.
Ress expressed concern that the project would partner with polluting local industries like biomass. Carbon removal projects should also be built far away from population centers, they said, and not in towns — as CALDAC has proposed.
“You don’t have to do this any specific place, so it makes sense to do it near where you’re going to inject [CO2] and far away from where people are,” Ress said. “And those two things are both pretty easy to meet around here.”
CALDAC said it tried — and failed — to find an environmental justice group willing to join its DOE application.
The coalition plans to establish a community oversight panel to weigh in on everything from the project’s technical design and operations to its community benefits and risk mitigation strategy — including monitoring and public access to safety information.
The membership of that panel isn’t settled yet, Bedsworth said, but it will be operating within nine months of DOE releasing the grant. DOE is expected to conclude contract negotiations with projects in early 2024.
The alliance plans to regrant some of its DOE award to community groups so they can devote staff hours to the process, and Carbon180 is developing a “curriculum” to answer technical questions.
One key design question is who would own the eventual project. Bedsworth said the alliance is exploring public ownership — perhaps something along the lines of a rural electric cooperative, which is owned by its customers.
That, like other elements, will be decided with public input.
While the project is helmed by research centers and nonprofits, it has several for-profit co-applicants. But a key tenet of the project is that any participant can be jettisoned if the community isn’t comfortable with them or if the project design goes another way.
Lydia Le Page, vice president of research at Capture6, said that didn’t dissuade the company from participating. Capture6’s technology uses saltwater to create a carbon capture solvent.
“I think what we envisage is we would work with people from the beginning to kind of answer all their questions very early on and just keep an open conversation,” she said.
The coalition has committed to dropping the project if it doesn’t ultimately win the public’s goodwill. The method for determining community sentiment is still being determined, project partners say.
“After nine months, if we’ve done the community consultation and we’ve answered all the questions and there’s still no desire for this project, it’s off the table and we’re no longer going to pursue it in that location,” said Kosar.
“We respect the community members, and we want to make sure that they have the autonomy for deciding what projects are going to be ending up in their communities,” she added.
Big industrial facilities have not historically offered communities a veto. That’s also not a feature of DOE’s DAC hub program.
Emily Grubert, who was a senior DOE carbon management official when the program was being designed, told E&E News that she raised the question of whether to offer communities some kind of right of refusal during an early meeting with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.
“The answer was no,” she said.
“But it’s a really, really challenging situation,” acknowledged Grubert, a civil engineer and environmental sociologist who is now on faculty at the University of Notre Dame. “These projects are ultimately first of all based on cost share. So you have to have a lot of pretty long-term, upfront company investment.”
The oil and gas factor
The southern San Joaquin Valley has been a petroleum and agriculture hub for years, which has taken a toll on local air quality.
The region is dotted with abandoned wellheads and aging infrastructure leaking methane and hazardous pollution. Industry and local topography conspire to give Bakersfield the worst particulate pollution and third-worst ozone of any U.S. city, according to the American Lung Association.
But oil and gas is also a major employer in a region struggling with high unemployment. And it has the backing of local political officials.
Bakersfield’s Republican Mayor Karen Goh wrote to California Gov. Gavin Newsom in July urging him to reconsider climate policies she said threatened the town’s “core industries of agriculture and energy.” But she used the same letter to ask for help attracting carbon management projects she said “will equal oil and gas wages and benefits.”
CALDAC hasn’t settled on a site for its hub yet. Its application to DOE proposes three sites in the towns of Mendota, Madrea and Delano (the latter of which is near Bakersfield), though Bedsworth said the project was open to others.
All of CALDAC’s proposed sites are owned by Clean Energy Systems, a company that is retooling idled biomass plants with oxy-combustion technology, which it says captures the overwhelming majority of CO2 for permanent storage and releases no other pollutants.
Two other DAC projects eyeing sites in the San Joaquin Valley are led by oil companies Chevron and Aera Federal. The nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute — which is a CALDAC partner — is also planning a separate project.,
Goh declined to be interviewed for this story, but her office directed E&E News to “our subject matter expert,” the California Resources Corp. — an oil and gas company involved with one of the projects.
Scott-Buechler said Bakersfield residents who participated in the Data for Progress roundtable this spring hoped a new industry would help loosen the grip companies like Chevron and Aera have on Kern County politics.
The project has ambitions that stretch far beyond San Joaquin Valley or direct air capture.
Scott-Buechler said that if it succeeds, it can offer a template for how to protect community rights as the world rushes to build out zero-emissions power, transmission and other infrastructure needed to combat climate change.
“Can we create a blueprint for communities engaging, meeting and ultimately owning — and therefore benefiting from — large-scale climate infrastructure in ways that they can control?” she said.
Matt Holmes of the California Environmental Justice Coalition said he has conditionally offered to sit on CALDAC’s community oversight panel after it responded to advocates’ concerns and dropped a local biomass company with ties to oil and gas from its list of possible partners.
“They listened to us, which is super unsettling and uncommon, but appreciated,” he said. “I think they’re trying to be really inclusive.”
But Holmes said he may not ultimately support the project. He has misgivings about the choice of disadvantaged San Joaquin Valley with its history of exploitation by industry. CALDAC hasn’t settled on an injection site yet, and it wants to store at least 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year somewhere nearby.
“We know about geological storage reserves here based on the racist history of oil and gas exploration,” he said. “We don’t even know what the rocks are like underneath really rich people.”