Pipe Dreams: Part of a continuing series on whether capturing carbon is a climate solution or a dangerous distraction.
ROCK SPRINGS, Wyo.—In early fall, residents of this desolate corner of southwestern Wyoming opened their mailboxes to find a glossy flyer. On the front, a truck barreled down a four-lane desert highway with a solar farm on one side and what looked like rows of shipping containers on the other. On the back was an invitation.
“CarbonCapture Inc. is launching Project Bison,” it read, announcing a “direct air capture facility” set to begin operations here next year. “Join us at our town hall event to learn more.”
Few had heard about the proposal before receiving the flyer, let alone had any idea what a direct air capture facility was. So the following week, about 150 people packed into a large classroom at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs to find out.
“We are a company that takes CO2 out of the air and stores it underground,” said Patricia Loria, CarbonCapture’s vice president of business development, in opening the meeting.
Loria described a plan to deploy a series of units—the shipping container-like boxes pictured on the flyer—that would filter carbon dioxide from the air and then compress the greenhouse gas for injection underground, where it would remain permanently.
As carbon dioxide levels continue to climb, scientists, entrepreneurs and governments are increasingly determining that cutting emissions is no longer enough. In addition, they say, people will need to pull the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere, and an emerging field of carbon removal, also called carbon dioxide removal or CDR, is attempting to do just that.
There are companies like Loria’s looking to use machines and others trying to accelerate natural carbon cycles by altering the chemistry of seawater, for example, or mixing crushed minerals into agricultural soils. These efforts remain wildly speculative and have removed hardly any of the greenhouse gas so far.
Some environmental advocates warn that carbon removal will be too expensive or too difficult and is a dangerous diversion of money and attention from the more urgent task of eliminating fossil fuels. Perhaps more troubling, they say, the various approaches could carry profound environmental impacts of their own, disrupting fragile ocean ecosystems or swallowing vast swaths of agricultural fields and open lands for the energy production needed to power the operations.
Yet even as those potential impacts remain poorly understood, the Biden administration is making a multi-billion dollar bet on carbon removal. The administration’s long-term climate strategy assumes that such approaches will account for 6 to 8 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas reductions by 2050, equal to hundreds of millions of tons per year, and it has pushed through a series of laws to subsidize the technology.
The first investments will come from the Energy Department, which is expected to open applications within weeks for $3.5 billion in federal grants to help build “direct air capture hubs” around the country, with a particular focus on fossil fuel-dependent communities like Rock Springs, where mineral extraction is by far the largest private employer. The goal is to pair climate action with job creation.
The money has prompted a rush of carbon-removal-focused companies to fossil fuel communities, from Rock Springs to West Texas to California’s San Joaquin Valley, seeding hope from supporters that a concept long relegated to pilot plants and academic literature is on the cusp of arriving as an industry.
As Loria made her pitch, Lou Ann Varley was listening intently. Varley sits on a local labor union council and spent a 37-year career working at the Jim Bridger coal plant outside town before retiring in 2020. She knows that young workers starting at the plant today won’t be able to match her longevity there, with its four units slated to close over the next 15 years, and hoped Project Bison might offer some of them a new opportunity.
Others weren’t having it. Throughout the presentation, residents listened quietly, sitting in pairs at folding tables in the classroom. Some munched on sandwiches and cookies the company had provided. Others leaned back, arms crossed. But when it came time for questions, they launched a volley of concerns about the potential risks and unknowns.
Who was going to pay for this? Would it use hazardous chemicals? What about earthquakes from the underground injections of carbon dioxide? What would happen if the company went bankrupt, and who would be liable in the event of an accident? Wyomingites are deeply protective of their open landscapes, and many wondered about the impacts of all of the renewable energy that would be required for power.
Direct air capture machines consume tremendous amounts of energy. Project Bison, according to CarbonCapture’s figures, could eventually require anywhere from 5 to 15 terawatt hours of power per year, equal to 30 percent to 90 percent of Wyoming’s current electricity consumption, depending on whether the company can increase its efficiency.
Laura Pearson, a sheep rancher who wore heavy work clothes, was sitting in the back row that night feeling deeply skeptical of the entire premise. Pearson’s family has worked the same land for generations, and she sees the wind farms and solar panels that have started covering parts of her state as a threat to its open range.
“If you don’t think those affect wildlife and livestock grazing and everything else in this state,” she told Loria from across the room, “you’re crazy.”
Loria said the company was working with wildlife scientists and officials to minimize impacts, but Pearson was unswayed.
“I love Wyoming and I don’t want to see it change,” Pearson said after the meeting ended. She said she doubted the company’s intentions, didn’t think carbon dioxide posed such a threat to the planet and didn’t like seeing out-of-state interests, whose demands for cleaner energy have sent Wyoming’s coal sector into decline and are threatening to do the same for its oil and gas, coming to peddle something new. “It’s all about the money,” she said.
