Outreach and Policy in the Carbon Removal Space: An Interview with Miguel Esteva

Synopsis and Introduction

The implementation of international legislation and policies have begun to give more shape to the carbon removal space. Carbon capture technologies were a critical point of discussion at the most recent climate conference, COP27, and the recent Inflation Reduction Act has allocated billions of dollars towards CDR projects, such as the DAC Hubs being brought out in the next coming years. However, this technology can’t reach its full potential without strong infrastructure and policy in place to support it. With this in mind, the NET Project has been working to help build this strong foundation within the UT and Austin community to see this technology succeed.

This past semester, I had the opportunity to interview Miguel (Micky) Esteva to discuss his experience as the organization’s vice president these past two years. Micky is a fourth-year mechanical engineering student from Mexico City and San Antonio, TX. He joined the organization at the same time Ben took over as president, and his continuous work and dedication have allowed this organization to reach an audience extending beyond UT. Micky leads by example—his openness and attentiveness to the project and everyone involved in it have been key to the project’s outreach. During our conversation, he brought up John Oliver’s HBO-produced show Last Week Tonight. Specifically, the episode he did on carbon offsets. Micky mentioned that “it was a good job by HBO to try to introduce/talk about carbon offsets,” but that they were mainly shown in a “negative aspect, such companies using it to buy trees that are already planted to call themselves carbon neutral.” Seeing that no real alternative was addressed, he spent many days trying to find an email or phone number to contact to propose another episode on carbon capture/removal technologies. Micky is aware of the importance of outreach in the CDR space, particularly for companies that have such a large audience, and he is continually seeking to make an impact beyond the project.

In this interview, Micky recounts his experience visiting Climework’s DAC facility in Iceland, describes how this project has shaped the trajectory of his professional career, and comments on the importance of outreach and policy in the CDR space.

The Interview

Question 1: Ben said something during his interview that left me with this question: Did you start a company? 

Micky: We’ve definitely thought about it—eventually venturing into starting a company that spun out of NET, but we never actually went through with it. There’s this group of advisors/investors at UT who send money to environmental projects every once in a while, and they had one of these competitions. We [Ben and I] went to it to propose a business idea and they actually really liked it, but we didn’t end up going through with it because we had a bunch of other things going on. 

Sara: That’s so cool! Is that something that you’d want to do later on?

Micky: Maybe. For my future or NET in general?

Sara: Both.

Micky: I definitely want to join an environmental startup, but I don’t think I’d be the one to create it. I feel like there are already a lot of good ideas out there. In terms of NET, we do want to launch an entrepreneurship project, just like the DAC and Policy projects. We feel like there’s a decent amount of interest, and there are a couple of people who would be pretty good to lead it. It [the project] could teach us and a lot of people how to approach starting a sustainability business, and if it actually worked, it could be beneficial for people and the planet. Did Ben mention the TEX-E Greentown labs we went to in Houston? 

Sara: No, he didn’t talk about that. 

Micky: It was just us going to Houston for this sustainability and entrepreneurship program that lasted three days. It involved MIT, UT, UH, and A&M professors giving a really well-rounded introduction to everything that is necessary for a startup to exist, especially in the field of climate change. It was really cool because it was hosted in Greentown Labs, which is a startup facility for these sorts of companies. For example, a couple of companies that started 3-4 years ago presented to us and that was really awesome. Some of them were in the energy field, others in carbon utilization, and I think overall, this opportunity further inspired us to pursue this path at some point. 

Question 2: You’ve had the opportunity to go to Iceland and see an actual product of the NET/DAC industry. As someone who has dedicated a lot of their time to learning about this industry, what was it like to see the actual implementation of it?

Micky: It was kinda strange. I went on a Sunday and there was almost nobody there. I was also on a bus tour with a bunch of people, so I asked the bus driver to stop at the plant. When I got there, there was a security guard who said ‘today’s Sunday, we’re not working today,’ so that was a little bit disappointing, but it was still really cool to see the scale of the place. You can clearly tell that these fans are massive. I saw both the Climeworks plant and the processing plant—the CarbFix plant—right next to it. That was very cool, but at the same time, they only capture 4,000 tonnes of CO2, which doesn’t feel like a lot. It’s definitely a great proof of concept, but they need a lot more work to have an impact. 

Also, Iceland is the perfect place to do it. They have a lot of geothermal energy, but it’s also sad to see that we can’t really do the same in the US because we need the capabilities, and the capabilities are just not there. I think overall, it just shows that we need to be more creative in terms of how we approach something like NETs because it’s not gonna be as easy as it was in Iceland. 

