As a $3.5 billion federal program that could set the foundation for the direct air capture (DAC) industry at large, the DAC Hubs program has had many eyes on it from day one. The pressure to execute swiftly so as to make a meaningful impact on our climate goals exists alongside a necessity to do so well, and prove that carbon removal can be used as a tool for achieving climate justice. Early movers in this space are carrying the responsibility and vision of an entire field on their shoulders.

The Hubs program is making piecemeal but steady progress towards awarding funds to projects that promise to remove and store 1 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Most recently, the program gave the official greenlight to Project Cypress in Louisiana with an award of $50 million. This award moved Cypress to phase 2 of a four-phase process outlined by the Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstration (or DOE’s OCED for short). Cypress has the opportunity to receive up to $500 million through the program, but at the end of each phase, OCED will assess project performance before awarding the next chunk of funds. How well Cypress succeeds in planning and realizing a community benefits plan (or a CBP) will be a key assessment factor. 

What is in CBPs is important, but how that information is shared and understood is even more crucial. In this blog, we’ll pull out what’s known and not known about Cypress’s CBP today, and explore how developers and the Energy Department can use transparency to build trust in DAC technologies from day one.  

Here’s what we know about Project Cypress’s community benefits plan

When Project Cypress’s award was made public in March, OCED published a summary fact sheet (rather than the full community benefits plan) describing how Project Cypress plans to engage community and labor groups during this early stage.

Project Cypress is eyeing the West Calcasieu Parish in Louisiana to site their hub, which is an incredibly important point to unpack. This is a region that has a long, well-documented history of environmental injustices and a community with a deep distrust of industry. Residents have been burdened with compounding sources of pollution and subsequent negative health impacts for decades. Project Cypress will not be operating from a blank slate as they move towards establishing a DAC hub, and must understand their responsibility to address the deep social and environmental inequities and longstanding distrust of new industry while developing DAC in this region.

Here’s what the community benefits summary included:

Creating a Community Engagement Council

Project Cypress plans to assemble a Community Engagement Council (CEC) and give “specific attention” to recruiting from several marginalized and labor groups. Council members’ responsibilities include sharing out community priorities and concerns, learning safety, maintenance, and emergency response plans, and scheduling community engagement events. Yet to be announced are compensation plans for CEC members, how CEC members will be selected, and what the ratio of resident to non-resident members will be. 

The details surrounding tribal engagement in particular are slim, with the bulk of the responsibility on DOE to conduct government-to-government consultation with federally recognized tribes. 

Generating new jobs

Job creation appears to be the plan’s core benefit. Project Cypress aims to draft a community workforce agreement with labor partners that outlines employment for the project’s construction and operation phases. If labor and project partners do not reach an agreement on these terms, Project Cypress will release a detailed workforce continuity plan instead. (Our understanding is that the former would be legally binding whereas the latter is not.) Separately, Project Cypress will release a site labor and workforce development plan that will speak to a range of issues outside of general employment including wages and benefits, workplace health and safety, and pathways to employment for local job seekers. Overall, we’re left wanting more clarity about how the community workforce agreement and the site labor and workforce development plan will interact. 

Identifying and communicating potential negative impacts

Supplemental to sharing its expected benefits, the project recognizes the potential harms this hub could bring. Referred to as “negative impacts,” these environmental and human health harms will be identified, quantified, characterized, and presumably addressed by project developers. The project team also intends to create a publicly available platform to share project information and data on topics like CEC recommendations and responses, as well as opportunities for the community to engage in the project. In the future, the platform will be developed to report on air permit compliance and violations, safety and emergency response protocols, and additional environmental monitoring data.

Where this CBP succeeds, and where we must go farther

Our initial impression is that the information provided was incredibly high level and lacking in specifics around plans for implementation. A community benefits plan is agreed upon through conversations between a developer and community groups. While Project Cypress may see the process of outlining community benefits as a means to foster partnership with local residents, a community may also be protective over the right to define what they do and do not recognize as a benefit. In some instances, the only leverage a community has in the bargaining and participation process is their support for or disapproval of a project. Given the inherent power imbalance between the project and local residents, and the fact that CBPs are not legally enforceable, Project Cypress should lean further into the CEC’s guidance and expertise when outlining community benefits. 

While creating a Community Engagement Council is a commendable first step in community outreach, it’s yet to be seen whether this council will be allowed the teeth necessary to influence the project on a meaningful level. The idea of dialogue with the community comes up a lot in this plan: “two-way engagement,” “serve as a conduit,” “providing a mechanism in which community members can contact project team members.” We’re interested in learning more about how community members will be able to react to the information being provided and discussed (can they veto?) and, more importantly, how that feedback will impact project outcomes. True two-way engagement creates clear avenues for pushback to be heard and addressed. Whether the CEC is truly being set up for success is undecided — and without critical details, this Council could become more ceremonial than collaborative. 

In addition to some potential community benefits being listed, the potential harms are quickly bulleted at the document’s end. Specifically, the document promises that both negative impacts and safety and emergency response protocols will be addressed in future plans. Pursuing partnership with West Calcasieu Parish residents, the Project should host information sessions where both harms and related concerns are discussed in real time. Otherwise, the Project may risk alienating residents by withholding information they want to hear the most. Project Cypress may even find that these feedback sessions are an opportunity to dispel fears surrounding their project or DAC technologies broadly. Project Cypress should also explore additional avenues for sharing critical information, particularly to those who may not have access to reliable internet. Sharing detailed, readily accessible information is a foundational precursor for building trust between communities and project developers. 

This summary fact sheet may be the project’s earnest, good faith attempt at outlining what they are confident they can achieve for and alongside the communities of West Calcasieu Parish. It could also be true that Project Cypress is well aware of the current plan’s deficiencies and intends to lean heavily on the CEC to fill gaps. Whatever the case may be, the plan is currently incomplete. 

Where we go from here

Project Cypress’s award is only one milestone in a long, multi-year process for the DAC Hubs program as it works to support the commercialization of nascent technologies. This is a challenge that comes with growing pains and the need to learn by doing in many ways. Next steps for Project Cypress need to include: 1) transparently and equitably staffing the CEC, 2) publicly discussing potential and projected negative impacts, and 3) ensuring that project inputs (e.g., CEC pushback and community participation) match project outputs (e.g., community benefits and emergency response plans).

Transparent information sharing from Project Cypress, DOE, and other developers at the outset of early projects will set a powerful precedent for giving communities the best chance at meaningfully engaging with these efforts. Ultimately, we believe that the DAC Hubs program has the potential to demonstrate successful collaboration and innovation. That success is contingent on learning from past missteps and a willingness to approach this work in a justice-centered way that will lead to strong social support.

Edited by Emily Reich. Image by Matt LaVasseur.