By Tracy Keeling
Developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) capacity is a key feature of the UK’s strategy to reduce emissions and hit its climate targets. And as the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted, emissions pathways that limit global warming to 2°C or below generally assume that some form of carbon dioxide removal, such as CCS, is necessary, alongside reducing emissions.
A number of big polluters, including fossil fuel companies, support and are involved in the UK’s CCS plans.
But the recent failure of the Gorgon project in Western Australia to meet its five-year CCS target shows that storing carbon is no small feat.
Gorgon is led by U.S. oil major Chevron, in partnership with other fossil fuel giants. But, as the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis’ energy finance analyst Bruce Robertson told DeSmog, even they “haven’t been able to get it right”.
Chevron reportedly only managed to store around 30 percent of the CO2 it removed from gas reservoirs over the five year period. Its target was 80 percent.
CCS initiatives are no stranger to failure. A project capturing emissions from coal production at the Petra Nova plant in Texas was shuttered in 2020 following numerous problems and missed targets.
CCS technology has been under discussion and development for decades and governments are increasingly relying on it to meet their climate goals. But, according to a report by researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, by early 2021 there were only 26 CCS plants operating around the world, capturing 0.1 percent of global yearly CO2 emissions at most. And most of the CO2 captured to date has been used to dig up more oil through Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR).
Robertson warned that CCS could also pose difficulties for future generations. That’s because it involves storing CO2 in deep underground formations on land or at sea, such as depleted oil and gas reservoirs or saline aquifers. To do so requires wells to inject carbon into the chosen repositories. Depleted reservoirs may already have multiple wells attached to them that companies used in prior oil and gas extraction operations. Meaning, the more wells attached — either for past extraction or to inject carbon — the greater the potential for emissions to leak out.
Robertson said he finds this “tremendously problematic” because “wells fail and they fail all the time”.
Integrity failure rates for oil and gas wells can range between 1.4 percent and 75 percent., according to a 2014 study. The Aliso Canyon disaster is a dramatic example of what can happen when they fail at storage sites: After a corroded well lining led to a leak at the Californian natural gas underground repository in 2015, over 97,000 metric tons of stored methane escaped into the atmosphere. So rather than being a permanent solution to polluting industries’ emissions problem, Robertson argued that CCS is “transferring a problem from this generation to the next one” by placing “carbon bombs underground” that are “waiting for the fuse to go off”.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) told DeSmog that the UK’s CCS projects will face rigorous safety assessments that “show there is no significant risk of CO2 leakage or damage to human health or the environment”.
Storing carbon underground, however, is incredibly challenging. This proved to be a major stumbling block at Gorgon, despite Chevron having studied the issue since 1998. Robertson explained that CCS “is, in an engineering sense, difficult” and not a “cookie cutter” technology because the geology that each project is working with is different. One of the issues Gorgon faced, for example, was wells getting clogged up with sand from water it needed to extract from the storage reservoir.
On the company’s difficulties, Chevron Australia managing director Mark Hatfield said: “Like any pioneering endeavour, it takes time to optimise a new system to ensure it performs reliably over 40-plus years of operation”.
He continued: “The road hasn’t always been smooth, but the challenges we’ve faced – and overcome – make it easier for those who aspire to reduce their emissions through CCS”.
The UK’s CCS hopes, meanwhile, lie heavily in storing CO2 in saline aquifers in the North Sea. But a 2014 research paper suggested that due to how carbon interacts with certain rock formations, not all such aquifers are necessarily effective for storing it. Moreover, responsibly storing CO2 offshore would require costly monitoring of the seabed structure to ensure it doesn’t have vulnerabilities, such as fractures, that threaten the repository’s security.
So not only is CCS technically difficult, it’s also expensive. Chevron’s storage costs at Gorgon have surpassed $3bn (AUD). Adopting this technology therefore adds significant costs to fossil energy production when it’s applied to that industry. Robertson also pointed out that renewable energy and battery costs — fossil fuel’s competitors — are “experiencing incredible cost price deflation”, arguing that using CCS in fossil power generation “makes no economic sense”.
The UK’s CCS plans, which are backed with at least £1bn of public funding, include deploying the technology in gas power production and high emissions industries, such as steel and cement, which have few other ways to decarbonize their operations. It also aims to utilise captured carbon in some manufacturing processes. In a statement, a BEIS spokesperson said that “Carbon Capture Usage and Storage is a key emerging technology that will help to meet our world-leading climate commitments and is described by the Climate Change Committee as a necessity, not an option”.
But Cambridge University’s professor of engineering and the environment, Julian Allwood, told DeSmog that the UK should instead “close anything that causes emissions by its chemistry, electrify all forms of energy use, and then halve our demand for electricity as we won’t have as much as we’d like”.
Allwood co-authored a 2019 report titled Absolute Zero, which called for the “rapid contraction” of industries like cement and shipping rather than relying on “breakthrough technologies” like CCS. It also asserted that fossil fuels need to be rapidly reduced by 2030, and completely phased out thereafter.
Many scientists, campaigners, and the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, have argued that the road to decarbonisation lies in ending fossil fuel production. Meanwhile, a report by multiple campaign groups in June criticised CCS, describing it as “the proposition by Big Polluters that it’s ok to continue to pollute”.
As Allwood said, while CCS “may in future help us cope with climate change”, with just “29 years left to deliver on zero emissions targets”, we need to “act now with technologies that are already mature”.