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The Climate 202

How energy from Earth’s crust could pull carbon from the sky

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Shannon Osaka, the “climate zeitgeist” reporter for The Washington Post, wrote the top of today’s newsletter. A scheduling note, The Climate 202 won’t publish on Friday; we have a short week with Congress out. We’ll be back in your inbox on Monday.

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In today’s edition, we’ll cover the Biden administration’s proposal for the first offshore wind lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico and former president Donald Trump’s visit to the train derailment site in Ohio. But first:

This project takes energy from Earth's crust to suck carbon out of the sky

Sucking carbon dioxide out of the sky is a bit like a time machine for climate change. It removes CO2 from the atmosphere and stores it deep underground, almost exactly the reverse of what humanity has been doing for centuries by burning fossil fuels. 

But the problem with “direct air capture,” as it’s known by experts and scientists, has been that it takes energy — a lot of energy. If the energy powering that process comes from fossil fuels, direct air capture starts to look less like a time machine and more like an accelerator: a way to emit even more CO2.

Now, however, a company is working to combine direct air capture with a relatively untapped source of energy: Heat from Earth’s crust

Fervo Energy, a geothermal company headquartered in Houston, announced Thursday it will design and engineer the first purpose-built geothermal and direct air capture plant. With the help of a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the company hopes to have a pilot facility online in three to five years.

If it works, it will be a way to produce carbon-free electricity, while reducing CO2 in the atmosphere at the same time. In short, a win-win for the climate.

“Geothermal is a great match” for direct air capture, said Timothy Latimer, the CEO of Fervo Energy.

The reason is heat from the planet’s core. The center of Earth, unlike Jules Verne’s imaginings, is a molten core with temperatures reaching up to 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

How it works

Geothermal wells don’t, of course, get anywhere close to Earth’s core, but a geothermal well drilled just a mile or two into hot rocks below the planet’s surface can reach temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees. Water is pumped into the well, heated and returned to the surface, where it can be converted into steam and electricity.

Even after generating electricity, most geothermal plants have a lot of waste heat — often clocking in around 212 degrees. And, conveniently, that happens to be the exact temperature needed to pull carbon dioxide out of an air filter and bury it underground.

Hélène Pilorgé, a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania who studies carbon dioxide removal, says that one of the main ways to pull CO2 out of the air is known as the “solid sorbent” method, which requires temperatures around 212 degrees. That high temperature “fits well with the energy that geothermal can provide,” Pilorgé said.

Other renewables, like solar and wind, aren’t natural fits. Solar and wind can produce electricity, but they don’t produce high heat easily.

According to one study co-authored by Pilorgé, if air capture were combined with all of the geothermal plants currently in the United States, the country could suck up about 12.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year.

One company already uses geothermal to power its direct air capture: Climeworks, which has one carbon capture plant in Iceland and is building another. Iceland, with its hundreds of volcanoes and hot springs, is a hot spot for geothermal — 85 percent of homes are heated by Earth itself. Climeworks built its carbon capture machinery on top of the already existing Hellisheidi geothermal plant.

Capturing carbon

By contrast, Latimer says, Fervo Energy will be able to experiment with how to build geothermal energy in a way tailor-made for capturing CO2. “It’s a totally unexplored place,” he said. “What would you do differently in the design of a geothermal power plant if you knew you were pairing it with a direct air capture facility?”

There are still many details to work out. It’s not enough to simply take carbon dioxide out of the air. Ideally, it also needs to be stored deep underground, often in porous stones filled with salty water.

One potential criticism of the project is that it focuses on drawing CO2 out of the air instead of preventing it from getting there in the first place. After all, geothermal energy could play a key role in shifting the electricity grid over to renewables. Unlike wind and solar, a geothermal plant can be on all the time, producing electricity even when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

Latimer says there is a possibility that a single geothermal plant could have multiple uses. It could produce electricity when needed and suck CO2 out of the atmosphere when wind and solar are dominating the grid. But right now, he added, it’s hard to link geothermal to the electricity grid thanks to long waits to get connected.


