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From recycled carbon-dioxide fuels to carbon-negative oil: Interrogating imaginaries of circular fossil carbon

Authors: Holly Buck*, UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability
Topics: Energy, Resources, Anthropocene
Keywords: climate change, energy, carbon, carbon removal, renewable energy
Session Type: Lightning Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Companies, lobbyists and analysts are suggesting that carbon negative oil production is possible, and that by "closing the loop", fossil fuels can essentially be made part of a circular economy. In one version, direct air capture machines capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it to produce synthetic fuels — allowing CO2 to be used as an energy storage medium. In another, carbon is captured from anthropogenic sources, or directly from the air, and injected underground with "maximum storage" enhanced oil recovery. This process produces oil that has a lower carbon intensity, and in some cases, it could be carbon negative. However, this premise of a circular carbon economy rests on expansive renewable energy in order to make these various life cycle analyses carbon neutral or negative, meaning that circular fossil carbon is deeply entangled with renewables. This paper draws on interviews with experts, ethnographic observations at carbontech and carbon management events, and interviews with members of the public along a proposed CO2 pipeline route from Iowa to Texas, in order to explore: What is driving some fossil fuel interests to reinvent themselves as sustainable, carbon-recycling companies? What policy moves are currently aiding them, and what challenges will they face in further developing this concept? I find that the relationship of these technologies to renewable energy is particularly under-theorized and under-discussed, and suggest what the implications of this are for this concept of a circular carbon economy and for the actors who are constructing this socio-technical imaginary.

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