Question 3: Where do you hope to see this industry grow? I guess another way to ask is: we are going to be one of the largest generations working in this industry, so what do you hope it looks like for us? 

Micky: Honestly, I hope that it doesn’t become oil and gas. Right now, CCUS is a way for oil and gas companies to camouflage their impact, and if NETs are successful, they’re gonna be bought out by them. For example, Exxon invests a lot of money into NETs, and it’s great because it spurs a lot of innovation, but at the same time, they’re just gonna use this technology to keep producing. It’s no longer going to be straight negative emissions, it’s going to become a cycle—which is not terrible, but it’s not the point of NETs. I think, ideally, I’d like to see it become more of a governmental thing. This is the entire point of the Policy project—to push for political impact, and I think that would be much better because it would create regulations that would force other industries to apply these sorts of technologies. 

Right now, there’s a decent amount of companies that are not being funded by oil and gas, but they can only grow so much before they encounter the issue of being bought out by someone else. If you think of successful DAC companies, they are either in California or Europe, which goes to show that they’re a bit more liberal in the sense of “we actually care about this stuff.” Whereas, if you look at Texas, you have Carbon Engineering working with Occidental, a big oil and gas company. In the end, it’s all very location-based. California is a good example of what pushing for good policy entails, and if we can do that in other places in the US, we could achieve much more. 

I’m taking a class called Energy, Technology, and Policy next semester with Michael Webber, a really renowned professor here, and I’m very excited because something that impacted me at the TEX-E course was when a presenter said ‘an invention is nothing without commercializing it,’ and that’s super true. You can have a super cool invention, but if you don’t commercialize it well, it’s never going to work. The NET Project’s commercialization aspect is the Policy Project. I think overall, there’s a lot of collaboration not only between your technology, but also how you sell it. 

Question 4: The climate crisis is very broad and a variety of groups and organizations are working to advocate in different ways. In your opinion, what is the most effective way to get people involved in projects such as the NET Project?

Micky: That’s a question that we’ve been struggling with the past year and a half. Tabling on Speedway is hard because you can yell out that the planet is dying, and like, three-fourths of people are just not gonna care. That’s ok, I mean that’s a part of it. In the end, it’s just about targeting the right people. If you go to McCombs, it’s going to be hard to get any sort of attention, but if you go to a sustainability major, these people are already a little invested and are actually going to put effort into whatever you propose to them. At the same time, you do want to capture some sort of attention in the wider aspect of things. 

I don’t know if I can give you a straight answer because I genuinely don’t know how to approach this. I want to say that being direct when you speak about climate change and being unbiased and straightforward about why something like NETs is necessary is an effective way to approach this. 

Question 5: What do you recommend for people who are interested in learning about a subject that is not particularly taught in their classes, but they have a lot of interest in? Feel free to share within the context of NET or anything else. 

Micky: I think it’s a partial responsibility. I mean, we are university students, so I feel like every single course that you can apply a little bit of sustainable material should have at least one topic to address it. I took a class on lubricants and friction, and it was not the most interesting class, but at the end of the semester, we did a one-week recap on how this benefits sustainable projects and how you can optimize mechanical components so that they waste less energy.

Going back to McCombs, let’s say you’re taking a class on the legal environment of business. Having the professor talk about how you could apply it to some sort of environmental project would be nice, and this could be more generic towards sustainable topics in general. 

In terms of NETs, I think that it’s difficult to access information since not many people know about it yet. There’s a recent among of forums out there now that explain them in a very basic sense and can be more in-depth if you want them to be. I think that it’s very much up to the individual to look up stuff at some point. I don’t know another way you would approach it without telling someone ‘go learn about NETs’ without them knowing anything beforehand. That’s the point of the website. We have fairly good resources, and if you know nothing at this point and read through it for twenty minutes, you would be fairly well-versed on what NETs are. I think it’s a combination of individuals wanting to learn and someone, like a university or government, putting out ads to teach you a little bit about it as well. 

Question 6: NETs have a wide umbrella of technologies under their belt, which one is your favorite and why? Which one do you think will go the furthest?

Micky: My favorite is mineralization. There’s something about nature having its own way to help out naturally. When you expose ultramafic rock to CO2 and it solidifies—that’s awesome. You don’t even need to tweak anything, it just naturally happens. However, it is very zone-specific because you need to find the magnesium to react. You would need to go to places like Oman or reservoirs around the US, so mineralization is not very accessible. It might be my favorite, but I don’t think it’s the one that has the most future. 

