Flatlining: the vital signs of carbon capture and storage

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If a flat line is indicative of a lifeless state, it is apt that this is how Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is represented in the Government’s latest projections for the technology. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s 2016 forecast (released this March) shows no capacity added until well into the 2030s, leaving CCS plotting a horizontal course on the graph at the decidedly comatose 0GW.

UK Government projections for CCS. Source: Carbon Brief, 2017 (https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-dramatic-shift-uk-government-outlook-gas-clean-energy)

The process of capturing CO2 from combustion and permanently storing it appears indefinitely dormant after the Government withdrew £1billion set aside to fund large-scale CCS demonstration projects. The decision, made by the Treasury in 2015, had a “devastating” effect on the industry, scaring off investors and halting progress towards commercial deployment.

Beyond the UK, the picture is almost as moribund. In 2009, Barack Obama’s energy secretary said he hoped the US would have up to 10 coal-fired plants with carbon capture in 2016. As it happened there were none, only two this year and there are no others on the horizon. Worldwide there are only 16 commercial scale projects.

And this is despite CCS having no shortage of champions. In September last year, the Parliamentary Advisory Group on CCS produced a 67-page report entitled Lowest Cost Decarbonisation for the UK: The Critical Role of CCS. In April this year, the Public Accounts Committee lambasted the Government in another report for its failure to support CCS, claiming the position will cost taxpayers billions. Throughout, the Government’s statutory climate change advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change, has said the same thing: that the cost of meeting the UK target of an 80% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050 could almost double without CCS. This is because without it reductions are needed using more expensive measures, such as fully decarbonising surface transport and powering industrial processes with low-carbon electricity. No CCS also means no BECCS – the negative emissions technology which stores biofuel emissions and is seen as critical to global mitigation efforts. The IPCC even goes as far as saying that limiting warming to 2C may even be impossible without CCS.

There is still hope though, despite policy makers refusal to heed this advice. At an energy conference in Houston last month, altogether different CCS champions – the world’s largest oil, gas and coal companies – pledged to slash the costs of extracting CO2 from fossil fuel energy. And some of the world’s biggest oil companies plan to invest $1billion over the next 10 years to develop CCS technologies.

Unsurprisingly, the motive at work is largely self-interest. The fossil fuel industry hopes to achieve a Manhattan Project-style breakthrough in CCS technology to safeguard their business in the face of rising penalties on carbon and hardening public attitudes to dirty fuels, according to The Telegraph. The most desperate are those for whom the writing is already on the wall. In its response to the Government’s consultation on phasing out coal earlier this year, the UK coal lobbyist CoalIMP pleads over several hundred words that “a strong case still exists for new coal-fired CCS”.

Besides self-preservation, the fossil fuel industry likes CCS because it can use captured CO2 to extract more fuel. It is no accident that the world’s largest CCS project, Texas’s $1billion Petra Nova scheme which began operating in January, uses the CO2 for oil production, pumping it into the reservoir to push out more of the liquid.

Yet even support from mighty fossil fuel firms won’t be enough to create a thriving CCS industry. Oil firms may have pledged to invest $1billion in CCS but Shell’s capex budget for 2016 alone was $29billion. When you unpick the numbers it appears the hydrocarbon firms are not that concerned about having to curb emissions in a world with no carbon price and where energy demand is expected to increase by 30% by 2040.

It also doesn’t help that some prominent supporters of action on climate change are at best lukewarm about CCS. In his 2009 book Our Choice, former US vice president and mitigation advocate Al Gore, argued that overcoming the economic and technical challenges of deploying CCS at scale was little more than a pipe dream. Similarly, Bill McKibben, who leads anti-carbon campaign group 350.org, has said: “I’ve never met anyone who thinks [CCS] will actually play a serious part in dealing with our crisis.”

Judging by the spirit-level progress of CCS on the DBEIS graph, the “anyone” McKibben refers to includes UK policy makers. As Howard Herzog, CCS researcher at MIT, says, these are ultimately the people with the power to animate CCS through subsidies, enforced emission limits, a workable cap-and-trade scheme, or a carbon tax. The line confidently plateauing into the distance suggests two things: that policy makers know they possess the power of life over CCS, and that they have no plans to use it.

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