Wednesday January 24, 2024

Last Gasp or Leading Edge? Carbon Removal and Legacy Oil

Is the legacy oil sector’s investment in direct air capture a bold step towards decarbonization or a desperate bid for relevance?

Webinar Summary

The oil and gas industry is making carbon capture technologies like direct air capture (DAC) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) a pillar of their emissions reduction plans. But carbon capture is expensive, and is not yet operating on a scale to draw down emissions to net zero (seven CCS projects currently operating in Canada only capture about 0.5% of national emissions).  

What’s the role for carbon capture on the road to eliminating emissions? How are oil industry incumbents evolving their business models from carbon production to removal? We spoke with expert David Keith, founder of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian carbon-removal company that was sold to U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. last year for $1.6bn, about the oil industry’s move to invest heavily in carbon capture technologies. Read on for highlights:  

  • On the need for carbon removal: climate change is proportional to cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide, which means that reducing emissions — even eliminating them — won’t be enough. “Even if we stop emitting, the climate problem doesn’t get better. It just stops getting worse… The only way to reduce the very long run climate risk is carbon removal,” says Keith.
  • On oil and gas companies’ pivot to carbon capture:When you look at industrial business cycles and innovation over a long time, it’s rare that big incumbents pivot to follow the new technology,” says Keith, citing a fundamental misalignment in business strategy. “Legacy oil wants high oil prices and low carbon prices, and any decarbonization business wants the opposite. Those interests are just fundamentally opposed and that makes it hard for the companies to execute on both strategies in a coherent way.”
  • It’s tempting to see oil companies’ shift from production to carbon removal as a bid to stay relevant — which of course it is. But Keith sees the shift differently, as the result of policy and clean energy incentives which themselves were the result of decades of climate advocacy.
    “I think this is the power of the environmental movement driving change just the way we want it. [Companies] are responding to forces, political forces out there [like the IRA]. But again, Biden didn’t just wake up feeling green. That was because of decades of environmental activism that fought a good and clever fight and got that to happen.” 


Dr. David Keith

University of Chicago

David Keith is a Professor in the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago and the Founding Faculty Director of the Climate Systems Engineering initiative.

Keith previously served as the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and as Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He led the development of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program.

His work has ranged from the climatic impacts of large-scale wind power to elicitation of expert judgments about climate. Keith’s hardware engineering projects include the first interferometer for atoms, a high-accuracy infrared spectrometer for NASA’s ER-2 and the development of a stratospheric propelled balloon experiment for solar geoengineering. He is also the founder of Carbon Engineering, a company developing technology to capture CO2 from ambient air, and the author of A Case for Climate Engineering (MIT Press, 2013).


James Meadowcroft, PhD

Transition Pathway Principal

James Meadowcroft, PhD, is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University where he has held a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Governance for Sustainable Development. He has written widely on environmental politics and policy, democratic participation and deliberative democracy, national sustainable development strategies and socio-technical transitions. Recent work focuses on energy and the transition to a low-carbon society and includes publications on carbon capture and storage (CCS), smart grids, the development of Ontario’s electricity system, the politics of socio-technical transitions and negative carbon emissions.



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