I think that point-source carbon capture and redirecting that carbon somewhere where you can utilize it for other mechanical systems could be huge because you’re not only capturing the carbon at the source, but also reusing it somewhere very close to the source. I can’t say for certain that it’s going to be something big, but I hope it is. 

Question 7: Has this project changed your post-college plans? What do you hope to do after you graduate? Has the NET P steered you in a particular direction?

Micky: This summer, I worked for oil and gas in the middle of nowhere, and I thought I was ready to work for all of my life. During my junior year, I was like ‘I’m done with school,’ and although I knew that working for that specific company wasn’t something that I wanted, I wanted the experience to be in an industrial setting as a mechanical engineer. Then, I worked and I had this moment of ‘I stand with nothing that this company does….and I also don’t really want to start working just yet.’ I got into a niche thing in college—that being NETs—and so I thought ‘why don’t I pursue this in a more academic setting,’ so I’ve been applying to a bunch of master’s programs. 

Sara: That’s exciting!

Micky: Yeah, I’m super excited. None of the programs are NET-specific because that doesn’t really exist yet, but they’re all very much on the renewable side of things. Also, some of the courses that they offer are in the utilization aspect, and there are some carbon capture topics. 

Sara: Do you think that grad school is necessary to go into this industry?

Micky: Not at all. I listened to this podcast called Reversing Climate Change by Nori. They interview people from all over, and honestly most of the people that they have interviewed studied something like communications and are now working for Charm or Heirloom, and they are doing great. I absolutely don’t think it’s necessary to get a master’s, or even a degree in something like environmental studies. There are a lot of approaches to land on the same field. 

Sara: I think I would like to grad school at some point, I don’t know if it will be right after college though.

Micky: That’s a really good point. We had an expo about a month ago and at that point, I was like ‘I don’t know what I want to do with my future.’ I interviewed with this big materials company and halfway through it, I thought ‘What am I doing? I don’t care about materials.” That was my ‘Aha!’ moment. I want to do something that I like, and renewables and NETs are what I’m passionate about. If I’m going to be working on this for the rest of my life, that would make me happier. 

Question 8: Do you have any book/podcast recommendations that talk about the NET space?

Micky: For podcasts, Reversing Climate Change by Nori. Other podcasts are very sporadic and don’t have much structure. This one is about two years old and is very specific to the carbon removal space, so that’s my best recommendation. I’ve also read the CDR Primer. 

S: The whole thing??

Micky: Yeah, the last three weeks of my internship didn’t have much purpose, so to use my time wisely, I went through the primer. It’s good, but it’s a bit dense. It’s not super digestible if you don’t know anything. That’s why I recommend the podcast by Nori, because it describes the technologies in a very digestible sense, and it gives you a good idea of how many people are involved in the NET space. I’ve also gotten a couple of presenters from there! Do you remember Carbon Upcycling? They did cement stuff in Canada. I really liked the company and so I asked them to come present. It has been good for networking. 

Sara: Ah, the hidden side of engineering.

Micky: Maybe it’s being on the admin side of the organization, but I feel like I’ve become much better at reaching out to people and being a little more extroverted with strangers. That’s an added plus of leading NETs. 

Question 9: What’s a goal that you have for this project this year? What’s a goal that you have for the project that you hope will be accomplished even after you graduate? 

Micky: Honestly, I hope that it stays alive and has a similar impact in the future. That’s something that Ben and I have been worried about for a while. We don’t really know who’s going to take over. We are a small org—we get around 30 people per meeting—so if it could stay like that 5-10 years from now, that would be awesome. I would really want to see that.

Closing Thoughts

Going into next semester, the NET Project has been working to approach the commercialization of this technology using ideas influenced by grassroots movements. Establishing strong ties within a well-educated group of people at a local level allows for a more impactful call to action, which can slowly begin to spread beyond local lines. Citizen Advocacy Day was a great proof of concept to reach out to a more diverse group of students and help them get involved in the democratic process to call for the support of the Carbon Dioxide Removal Leadership Act. When reflecting on these past two years, Micky said “three years ago, it’s not that I didn’t care about the environment, but it was not my thing.” After Ben pitched him the idea of helping him lead the project, he recalls that he didn’t know what it would mean for him, but decided to go for it. He concluded with “three years later, it’s what I want my career to be. This project gave my life a little more direction than being a mechanical engineer working on cars.” 

What Micky and Ben have been able to create and accomplish with this organization is very admirable, and I don’t doubt that many of our members share this sentiment. The NET Project has grown into an organization that fosters ingenuity, curiosity, and community, and I’m very excited to see where it will go from here. 

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