A Town With a Storied Coal History
Rock Springs was built on coal. In 1850, an Army expedition found coal seams cropping out of the valley bluffs. Less than 20 years later the Union Pacific Railroad routed the nation’s first transcontinental line through here so its locomotives could refuel as they crossed the Rockies. The mines soon snaked right under the center of town, where the outlaw Butch Cassidy once worked at a butcher shop and earned his nickname.
The rail line still bisects the town, although the old station has been converted into the Coal Train Coffee Depot cafe. A large sign arcs above the tracks outside: “Home of Rock Springs Coal, Welcome.” A stone monument next to the depot lists everyone who died in the mines each year, coming by the dozen in the early 1900s, with names like Fogliatti, Mihajlovic and Papas reflecting all the countries from which men flocked to find work.
Varley started at Jim Bridger, one of the country’s largest coal plants, in 1983 after getting laid off from mining trona, a mineral used in the manufacturing of glass, detergents, chemicals and other products. All but one of the eight largest private employers in Sweetwater County either mine or use the minerals and fossil fuels that underlie this part of Wyoming. As oil, gas and coal operations have shed jobs in recent years, the trona mines have absorbed many of the losses.
Varley began as a laborer, sweeping and shoveling coal or ash, before working her way up through operations and maintenance. Eventually, she helped operate the computer systems that ran the plant. “I loved the job,” she said.
Two years after retiring, Varley still refers to Bridger as “my plant.”
Until recently, her plant was facing the forced shutdown of some of its units for failing to meet federal pollution rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency. But in February, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon struck a deal to forestall any retirements by converting two of Bridger’s four units to burn natural gas instead. Still, all of its units are expected to close within 15 years.
Wyoming produces about 40 percent of the nation’s coal, so the fuel’s plummeting share in the nation’s electricity—from half in 2005 to about 20 percent this year—has brought acute anxiety to towns like Rock Springs.
“It makes it kind of tough when you know that they’re talking towards phasing out coal,” Varley said. Many people who work at the plant, which employs more than 300, get angry about the prospect, she said. “Especially some of the younger ones, because they hired in believing like me that they would be able to retire from that facility.”
Wyoming officials have spent years trying everything to promote carbon capture technology, which removes carbon dioxide from power plant or industrial emissions, in the hope it could save coal. The state university has mapped its geology for places to store CO2. Regulators won federal approval to oversee the underground injection of carbon dioxide, one of only two states to do so, along with North Dakota. (The EPA oversees the practice everywhere else.) In 2020, Wyoming lawmakers passed a law that tried to force utilities to install carbon capture equipment at their coal plants.
These efforts have not yielded a single commercial carbon capture operation at a power plant, but they do seem to have attracted CarbonCapture Inc., to the delight of state economic development officials.
A California-based start-up, CarbonCapture said it has secured enough private investment to begin work next year on the Wyoming plant, although it still needs to receive state and local permits. Rather than attaching to a coal plant, this project would pull carbon dioxide out of ambient air by passing it through giant fans fitted with a chemical sorbent, which traps the CO2. The sorbent is then heated to release the gas for compression before being reused.
Project Bison would initially capture 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, but the company said it plans to expand to reach a capacity of 5 million metric tons by 2030. That higher figure would be orders of magnitude above what any company has achieved so far, yet roughly equal to the emissions of one coal power plant, or less than 0.1 percent of total U.S. emissions of nearly 6 billion metric tons in 2020.
The operations would be financed by selling carbon credits to corporations seeking to offset their own emissions. The company said it has already sold credits at $800 per ton to Cloverly, a carbon-offset marketer, and to CO2.com, a new carbon offset venture of TIME, the magazine owned by the billionaire Marc Benioff.
Varley had gone into the town hall meeting feeling optimistic that the project could potentially provide high-quality jobs while also helping the environment. While she wants the coal plant to continue operating for as long as possible, she knows its days are numbered, and when it closes, it could take more than 300 jobs with it.
Southwest Wyoming is hard country to live in: Varley has spent her entire life here and said “it grows on you like a fungus.” The state has the highest suicide rate in the country, and the decline of fossil fuels, it feels to many, will only make life harder.
“People are looking for ways to maintain our ability to live here,” Varley said.
Birth of the Carbon-Removal Dream
The summer of 2022 was yet another season of climate extremes. Drought and severe heat covered large parts of China, Europe, Africa and North America. The United Kingdom recorded its hottest temperature ever. In Pakistan, heavy rains submerged up to one-third of the country, killing more than 1,000, destroying crops and spreading vector-borne diseases like dengue fever.
