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Could Carbon Removal Be California's Next Big Boom Industry?

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A young white man stands in front of a large machine on top of a truck.
Shaun Kinetic, co-founder of Charm Industrial, displays the pyrolyzer that his San Francisco-based company uses to remove carbon from agricultural waste products, on Jan. 26, 2023. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

Shaun Kinetic rests his hand on what looks like an out-of-place pile of hay bales. The bales, which are actually the leftovers from a corn harvest, sit under a shade structure in a parking lot in an industrial area of San Francisco sandwiched between highways.

Those corn stalks, leaves and cobs would normally get plowed back into the field they came from in Half Moon Bay, or be left to decompose, releasing the carbon inside them back into the atmosphere. Only some of these leftovers are needed to maintain soil health and prevent erosion.

The rest will get ground down to dust, injected into the 1,000-degree belly of a large metal cylinder — called a pyrolyzer — and be transformed within seconds into three products: a gas, an ash — or “char” — and a viscous black goo that looks like molasses and smells like barbecue sauce, called bio-oil.

“The gas is then burned to heat the process,” said Kinetic, co-founder of the company Charm Industrial. “The char is returned to the field as a soil additive, and the bio-oil is pumped underground as a permanent carbon-removal technology.”

Charm has sequestered some 6,000 tons of carbon since 2020, when Kinetic, who has a background in aerospace engineering, first invented the bio-oil sequestration technology.

Customers now include major tech companies like Stripe, Shopify and Microsoft.

And yes, Shaun’s last name really is Kinetic, which he and his wife, Kelly, one of the company’s four founders, adopted when they married a few years ago. The couple left Charm in February 2023 for reasons the company did not disclose.

The company uses physical equipment and even old, abandoned oil wells to send the bio-oil underground — one of the many approaches in the burgeoning field of carbon removal.

A short, squat glass bottle with a large, twist-on, bright blue plastic top, half-filled with a dark brown liquid. A rectangular white card sits upright in a gold-colored holder, with "Bio-oil Pathfinder/July 2021" hand-printed in black ink. A second, similar bottle sits to the left, with its own hand-printed sign, and two jars that appear to be partly filled with dirt sit behind it. Beyond all this, on what looks to be the back of a shelf, is a photograph of what appears to be rolling, brown hills.
A sample of the bio-oil Charm Industrial produces (center), on display at the company’s facility in San Francisco on March 28, 2023. ‘It’s carbon, embodied,’ says co-founder Shaun Kinetic. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Charm frequently hires former fossil-fuel industry workers to orchestrate the process, as they are often the ones most familiar with the equipment involved.

A local job creator?

For California to meet its ambitious climate goals, which include becoming carbon-neutral by 2045 (PDF), the state will need to capture or remove about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide (PDF) each year, roughly equivalent to the pollution created by 250 gas-power plants (PDF).

Unlike carbon capture, which involves trapping polluting greenhouse gasses at their source of emissions, carbon removal entails pulling the gas out of the atmosphere through either nature-based approaches, like conserving existing wetlands, or technological methods, like the one used by Charm.

And local and state lawmakers are increasingly showing interest in supporting those efforts.

“Decades ago, San Francisco and the Bay Area were home to the explosion of the information technology sector,” said Assemblymember Matt Haney, a San Francisco Democrat. “It started small and then it grew to transform the world. We want to have the Bay Area be the similar home for carbon capture and carbon removal.”

Doing so, he added, could also create a lot of jobs.

A young white man with short blond hair, wearing jeans and a puffy jacket in stripes of blue, gray and gold, stands in front of a stack of hay bales. He holds an amber-colored cob in his right hand and looks down at it, smiling, while his left hand rests in his pocket.
Peter Reinhardt, another Charm Industrial co-founder, explains the process of removing carbon from the large bales of corn stalks, leaves and cobs that get delivered to the company’s San Francisco facility. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“It’s not just folks who can do the engineering and the technology, the financing, but we actually need skilled industrial labor,” Haney said.

Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris, a Democrat from Irvine, said California could become a hub for this kind of work.

“I want those innovators to come to California. I want them to grow their businesses here,” Petrie-Norris said. “I think that there’s a lot of work that we need to do as policymakers to create a foundation and to create the right incentives to bring them here.”

