Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Underwriter Message

Oil company wants to be a big player in carbon-sucking climate tech — with a catch

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, we've been looking at the money pouring into direct air capture technology - giant machines designed to pull carbon dioxide out of the sky. The federal government is investing billions in this, and the U.S. oil company Occidental Petroleum is a big player. So a company profiting off carbon emissions also plans to profit off the fight against climate change. Is that good for the planet or bad? NPR's Camila Domonoske digs into that question in the last installment of our series.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: At this point, major climate groups agree that the world needs to pull a lot of carbon dioxide back out of the sky, and the giant machines Oxy is scaling up could be crucial to that effort. But those climate groups are very clear - we need to do that on top of massively reducing our use of oil and gas. Vicki Hollub, the CEO of Occidental Petroleum, thinks those groups are wrong. I asked her about it this summer.

You're outlining, it sounds like, an alternative vision of the future, where a higher level of oil and gas operation could continue, offset by an equally higher level of carbon dioxide removal, of DAC. Is that fair?

VICKI HOLLUB: That's fair. That's exactly right.

DOMONOSKE: Same tech, different goals. So if you care about the climate, what should you make of this? I want to take you to west Texas, where Occidental is building its first direct air capture plant to meet three men who were happy for three different reasons. At the groundbreaking for that plant, scientist David Keith was obviously thrilled. He pioneered this direct air capture technology. He sees Oxy's involvement as a clear win for the planet.

DAVID KEITH: It used to be your oil companies wouldn't take climate seriously at all. I don't think this is happening 'cause Oxy just woke up and got happy. I think this is happening 'cause the environmental community is winning.

DOMONOSKE: And that is Oxy is responding to pressure from policymakers and the public and looking ahead to a world where oil demand could drop, in which case, it could do this instead. Keith knows Oxy wants to keep making oil. But to this line of thinking, it doesn't matter what Oxy wants. It matters what Oxy does. And what Oxy is doing is using its money and expertise to scale up a technology that could reduce the world's emissions. That could be really good for the climate. At the same party, local officials were also celebrating mostly about local jobs, both the jobs with this project and all the county's oil jobs. Here's county judge Dustin Fawcett.

DUSTIN FAWCETT: We don't need to throw out all of the oil and gas industry. It can never happen. Can we reduce the carbon footprint? Absolutely. If we inject more carbon into the earth and, somehow, we get better returns from our oil and gas reserves, that's a win-win. There's a lot of win-wins in this industry if we think cleverly about how we do it.

DOMONOSKE: This is close to the vision that Occidental lays out for itself - extend oil production but cancel out the carbon footprint - a sort of compromise. Even if this works, it would take mind-boggling quantities of energy and prolong problems like air pollution. But Oxy has some allies in the climate movement who say they're being realistic. We use a lot of oil. What if we can't bring oil demand down quickly? Wouldn't zero carbon oil be much better than the alternative? Why not try? And for one answer to that, let's leave the party. I ran into independent oilman Waymon Pitchford in nearby Midland, Texas. He was happy about the plant, too, but not because it'll be good for the planet. He thinks that's nonsense.

WAYMON PITCHFORD: It would be like draining the ocean with straws. But it shut some people up.

DOMONOSKE: Specifically, he thinks it will shut up people who keep talking about carbon emissions and the need to cut oil consumption.

PITCHFORD: So let's get right out there and build all these plants we can build to shut up whoever we need to shut up.

DOMONOSKE: The history of carbon offsets is littered with things that sounded like wins but turned out to be closer to cons. And Pitchford's hope is some environmentalists' fear - that direct air capture will be a distraction simply used to derail climate efforts. So is this a win for the planet, a pragmatic compromise, or is the oil industry pulling a fast one on the climate movement? The answer doesn't just depend on what Oxy does. It will depend on what the rest of the world does in response - politicians, companies, people like you. Will they treat air capture as a tool to speed up efforts to cut emissions or as an excuse to slow them down? Camila Domonoske, NPR News. 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.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.