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Heirloom Opens First U.S. Direct Air Capture Plant

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In an open-air warehouse in California’s Central Valley, 40-foot-tall racks hold hundreds of trays filled with a white powder that turns crusty as it absorbs carbon dioxide from the sky.

The start-up that built the facility, Heirloom Carbon Technologies, calls it the first commercial plant in the United States to use direct air capture, which involves vacuuming greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Another plant is operating in Iceland, and some scientists say the technique could be crucial for fighting climate change.

Heirloom will take the carbon dioxide it pulls from the air and have the gas sealed permanently in concrete, where it can’t heat the planet. To earn revenue, the company is selling carbon removal credits to companies paying a premium to offset their own emissions. Microsoft has already signed a deal with Heirloom to remove 315,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The company’s first facility in Tracy, Calif., which opens Thursday, is fairly small. The plant can absorb a maximum of 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, equal to the exhaust from about 200 cars. But Heirloom hopes to expand quickly.

“The science is clear: Cutting back carbon emissions through renewable energy alone won’t stop the damage from climate change,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who planned to attend the opening of Heirloom’s facility, said. “Direct air capture technology is a game-changing tool that gives us a shot at removing the carbon pollution that has been building in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.”

“If a company says it’s removing a ton of carbon dioxide, it’s important to make sure everything gets accounted for,” said Danny Cullenward, a research fellow with the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University. “That’s not always as easy as it sounds.”

Mr. Jackson added that Occidental’s vision for direct air capture was still evolving. The company will also bury much of the carbon dioxide it captures in underground saline aquifers, in order to sell carbon removal credits.

Still, Occidental’s oil proposal sparked a backlash. “There’s a big difference between exploring an infant technology to see if it can be developed, versus telling the public, ‘If we do this, we can continue burning fossil fuels forever,’” former Vice President Al Gore said at a recent New York Times event.

The debate over how big a role carbon removal should play in tackling climate change is still in early stages, said Emily Grubert, associate professor of sustainable energy policy at the University of Notre Dame. But with billions of dollars rushing in, she said, it’s a crucial discussion.

“Using direct air capture to offset large amounts of oil production is a completely different scale than using it to offset a few activities, like fertilizer use, where it’s impossible to cut emissions,” Dr. Grubert said. “And there’s a broad societal interest in figuring out what scale of carbon removal we’re committing to.”

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