There has been a lot of hype around carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in the last few years. Many energy companies and governments have touted CCS as the potential savior of oil and gas in a decarbonized world. As political powers around the globe race to decarbonize their economies in the transition away from fossil fuels to green alternatives, CCS has been seen as a way of bridging the gap in the transition, as renewable energy operations continue to expand. CCS technologies are being incorporated into oil and gas projects to help reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere, allowing energy firms to continue producing fossil fuels while the global demand remains high. While many see this as a necessary move to maintain energy security, others believe CCS is just another form of greenwashing, helping to delay the inevitable shift to real green.
Both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) have highlighted the use of CCS technology in oil and gas projects as important for emissions reduction, a necessary stage in the transition to clean energy. It is seen as an easy way to reduce emissions while still providing the energy needed to meet the global demand before enough renewable energy projects are in operation to supply this energy. However, as the public is being told that CCS will help decarbonize operations, few questions are being asked about the scale of this technology and its ability to remove carbon effectively.
National decarbonization aims and carbon taxes have put pressure on oil and gas firms to make a change, with many quickly investing in CCS technology to ensure they can keep running their fossil fuel operations. But now experts are worried that people are seeing CCS as a silver bullet to climate change, with its use for decarbonization having been highly exaggerated. A 2022 report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) revealed that CCS projects were underperforming, with significant challenges in terms of the technology and regulatory framework. The analysis of several projects showed that approximately 90 percent of the proposed CCS capacity in the power sector has not been realized, and many projects fail to achieve their anticipated maximum capture rates.
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Bruce Robertson, an author of the report, stated “Many international bodies and national governments are relying on carbon capture in the fossil fuel sector to get to net zero, and it simply won’t work.” He added, “Although it might have a role to play in hard-to-abate sectors such as cement, fertilisers and steel, overall results indicate a financial, technical and emissions-reduction framework that continues to overstate and underperform.”
In 2019, there were 59 CCS plants in operation worldwide, capable of removing over 40 million tonnes of CO2 on an annual basis. This was just a fraction of the carbon that was being released each year, which amounted to around 43 billion tonnes, or 1,000 times more. In addition, the high cost of CCS technology has long deterred many companies from using the decarbonization method more widely.
CCS has existed since the 1970s, although it was previously called enhanced oil recovery. But seeing the potential for CCS to be viewed as a mechanism for climate change action, it was rebranded by energy firms as ‘carbon capture utilization and storage’. Yet, in 2022, around 70 percent of CCS projects used captured CO2 to support the production of more oil and gas.
In Port Isabel, Texas, climate activists are now campaigning against a $10 billion project to export liquefied natural gas, Rio Grande LNG. The developer, NextDecade, has labeled the plant the “greenest LNG project in the world”, thanks to the incorporation of CCS technology into operations. But environmentalists say that calling the project ‘clean’ is an outright lie and a clear case of greenwashing. NextDecade plans to construct one of the biggest CCS systems in North America, to remove 5 million tonnes of CO2 a year, reducing its emissions from gas cooling by around 90 percent. However, gas cooling only accounts for between 6% and 7% of the plant’s emissions, meaning that a large quantity of waste CO2 is not being accounted for.
And despite high hopes for CCS in the transition to green, at least in the mid-term, environmentalists worldwide are now worried that as Big Oil declines, another giant industry – that continues to contribute to climate change – will emerge. One media outlet said that “Big Oil has given way to Big Suck.” And of course, there is wide public support for a technology that’s being viewed as a major decarboniser that helps boost the world’s energy security. As CCS continues to be used to support the provision of lower-carbon fossil fuels, which are still in high demand, it is unlikely that governments will demonize its use. However, it should be viewed as a temporary solution rather than a long-term fix in the transition to green, to avoid the longevity of oil and gas operations beyond their need.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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