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California has set carbon-neutrality goals for 2045 in a move away from fossil fuels to combat global warming. Kern County, where oil and gas production is a key industry, is at the epicenter of this transition's push and pull. KVPR News' Joshua Yeager is tracking the developments in the changing energy landscape.

US Energy Department awards $20M to jumpstart carbon capture projects in Kern County

Joe Moore
Valley Public Radio
An oil well bobs outside Taft in Kern County. Several carbon capture projects are in development across the region, with the help of new federal grant funding.

TAFT, Calif. – The Department of Energy last week awarded nearly $20 million to carbon capture projects in Kern County as local officials aim to turn the southern San Joaquin Valley into a hub for the burgeoning industry.

The funding, announced on Friday, will help plan three projects near Taft – in the heart of California’s oil country.

The lion’s share of the funding, about $12 million, will help design the California Direct Air Capture Hub. California Resources Corporation – one of the state’s largest oil producers – is developing the facility with several partners.

The hub would be the first of its kind in California and, if successful, could serve as a model for similar efforts statewide.

“It puts Kern County at the front of California, and California’s been at the front of the world,” said Ken Haney, a carbon manager for California Resources Corporation.

Two other Kern County projects spearheaded by large oil companies – Aera Energy and Chevron – also received about $5 million in federal funding.

What is carbon capture?

Traditional carbon capture projects work by sucking CO2 away at the source, typically an industrial smokestack or power plant. The gas is then stored deep underground, where it can no longer warm the planet.

Direct-air capture, on the other hand, filters carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere after it has already been emitted.

The concept aims to reverse greenhouse gas emissions and meet ambitious climate goals.

But experts say there are problems with the nascent technology. Right now, capturing meaningful amounts of carbon dioxide directly from the air requires large amounts of energywith no clear path to profit. That’s because there’s much less CO2 concentrated in the atmosphere than in the gas spewing out of a steel or cement plant, for example.

"If you'd asked me a year ago, I would've said we're 10 or 15 years away from it [direct air capture] being efficient and economic," Haney said.

Officials are hopeful that the new funding will accelerate research and lead to direct-air capture technology that is more efficient, sparking private investment.

In order to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, the Department of Energy estimates that up to 1.8 billion tons of CO2 will need to be captured and stored annually. California’s own climate roadmap calls for capturing 100 million tons of carbon annually by 2045.

“Cutting back on our carbon emissions alone won’t reverse the growing impacts of climate change; we also need to remove the CO2 that we’ve already put in the atmosphere – which nearly every climate model makes clear is essential to achieving a net-zero global economy by 2050,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a statement announcing the funding.

Kern’s clean energy transition

The California Direct Air Capture Hub is supported by a coalition of more than 40 organizations, including the Kern Community College District, which is banking on the technology to promote jobs and economic prosperity in the region.

“As we embrace the technology that will create the jobs of the future, it is incumbent to ensure that the wealth created in the process benefits the people and communities where the projects are located,” said the district’s deputy chancellor Zav Dadabhoy.

The Department of Energy grants in Kern County are meager compared to the $1.2 billion awarded to larger direct air capture hubs in Texas and Louisiana. Project managers, however, remain hopeful that the Kern hub will be shovel-ready by 2025.

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.