A first-of-its-kind carbon capture facility is coming to the Mountain West. What do residents think?
A direct air capture project set to begin operations this year in Wyoming could soon be the largest facility of its kind in the world. The commercial companies that founded “Project Bison” estimate it will remove five million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year by 2030 – about the equivalent of 1 million gas vehicles on the road, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Direct air capture facilities often look like box fans the size of shipping containers. They suck in air and filter out CO2, which is then pumped underground or elsewhere. Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon expressed his support for the project when it was announced last fall.
The technology isn't ready to make a meaningful difference in slowing climate change, but Celina Scott-Buechler, a fellow with the think tank Data for Progress, said building these plants now could help meet state and federal emissions goals in the future.
“We start to build these out, we learn how to make them more efficient, we learn how to make them capture more CO2 for less energy so that we can get to the point where they're ready,” she said.
The Biden administration is also investing in carbon dioxide removal. The Department of Energy announced last month that it's allocating $3.5 billion to deploy four regional “direct air capture hubs” across the country. Scott-Buechler said this is a great opportunity to bring new jobs for communities that are historically reliant on fossil fuels.
“A lot of the economic boom will come in the construction phase where it's just a lot of stuff to build,” she said. “That hopefully draws on existing workforces, but then provides additional economic opportunity there.”
Wyoming leaders project that Project Bison will create hundreds of permanent jobs, but the region could see a further economic boost from direct air capture if a government-funded hub is placed here. Scott-Buechler said the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming are all strong possibilities, though competition is stiff. Applications are due in mid-March.
“That general region because its geology is really good for storing carbon dioxide under the ground,” she said.
But the question is, how do residents in these communities feel about direct air capture?
About 150 residents in Southwest Wyoming attended a town hall in early fall to learn more about Project Bison. Scott-Buechler attended and also previously helped poll about 975 Wyomingites about their views on alternative energy and carbon capture.
“It's a new technology and so skepticism is definitely earned,” she said.
Fifty-seven percent of Wyoming residents view carbon dioxide capture favorably, according to the survey, while 16 percent view it unfavorably. Coal, natural gas and oil remain the most popular energy sources in the Cowboy State, while wind is the most unpopular. Still, carbon dioxide removal had more people answer “haven’t heard enough to say” than any other technology.
“I think a lot of the concern was sort of, who has to give something up and who is benefiting at the end of the day?” Scott-Buechler said.
The majority of Wyoming voters also still believe that the clean energy transition is a long ways away, and they’re most concerned about their local economies as the country looks to alternative resources. But a majority of residents, no matter political affiliation, still support building more carbon removal sites.
In general, critics of direct air capture investment argue the technology distracts from real solutions to climate change, which usually boil down to reducing emissions in the first place. The Department of Energy has said that carbon removal is a critical step for addressing legacy pollution already in our atmosphere.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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