Mining the air: Political ecologies of carbon-negative oil and the circular carbon economy

Authors: Holly Buck*, University at Buffalo
Topics: Energy, Cultural and Political Ecology, Anthropocene
Keywords: carbon capture, carbon removal, carbon utilization, negative emissions, infrastructure, renewables
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 37
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Can fossil-based fuels become renewable? Some companies, think tanks and scientists are suggesting that oil and gas production can and should become carbon neutral or even carbon negative. Using new technologies that allow for "closing the loop", fossil fuels are imagined as part of a circular carbon economy. However, this premise rests on expansive renewable energy, meaning that recyclable CO2 is deeply entangled with the capacity to scale 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 suggested CO2 pipeline route from Iowa to Texas, to explore: What is driving the sociotechnical imaginary of circular fossil carbon, and what are its prospects? How do people living in the landscapes that are expected to provide carbon utilization and removal services understand their desirability and workability? First, the paper examines a contradiction in expert views: while experts mathematically understand the scale of infrastructure, energy, and capital required to build a circular carbon economy, they face constraints in advocating for policies commensurate with this scale. Second, the paper describes views from the land in the central US, finding that while expert discourse on circular carbon is disconnected from social realities, there is an opportunity to put these new technologies in conversation with the needs and priorities of rural communities. Centering community benefit is the most realistic way forward for realizing anything close to a climate-significant level of carbon utilization, carbon removal, and correspondent renewables.

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