There is also much more funding available for direct air capture than there is for geothermal alone. The Energy Department is offering up to $74 million for demonstration projects of new geothermal technologies but a whopping $3.5 billion to establish regional hubs for direct air capture. Geothermal has often been called the “forgotten renewable” — useful, but not as sexy or appealing as solar or wind.

“The question is what society prioritizes and what policy incentives are put in place,” Latimer said. 

Still, if the combination of geothermal and direct air capture works, there will be a kind of poetic symmetry to it. The burning of fossil fuels — pieces of plants and animals crushed under high temperatures and pressure in Earth’s crust for millions of years — has sent planet-warming gases spewing into the atmosphere. It’s only fitting that high temperatures from Earth’s crust can pull it back out again.

On the Hill

Senate panel schedules hearing for EPA air nominee

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday announced it will hold another confirmation hearing March 1 for Joseph Goffman, President Biden’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s air office.

Goffman, a veteran of the EPA under Barack Obama, has been leading the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation on an acting basis since January 2021. The Environment and Public Works panel deadlocked 10-10 on Goffman’s nomination last year, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. The vote meant that Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) would have needed to file a discharge petition to bring the nomination to the floor.

However, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) last year threatened to vote against Goffman’s nomination on the floor unless the EPA provided assurances that a $7 billion pot of money in the Inflation Reduction Act would be used to boost residential rooftop solar power. The EPA appeared to satisfy Sanders’s demand last week, when the agency outlined how the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund in the climate law would provide $7 billion for states and tribes to deploy various solar energy projects, including residential rooftop solar.

Sanders’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Agency alert

Interior proposes first offshore wind auction in Gulf

The Interior Department and the White House on Wednesday proposed the first-ever offshore wind energy lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico, a region long dominated by oil and gas drilling, Ella Nilsen reports for CNN.

The proposal calls for opening up more than 300,000 acres of water to offshore wind development. The areas have the potential to power nearly 1.3 million homes with clean electricity, according to Interior. They include one area off Lake Charles, La., and two off Galveston, Tex. 

“At the Department, we are taking action to jumpstart our offshore wind industry and harness American innovation to deliver reliable, affordable power to homes and businesses,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

President Biden has set a goal of deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030. The announcement comes as the Biden administration holds a two-day summit on the future of the floating offshore wind industry.

Pressure points

Trump visits Ohio amid political showdown over train derailment

Former president Donald Trump on Wednesday visited the site of the fiery train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, escalating a political showdown over the Biden administration’s response to the incident that left some residents concerned about contamination, The Washington Post’s Meryl Kornfield, Ian Duncan and Hannah Knowles report.

Ahead of his trip, Trump repeated a Republican talking point that has been used since the Feb. 3 incident sent toxic plumes over a wide area, saying that residents of the town were “abandoned” because President Biden has not visited the site and instead went to Ukraine. 

However, Trump has also faced criticism in the aftermath of the derailment for his administration’s rollback of rail safety rules, which garnered support from Republicans in Congress at the time despite warnings from labor unions about risks, and his efforts to downsize the Environmental Protection Agency. 

EPA Administrator Michael Regan has visited twice and on Tuesday committed to taking control of the disaster response. On Thursday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is planning to visit and meet with community members, receive an update on the National Transportation Safety Board investigation related to the derailment of Norfolk Southern’s train, and speak to investigators from his agency who have been helping to determine the cause of the crash. 

Officials have also sought to reassure residents that the town’s air and water is safe. Some of them drank water directly from the tap:

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R), EPA Administrator Michael Regan and other officials drank water from the kitchen of an East Palestine, Ohio resident on Feb. 21. (Video: The Washington Post)

Gov. Mike DeWine (R), EPA Administrator Michael Regan and others drink the tap water in East Palestine, Ohio.

In the atmosphere


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