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Stealthy Sequoia-backed C12 Energy on Dealmaking Out West

Even though stealthy carbon capture startup C12 Energy has venture capital firm Sequoia Capital in its corner, and a scientist with a history of researching ways to store carbon dioxide underwater at its helm, not much is known about what the startup has in the works. But less than two years after its founding, C12 now says it is working on “several early stage CCS projects,” according to testimony at a Senate hearing Tuesday from co-founder and president Kurt Zenz House, who pulled back the curtain a little bit on what he sees as keys and challenges for accelerating commercial deployment of carbon capture tech.

Speaking on a panel for an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on carbon capture and sequestration legislation, House described what he sees as “the key to jump starting” the nascent carbon capture and storage industry: “passage of a set of financial incentives for first mover projects,” similar to the set of incentives (including renewable portfolio standards at the state level and tax credits at the federal level) provided for the wind industry in years past.

House finished up his doctoral research in 2008 at Harvard, where he focused on the physics and chemistry of storing carbon dioxide underground, as well as “on a variety of chemical processes designed to convert CO2 into stable carbonate minerals,” he told the Committee today. By February 2009, Sequoia Capital and other investors had plunked down their investment into C12, which House co-founded with CEO Justin Dawe. But House noted today that since earning his Ph.D., he has become a research fellow at MIT and continued to study “the behavior of CO2 that has been injected into the subsurface.”

House didn’t delve too deeply into C12’s ongoing projects, but he explained that his team looks at three main factors to help determine the “sequestration potential” at a given site: geology, proximity to sources (i.e. smokestacks) and the complexity of legal access required to go ahead with a project. Then, he said simply, “We sign leases and move forward.”

In short, House urged the government today to take a hands-off approach, allowing companies like C12 to negotiate deals with private landowners. But for just about any carbon storage project undertaken west of the Mississippi, he said, “it will be very, very difficult,” to secure the necessary land rights “without some degree of public lands involvement.”

That’s not because of any unwillingness on the part of private land owners, who House said he has found often view negotiations for the rights to store carbon dioxide underground as being akin to deals for oil and gas companies to tap resources below their land. It’s simply another “industrial operation that happens in the subsurface,” he said, adding that carbon capture can be compatible with existing land uses, such as ranching, farming and recreation.

However, House anticipates that the federal government will have to get involved in granting rights for carbon storage projects out west because the “land is checkerboarded.” Inject CO2 into a reservoir below a private land owner’s property, and it will likely spill over into some piece (or underground layer) of land owned by the federal government. “The situation changes in the midwest,” he said, where most of the lands are private or state owned. As for the notion of a “broad attempt at national eminent domain” for the sake of carbon storage, House said, “That really scares me.” He’d rather keep negotiations with property owners at “an arm’s length,” so they’re invested in the project, rather than feeling “their homes are being stolen.”