Pulling carbon out of the atmosphere

To avoid exacerbating an already catastrophic climate crisis, humans need to first and foremost stop putting planet-warming gasses into the air. But there is also an urgent need to draw down an enormous amount of the carbon pollution that has already been created.

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A recent international climate report went as far as to call carbon removal an “unavoidable” strategy if countries are to meet their emissions-reduction goals.

“Carbon removal refers to things you can do, whether it involves nature-based systems or technologies and engineered systems to literally pull CO2 out of the atmosphere,” said Danny Cullenward, a research fellow with the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University.

Cullenward notes that the world’s forests and oceans are actively pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through a natural carbon cycle, independent of human involvement.

“The problem is, if we don’t intervene in these systems, they won’t suck up enough because we’ve put such an unfathomably large quantity of pollution in the atmosphere in the first place,” he said.

But not all interventions are created equal. Lots of carbon offsets, often including those offered as add-ons during plane ticket bookings, go toward established projects that are already underway. Directing more money toward them doesn’t always translate directly into more carbon removal.

Alternatively, with projects like Charm’s, the more money invested, the more carbon removed, a business model that Cullenward argues is ultimately more effective.

He also notes it’s important to consider the amount of time the carbon will stay sequestered, and out of the atmosphere.

“When we burn fossil fuels, about three-quarters, 80%, of the CO2 we burn stays in the atmosphere for something on the order of 200 to thousands of years,” Cullenward said. “The remainder stays put through geologic time. It’s essentially permanent.”

A large white machine with various pipes and container sits on a flatbed truck. Behind it, a sign reads, 'Charm Industrial.'
Charm Industrial’s pyrolyzer, which turns agricultural waste into the carbon-concentrated bio-oil product. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Cullenward says some carbon-removal strategies will sequester carbon in a forest for a period of decades, which can be good, and is better than nothing. But other carbon-removal strategies, like those storing carbon deep underground in wells and geological formations, have the potential to contain it there for thousands of years.

That’s one of the reasons he thinks Charm’s approach is a good one.

“The injection wells are pretty close to a forever solution from the standpoint of the time duration of carbon storage,” he said.

Fear of ‘unintended consequences’

Katie Valenzuela, senior policy advocate with the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, and a Sacramento City Council member, describes herself as a “front-line kid who grew up in Kern County,” where most of California’s oil is drilled.

Because of its unique geology, the Central Valley has also been identified as a “highly suitable” place to store carbon (PDF).

“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,” Valenzuela said. “The safety and health impacts of how you transport this stuff, where it is stored, how it is used, carry real consequences for our communities and are going to be targeting the types of communities that have already borne the brunt of things like oil extraction for decades.”

A young white-presenting man with dark brown hair, a dark moustache, and slight beard, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a black zip-up jacket, holds two parts of the same sort of hose, as if he might be coupling or uncoupling them. He stands in what seems to be a very large, brightly lit warehouse, with things like a rolling whiteboard, a fire extinguisher, and tables in the background.
Andrew Radbel, a mechanical engineer at Charm Industrial, repairs a cyclone test skid, a machine that tests particulate filtration before material is put in the carbon-removing pyrolyzer. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Valenzuela is fine with carbon removal in theory, but worries it will allow oil and gas companies to hide behind new technologies and continue drilling and polluting her home. She notes the process is important, but it doesn’t ameliorate the existing pollution from heavy industry that directly impacts the health of her community.

“I wish that we could take care of the communities who need it the most first, and then explore the other thing that we know we need to do,” Valenzuela said.

‘We need to get to work’

Sarah Baker, a chemist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, was a lead author of a 2020 report laying out California’s potential path for getting to zero emissions by 2045.

She still thinks that goal is within reach.

“It’s building a lot of equipment and infrastructure and moving biomass and moving CO2, but we can do it with technologies that exist today,” Baker told state lawmakers during a presentation earlier this year. “This is not magic, we don’t need multiple miracles. We need to get to work.”

Charm co-founder Shaun Kinetic feels similarly.

“It effectively needs to be a wartime effort,” he said. “The oil and gas infrastructure that currently exists out to the horizon needs to be replaced with carbon removal.”

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