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A startup is helping California remove carbon from the air to meet climate goals

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

JPMorgan Chase and other companies are committing millions to a San Francisco-based climate startup that will pull carbon from the air and store it underground. Climate reporter Laura Klivans with member station KQED takes us to the company's headquarters to see what that means.

LAURA KLIVANS, BYLINE: Shaun Kinetic points to a stack of what looks like hay bales on a parking lot in an industrial part of San Francisco.

SHAUN KINETIC: All right. What's behind me is - you'll see lovingly labeled bales of corn stover. So this is everything left over after the corn harvest - leaves and stalks. You have cobs.

KLIVANS: All these leftovers from a nearby farm are full of carbon. They would normally get plowed back into a field or left to decompose, releasing stored carbon back into the air. Instead, this corn stover will get ground down to dust.

KINETIC: Then we take that sawdust, and we inject it into a reactor that's about a thousand degrees Fahrenheit.

KLIVANS: In just a few seconds, a viscous black goo forms. It looks like molasses and smells like barbecue sauce. This is bio-oil, and Charm Industrial, which Kinetic helped found, is doing something interesting with it.

KINETIC: The bio-oil that's pumped underground is a permanent carbon removal technology.

KLIVANS: It's injected deep down into old oil wells, where it solidifies. Charm uses the same equipment fossil fuel companies extracted oil with in the first place. Charm isn't burying the bio-oil in California yet due to regulations, but they are in Kansas.

KINETIC: That's where our well sites are, and that's where we're hiring.

KLIVANS: Bio-oil is one approach in the burgeoning field of carbon removal.

DANNY CULLENWARD: Carbon removal refers to things you can do, whether it involves nature-based systems or technologies to literally pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.

KLIVANS: Danny Cullenward researches carbon removal as a fellow at American University. Scientists agree that to avoid catastrophic warming, humans need to stop putting climate-harming pollution into the air, and we need to draw some down. The world's forests and oceans naturally pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But - and here's Cullenward again.

CULLENWARD: The problem is if we don't intervene in these systems, they won't suck up enough because we put such an unfathomably large quantity of pollution in the atmosphere in the first place.

KLIVANS: Startups like Charm Industrial need money to develop carbon removal technologies. That's where the private sector is jumping in. A group of companies, including JPMorgan Chase, Stripe, Alphabet and Shopify, plan to pay Charm millions of dollars. In exchange, the company will bury the bio-oil equivalent of what 31,000 passenger cars emit a year. That's just a tiny amount of what needs to come out of the atmosphere, but it's a start. Nan Ransohoff is head of climate at Stripe.

NAN RANSOHOFF: We want to get more companies to the starting line and then help them get down the cost curve as quickly as possible so that we can build carbon removal solutions that have the potential to get to the scale that we need to solve the problem.

KLIVANS: The latest international climate change report calls for carbon removal, but a United Nations panel calls the technology unproven. People living in communities where bio-oil may get buried have worries of their own. Katie Valenzuela works with the environmental justice group the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition.

KATIE VALENZUELA: Every time we have this great new idea that we want to test out, it lands in the Central Valley somehow and ends up having unintended consequences that weren't foreseen that then we have to deal with.

KLIVANS: Valenzuela grew up in the Central Valley, where most of California's oil is drilled. That's why it's also a place considered highly suitable to store carbon. Valenzuela is OK with the idea of carbon removal, like what Charm Industrial is doing, but she worries oil and gas companies will use these technologies as an excuse to keep drilling and polluting her home.

VALENZUELA: I wish that we could take care of the communities who needed it the most first and then explore the other thing that we know we need to do.

KLIVANS: Regardless, California is betting big on pulling carbon from the atmosphere. The state plans to meet its future climate goals by removing and capturing about 100 million tons of carbon annually. That's roughly the same amount of pollution that comes from 22 million passenger cars in a year. For NPR News, I'm Laura Klivans in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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