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Sucking carbon dioxide out of the sky is moving from science fiction to reality

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Sucking carbon dioxide out of the sky is moving from science fiction to reality. For years, this was seen as a long shot sort of thing, too hard and too expensive. But now people are spending billions of dollars to scale up this technology. And controversially, one company at the heart of this shift is an American oil company. NPR's Camila Domonoske has been reporting on this. Good morning.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Good morning, Daniel.

ESTRIN: What is this technology?

DOMONOSKE: You know, we're talking about machines that extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, from the air we breathe. Think giant fans. Chemical reactions suck the carbon out of the sky and then store it underground. This takes a ton of energy, all right? It's not easy. But climate groups say that we are now so far behind on climate goals that this technology will be essential. And that is on top of restoring forests and mangroves and improving agricultural practices and, crucially, cutting the use of oil.

ESTRIN: So if we also need to cut oil production, why is an oil company playing a key role here?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. So Occidental Petroleum, a big American oil company, they are really good at a kind of oil production that involves injecting CO2 underground to squeeze more oil out of old wells. So when they heard about this technology to pull carbon out of the sky, they thought, wait; this could work for us. They plan to put some carbon underground just to store it. Companies and the government will pay for that. But they also plan to use some of that carbon to make more oil. Here's Oxy's CEO Vicki Hollub.

VICKI HOLLUB: It's really going to take oil to be produced for decades to come. And if it's produced in the way that I'm talking about, there's no reason not to produce oil and gas forever.

ESTRIN: Wow. OK, wait. Let me get this straight. An oil company that profits off of releasing carbon dioxide in the air is also going to be profiting from sucking it out of the air. Is that right?

DOMONOSKE: That's their plan, yeah.

ESTRIN: I imagine climate advocates are not very happy about that.

DOMONOSKE: Well, it depends. Oxy's expertise could scale this technology up and bring costs down. And so some groups say they welcome that. But that argument that Hollub just made - that this could justify using oil for longer - that is not what climate groups say we need to do as a planet at all. And so lots of advocates are worried that this could be a distraction that's used to avoid doing much cheaper, really effective and essential things like building clean energy. So billions of dollars are pouring into this tech. Oxy is deeply involved. But there's this really fundamental disagreement between Oxy and other groups about what we should be using it for.

ESTRIN: How concerned should we be about this development?

DOMONOSKE: The worst-case scenario is obviously really grim - right? - the idea that this could derail progress on cutting emissions. What I found interesting reporting on this is that even people who are optimistic about it, there's a lot of despair. I spoke to Jennifer Wilcox, who's at the Department of Energy. She supports these kinds of projects. She told me this.

JENNIFER WILCOX: I think if we looked back a decade ago when I first started in this field, we didn't need direct air capture.

DOMONOSKE: That is, everyone believed that we could simply cut emissions by enough. And then we didn't. As for the participation of the oil and gas industry, she says...

WILCOX: We can't do this without them. You know, we can fight. Fighting is what we did over a decade ago, and look where we are, right? That fight of leave it in the ground we're not going to win. OK?

DOMONOSKE: Some climate advocates strongly disagree with her there, but she's not alone in this. Several proponents of direct air capture told me very similar things, that they see the surge of investment in this technology as a climate win and also as a sign of failure because they only think we need it at all because we didn't cut emissions sooner.

ESTRIN: NPR's Camila Domonoske, thanks.

DOMONOSKE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.