These disasters have driven many people toward desperate acts of civil disobedience, like a scientist who chained himself to the doors of a private jet terminal. They’ve also pushed many to conclude that carbon removal technologies, however unlikely their deployment, will now be necessary to avoid the worst impacts of warming.
When the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report this year on how to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, it determined that at least some degree of carbon removal was needed but that the amount could vary drastically, depending on how quickly fossil fuel consumption declined and whether nations adopt more sustainable practices.
The only scenarios that did not include meaningful levels of carbon removal generally required global energy use to decline, which seemed unlikely, especially if there was any hope of supplying electricity to the nearly 800 million people who currently lack it.
“It’s critical to have this tool,” said Jennifer Wilcox, the principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management at the Department of Energy, “and we need to have it on the order of gigatons,” or billions of tons.
The last year has brought an explosion of funding to try to make that happen. In addition to the $3.5 billion that Congress allocated to the Energy Department for direct air capture hubs, lawmakers earmarked another $1 billion for research and development this year and, as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, more than tripled the value of a federal tax credit for direct air capture.
United Airlines, Airbus, Microsoft, Alphabet, Meta, Stripe and other corporations have collectively pledged billions more. The billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has funded a $100 million prize for carbon removal startups. The field is also one of the fastest growing areas of climate philanthropy.
So far, however, hardly any carbon dioxide has been pulled from the atmosphere. The largest direct air capture plant in operation, opened by a company called Climeworks in Iceland, pulls in about 4,000 metric tons of CO2 per year. By contrast, the Jim Bridger plant outside Rock Springs spewed out 10.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021 alone.
Skeptics have noted how far carbon removal is from making a dent in global emissions. Supporters, however, argue that the rates of growth the industry must achieve to make a difference, while high, are comparable to what solar energy generation has seen since the 1990s.
The rush of funding and attention has prompted a new set of questions about carbon removal technologies. The concerns of many skeptics have moved beyond whether carbon removal can possibly work, to wondering what it would look like if it somehow did.
Displacing Herds of Native Pronghorn
Pearson’s route to town takes her past Wyoming’s first utility-scale solar farm, which was built in 2018. The 700-acre site was cleared of vegetation before the panels were installed and surrounded with a chain-link fence. Now it marks a shiny, incongruous break in the high desert, though it is hardly the only disturbance around, with trona mines in each direction.
The sight of it was bad enough for Pearson and other residents, but soon after the project’s completion, residents noticed herds of pronghorn, a fleet-footed antelope-like animal indigenous to the region, tramping onto the highway. The area that the solar farm had enclosed, it turned out, had been used by resident pronghorn, and the fences shut them out. The companies behind the project sponsored a study, published last spring in a scientific journal, that determined that the animals lost nearly a square mile of high-use habitat, about 10 percent of their core range. Today, the pronghorn’s trails and droppings line the perimeter of the fence that locked the animals out of lands they once called home.
CarbonCapture plans to build its new facility about 20 miles west of the solar farm, a rough and barren landscape of greasewood and sagebrush, and it could eventually need much more solar development to run its operations.
The company has said it will try to minimize the impacts, by choosing lands already disturbed by oil development, for example. But some will be unavoidable. State maps show that the sage grouse, a protected game bird, has core habitats surrounding the area where the plant would be built. Closer to the site, cattle roam on rangeland that is dotted with oil wells and a creek trickles south on its way to the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado.
CarbonCapture said it would initially use natural gas to power its operations while capturing the resulting carbon dioxide emissions, but aims to eventually rely on renewable energy. At full scale, that would require 1,000 acres to house the energy supply, and 100 acres more for the project itself.
The World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, has estimated that if direct air capture technology reaches the scale envisioned by the Biden administration, about 500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year by mid-century, the industry would consume more than 4 percent of the nation’s current total energy supply. If all that energy were generated by wind and solar power, that could mean covering an area equal to a small state with turbines and panels.
The prospect alarms Pearson, who said her family has been offered money to allow solar panels on their land, but that they declined. “We would have been set for life, and we said no way. Because we knew what it would do to the wildlife, to our way of life, to Wyoming’s way of life.”
Adrian Corless, CarbonCapture’s chief executive, said that because the project will connect to the electric grid, the new renewable energy development could be located in other parts of the state, or even out of state.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to find the right situations for land use that are aligned with community expectations and needs,” Corless said.
Justin Loyka, energy program manager in the Wyoming office of the Nature Conservancy, said CarbonCapture asked his organization for help in reducing its impacts, and that there were opportunities to do so. But he added that as renewable energy development spreads, some impacts are inevitable.
