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Practical Magic

Alphabet, Meta and others are paying $58.3 million to bury sludge

Corporate buyers’ group Frontier contracts with startup using deep wells to store waste that would otherwise emit methane or CO2.

Vaulted Deep Well Head

The Vaulted Deep well head in Kansas. Source: Vaulted Deep

A corporate buyers group founded by Alphabet, Meta, Shopify and Stripe disclosed a $58.3 million contract to bury waste sludge in deep underground wells to prevent it from emitting carbon dioxide and methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more potent than CO2.

The agreement provides for the equivalent of 152,480 metric tons of carbon dioxide to be stored between 2024 and 2027 — starting with 20,000 tons this year. The companies will count credits related to the stored CO2 toward their net-zero goals.

The buyers' group, Frontier, was founded in 2022 with an advance commitment from its founding companies to buy nearly $1 billion of carbon removal. Frontier will use Vaulted Deep, a Houston startup spun out of an industrial waste management company, among other companies it is backing.

Companies that produce sludgy organic waste such as manure, inedible food and paper pulp usually pay to have it hauled away. This type of waste is typically spread out over land or incinerated — generating CO2 and methane emissions.

Vaulted Deep, however, injects the waste into underground wells certified for this use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Frontier vets potential contracts for permanence and only supports projects verified to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for at least 1,000 years.

A startup with 10 years of experience

The carbon removal company was spun out of Advantek Waste Management, which has a 10-year history of clearing sludge from oil and gas sites. "Vaulted is extremely compelling because of how quickly they execute, because of the infrastructure partnerships they bring together and because of the abundance of the feedstock," said Hannah Bebbington, strategy lead at Frontier.

Frontier was Vaulted Deep’s first customer in September, with a pilot purchase of 1,666 tons of carbon removal. The carbon removal credits related to that test were delivered in under five months, inspiring this larger purchase, Bebbington said.

While the per-ton price wasn’t disclosed, the average price implied under the contract is less than $400 per ton, and "there’s a believable path to well under $100 per ton" by the end of the decade. "We think it is a high-potential approach," she said.

Big potential for biomass burial

Vaulted Deep’s method is known as biomass carbon removal and storage (or BiCRS, pronounced "bikers"), which some estimates suggest could facilitate up to 5 gigatons of carbon removal globally, every year. 

Biomass disposal can be controversial because of the potentially negative impact on communities and food systems — it is often burned or spread on land, where it can contaminate groundwater supplies. As a guide for other companies considering biomass carbon removal, Frontier published the selection criteria it used when negotiating the Vaulted Deep contract.

The Frontier commitment will support the commissioning of three new wells, in addition to two existing ones in California and Kansas. Vaulted Deep has the potential to expand operations to many U.S. states because more than 650,000 locations across the U.S. potentially qualify as well sites, according to the EPA.

The price tag for the Vaulted agreement tops Frontier’s $57.1 million contract with Lithos Carbon, making it the group’s biggest public deal yet by dollar value. That company developed a method of removing CO2 by spreading crushed rock on soil.

Frontier previously signed a $53 million contract with Charm Industrial, which converts agricultural waste into a bio-oil that is also injected into wells, to remove 112,000 metric tons of CO2.

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