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When teachers look into the eyes of students, we see a lot. Where they come from, where they are going, what subjects excite them.

At West Virginia University, where we are privileged to teach, we see students who come from generations of hard-working families. The jobs held by their grandparents and parents helped pave the road to higher education for today’s students. The only question left is where the road will take them. Our job as educators is to help them from A to B — from excitement about a dream to fulfillment of a reality.

Today at WVU, innovation is the dream. But innovation needs research and development, and research and development needs dollars. Right now, our leaders in Congress can make dreams come true, and in doing so, grow the prosperity of West Virginians.

The latest innovation is our work to stand up a new industry, and the jobs it will create, through carbon dioxide removal (CDR). CDR, which removes excess carbon from the air, is emerging as a critical set of technologies that can benefit the environment while adding good-paying jobs and opportunities to grow wealth. CDR comes in two forms—natural and technological—and West Virginia is perfectly positioned to lead on both.

Trees naturally capture and store carbon, and you can see their potential not just on our beautifully leafy campus, but everywhere in the Mountain State—the third most forested state in our nation. Managing our forests to draw down more carbon is a massive opportunity to help build wealth, particularly among rural West Virginians. WVU’s research shows about half of our state’s forest landowners prefer to maintain forest land “as is” or encourage its use by wildlife, so it’s an opportunity experts expect will be harnessed.

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With technology-based CDR, cutting-edge direct air capture extracts excess carbon directly from the air and permanently removes it by storing it safely underground. West Virginia is perfectly positioned to be a leader in building it out. Because of West Virginia’s long history in subsurface coal mining, oil and gas, we have the physical and human infrastructure that could—with additional investment—take advantage of abandoned mines, deep subsurface geological formations, well and pipeline infrastructure, drilling equipment and skilled workers to advance this new industry. And we have the technical expertise needed to harness it—not just here at WVU, but at our neighbors, the National Energy Technology Laboratory and Marshall University.

Economists forecast that direct air capture technology would bring thousands of long-term, family-supporting jobs to our coal communities—which is why it is supported by members of the labor community, including the AFL-CIO and the United Mine Workers of America. But West Virginia isn’t the only state with this potential. Other states are planning to stand up their own CDR industry, so we have to act now to seize the opportunity. With home-grown leadership coming from state-based experts, and students learning from them at campuses like WVU to lead us into the future, West Virginia can be a “first mover” and leapfrog other states to become an innovation hub.

The only “if” is whether our representatives in Washington can secure research and development investment to help those students gain the knowledge and skills needed, so that as they emerge, so does West Virginia’s future workforce. Here at WVU, our Bridge Initiative for Science and Technology Policy, Leadership, and Communications is kicking off a study on CDR opportunities in West Virginia, but we need federal support for the research, development, and demonstration projects to advance our efforts.

Our Congressional delegation, including Senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., along with Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., have been strong champions of CDR. Given that it holds so much promise for the prosperity of West Virginians, we urge them to deepen this support by going beyond deployment and also invest in research and development for CDR.

Carbon dioxide removal is an essential building block of America’s future innovation economy. With more support for West Virginia’s research institutions, we can make it a reality, and reap the benefits that come with being an innovation leader.

Shikha Sharma, Ph.D is a Professor in Geology. Edward Brzostek, Ph.D is an Associate Professor in Biology and a Bridge Initiative Faculty Fellow. They both teach at West Virginia University.

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