“The vast majority of Wyoming is some of the most intact ecosystem in the lower 48,” Loyka said. “Wyoming has these wildlife migration corridors that are hundreds of miles long, and that really doesn’t exist in many other places.”
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Even Varley, who supports the project and views climate change as a concern, is resistant to the new renewable energy development it would bring.
“Smug people in Teslas tell me about how bad my power plant is—and where does that power come from?” she said, referring to the visitors’ cars.
“People in California don’t know the difference between a green electron and a black electron,” Varley said, adding, “They want us to fix their problem.”
A Just Transition?
Last month, the University of Wyoming announced it was “considering applying” for funding under the Energy Department’s direct air capture hub program, along with the state economic development and energy agencies, and put out an appeal to companies, local governments or others interested in partnering. Corless said CarbonCapture would likely take part in that application.
The Energy Department has said that when it selects funding targets, it “intends to use this program to support the creation of good-paying jobs with the free and fair choice to join a union, the incorporation of strong labor standards and high-road workforce development.” At least two of four hubs must be in “economically distressed” parts of the country with “high levels of coal, oil or natural gas resources.”
CarbonCapture has said that its project, at full scale, would create at least 200 jobs, which would be significant but not enough to make up for the more than 300 now employed at the Jim Bridger coal plant. The first phase would entail more like 20 full-time positions, Corless said, though he added it would create far more construction jobs that could last for years.
Some local leaders will take what they can get.
“We talk about how our youth are our top export,” said Devon Brubaker, who runs a regional airport in Rock Springs and also sits on the county’s economic development coalition.
Demand for Wyoming’s fossil fuels is declining, Brubaker said, so people in the state need to be open to new ideas, even when they clash with their conservative political leanings. “If people are willing to pay for carbon credits,” he said, “why should we stand in the way?”
Stressing the Land and the Wildlife
Perched above the Green River, about halfway between Rock Springs and the stretch of oil and gas wells where CarbonCapture plans to build its plant, Michele Irwin keeps a small herd of bison in a pen ringed by an electrified fence.
Irwin and her husband started raising the bison for meat for their family and to help supply animals to herds introduced on public lands around the region. But their real motivation was a love for the animals that they see as central to the region’s character and ecosystems, and a dream that one day the bison might roam free once again.
Irwin is the southwest organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a Wyoming environmental nonprofit, and when she learned about CarbonCapture’s plans, she was somewhat miffed by the “Project Bison” name.
“You talk about this thing, about purchasing carbon credits. Well, you know, there you go,” she said, pointing to her animals as the sun set, casting a sharp yellow hue across their matted fur. The bisons’ breaths roared through their nostrils, like monstrous billows.
Bison were once a keystone species in ecosystems across the West. They grazed on native plants like sagebrush that cattle avoid. Their stampedes turned the soil and helped seeds germinate. The wallows that the bison dug by rolling in the dirt became ephemeral pools after scarce rains, little watering holes.
Some academic research has suggested that restoring grassland ecosystems could help the land sequester far more carbon dioxide than it does today, like a massive natural carbon removal helping to pull back what humans have released.
Perhaps the most fundamental critique of novel and technological approaches to carbon removal is that they miss the point. Climate change might be the largest environmental threat people face, but it is merely one facet of the larger exploitative pressures that humans have exerted on the planet. Mass extinctions, widespread chemical and plastic pollution and the wholesale replacement of wild species with domestic livestock have all tipped Earth toward a less hospitable state.
Through this lens of ecological collapse, the idea that we would further stress the air, water and land that surrounds us by altering ocean chemistry or building a new power-hungry industry seems wrongheaded to many.
Supporters of carbon removal say it should be pursued not as a replacement for emissions cuts but as insurance for when those reductions fall short. They argue that it is unrealistic to think that climate emissions from agriculture, cement manufacturing, aviation and other hard-to-abate sectors can be eliminated within 30 years while the global population swells toward 10 billion.
Failing to pursue carbon removal now, said Danny Cullenward, policy director at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the transparency of carbon offsets and carbon removal, would be like failing to pursue solar power 25 years ago when it was nascent and prohibitively expensive.
Irwin said she’s keeping an open mind about Project Bison and whether it might be part of a larger set of solutions. But she’d rather see Wyoming try a more holistic approach to preparing for a world of declining fossil fuel investment.
“If we keep on doing economic development from this perspective of, ‘Oh, here’s a project, great, let’s sign up for that one. Oh, here’s a project. Oh, let’s sign up for that one,’” she said. “By the time you get all the permits together, and I’m all done, it’s like… There’ll be no putting it back together.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the most recent death at the coal mines near Rock Springs occurred in 2005. It also incorrectly stated that Project Bison would require 5 to 15 terawatts of power. The project would require 5 to 15 terawatt hours of power per year.