Editor’s note: Each of these climate-change articles is fiction, but grounded in historical fact and real science. The year, concentration of carbon dioxide and average temperature rise (above pre-industrial average) are shown for each one. The scenarios do not present a unified narrative but are set in different worlds, with a range of climate sensitivities, on different emissions pathways
IT IS HARD to envisage now, but the Permian basin in Texas and New Mexico used to be America’s biggest source of crude oil. At its peak it accounted for more than half of national production. Today the steel pumpjacks have been replaced by direct-air capture (DAC) units. Powered by the sun, the machines suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and pump it into the sedimentary rock formations below. There is an elegant symmetry in the way the carbon is being pumped back into the ground. Big Oil has given way to Big Suck.
The transformation of the Permian region illustrates an industrial shift that began in the early 2020s. The once-mighty oil industry, in its old form, has withered. From its husk a thriving new industry has emerged. Carbon-removal firms now number among the world’s biggest. Alongside big cuts in emissions, their technology has helped stabilise the climate and reduce emissions to net-zero. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is even beginning to drop as carbon-removal efforts are expanded. At the same time, the industry has reshaped geopolitics—and is creating its own set of environmental impacts.
The trouble for Big Oil started in 2014, when booming American production helped spur a plunge in prices. The covid-19 pandemic of 2020 triggered a short, sharp contraction in demand. Longer-term decline was unavoidable. Internal combustion engines in road vehicles, which made up more than two-fifths of oil use in 2020, were starting to give way to electric motors. Further pressure came from the rise in carbon taxes, as governments, cash-strapped after covid-19 bail-outs, sought new streams of revenue. The oil-price spike of the late 2020s simply reinforced the trend towards other forms of energy.
Firms that built the kit used in oil production, such as refineries and pipelines, were the first to go bust as investments in new assets ground to a halt. Next up were companies that struggled to divest themselves of pricey oilfields. As oil-producing firms fought for survival, one strategy was consolidation through mergers. In the end, some supermajors ran down their reserves, halted oil investment and were run for cash. By contrast, national oil companies with low production costs, such as Saudi Aramco, kept pumping. But the most innovative giants, sensing an existential threat, realised that if they were to continue supplying oil and gas, they would need to capture and store the carbon emissions they produced, too.
By the late 2020s, two methods had emerged as the most effective ways to do this. One was DAC, which involves trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by sucking air through an absorbent material. The other…