For decades, the fossil fuel industry has pointed to a technology known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS, as a way to tackle the planet-heating emissions caused by burning coal, oil and natural gas.
First developed by West Texas oilmen in the early 1970s, the approach works by capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from industrial sites before the gas is released into the atmosphere, then pumping it into geological formations where it should – in theory – remain locked away forever.
So far, CCS has mostly been used to recover CO2 from oilwells, then inject it back underground to help squeeze more output from depleted fields in a process known as Enhanced Oil Recovery.
Now, proponents of the technology are promoting a much more ambitious vision for CCS – arguing that a massive, worldwide rollout across polluting sectors could play a vital role in averting catastrophic climate change.
While many climate scientists have reservations about CCS, the crisis has now grown so acute that almost all the net zero pathways modeled by the U.N.-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) envision huge deployments of the technology by mid-century.
Governments have also embraced the prospect that CCS could be a cost-effective means for reducing emissions without disrupting fossil fuel-based economies. In August, 2022, the Biden administration increased an Obama-era tax credit for storing carbon – known as 45Q – as part of its climate-focused Inflation Reduction Act. The European Union, UK, Canada, Australia, Norway, Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia and other countries are also backing CCS. Abu Dhabi, host of the next round of annual UN climate talks, known as COP28, in November, made a big show of CCS during the last round of talks in Egypt.
There’s one glaring problem, however: So far there are few indications that industry or governments are prepared to take on the gargantuan task of deploying CCS on a scale that might matter to the climate.
“We Know How To Do This”
Advocates of the technology say that problem could be fixed, given enough political will, and that there is no realistic alternative for curbing emissions, short of the kind of moves to slash fossil fuel production that no government appears willing to take.
“The technology exists – what has always been lacking is effective policy,” Myles Allen, a professor of geosystems science at the University of Oxford, who co-authored a January, 2023 paper setting out how governments could enforce a “carbon takeback obligation” to require fossil fuel companies to deploy CCS to clean up their emissions.
“The failure has been policy, not technology – we know how to do this,” Allen told the Guardian.
But the enormous gap between current CCS deployment and what is required has reinforced long-standing concerns among critics. Many environmental groups, independent analysts and academic researchers see the technology as a “false solution” that serves primarily to allow oil and gas companies to appear to be taking climate change seriously – while continuing largely with business as usual.
Climate and energy analyst Ketan Joshi summarised many of the objections in an article published in November, 2022, entitled CCS Causes the problem it fails to solve.
“CCS offers a fantasy that speaks directly to the anxieties of everyone invested in the fossil fuel economy,” Joshi wrote. “Instead of having to deal with the horrific dual choice of either total transformation or total erasure, the greenhouse damage of their machines can simply be seized at the point of release and coolly popped into a nearby reservoir. No change, no existential dread, no questions asked.”
So how are plans for CCS evolving? And what are the risks?
Source (ABC Australia, 2012)
At the most basic level, CCS is the process of capturing and storing CO2 from large industrial sources before the gas is released into the atmosphere.
The CO2 is compressed into liquid state, and transported by pipeline, ship, or road tanker for storage. The liquid is then injected into storage sites typically made of porous rock formations with impermeable rocks above that ensure the CO2 remains stored over time. Sites include depleted oil and gas fields, coal-beds, or deep saline aquifers located deep underground.
As of November 2022, the total operational capacity of commercial CCS projects globally was about 42.5 million tonnes of CO2 per annum, according to the Global CCS Institute, an industry-backed think tank. That’s about 0.1% of the 36.6 gigatonnes of CO2 the world emitted in 2022.
What’s more, three-quarters of the CO2 that is captured is used for Enhanced Oil Recovery, according to a report by the nonprofit Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. That generates more oil and gas output – and thus makes the climate crisis worse.
From these tiny beginnings, the task of deploying CCS at the kind of scale envisaged in many climate models is staggering.
In the IEA’s net zero pathway, global CCS capacity is seen rising to 6,000 million tonnes by 2050 – a 141-fold increase relative to today.
The Global CCS Institute says that would imply building 70-100 new CCS facilities per year – at a total cost of $655 to $1,280 billion.
Looking at the problem another way, researchers have compared the task to creating a new industry two- to four-times larger than today’s oil and gas sector – which took a century to develop – within the next 35 years.
Proponents of the technology say that there’s only one institution in the world with the cash flow and expertise to make CCS count for the climate: The oil and gas industry. The question, on this reading, is how to persuade the industry to take on such a challenge. Fossil fuel executives, in turn, say they need more government support to take the technology to scale.
The slow progress in deploying CCS in the 50 years since the technology was developed underscores the difficulty of overcoming long-standing technical and economic challenges. A 2020 study found that more than 80% of planned CCS projects essential to commercialising the technology had ended in failure.
One of the industry’s highest profile misses occurred in Western Australia, where Chevron’s Gorgon project to capture CO2 released while pumping natural gas was billed as the biggest project of its kind in the world. Despite billions of dollars of investment, it failed to meet its target of capturing 80 percent of CO2 emissions from the reservoir.
Nevertheless, planned investment in CCS has expanded rapidly in recent years. In September 2022, the total capacity of commercial CCS projects in the pipeline reached 244 million tonnes per annum of CO2, an increase of 44% relative to the previous 12 months, according to the Global CCS Institute.
Even that increase is still nowhere near enough to put the world on track to building the level of CCS envisaged in climate models. And the majority of these planned projects are attached to fossil fuel-burning power plants, or designed to shave a tiny fraction off the emissions associated with projects to expand production of oil and gas.
Proponents of CCS point out that the technology could play a crucial role in decarbonising so-called hard-to-abate sectors such as cement, steel and chemicals that rely on carbon-intensive processes that cannot easily be replaced by switching to renewable energy.
But progress in that direction has also been slow.
European majors TotalEnergies, Shell and BP have joined forces in a Norway-backed venture known as Northern Lights to transport CO2 from European industry and bury it in disused oilfields under the North Sea — the first project of its kind in the world. The companies said they had made a commercial breakthrough in September 2022 when they signed a deal to store CO2 from fertiliser maker Yara’s Dutch operation, but the project still needs to find many more customers to be commercially viable.
Meanwhile, the companies behind the project continue to expand oil and gas production – despite warnings from climate scientists that there can be no new developments of fossil fuels if the world is to hold the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5C in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement. TotalEnergies is building a new oil pipeline through east Africa, and – like Shell and BP – continues to press ahead with developing new oil and gas fields.
“There will be some very hard to decarbonise sectors that still burn fossil fuels, so that’s where we’ll need CCS,” David Tong, global industry campaign manager at research and advocacy group Oil Change International, told DeSmog. “But fossil fuel companies are not looking at CCS for hard-to-decarbonise sectors. They’re looking at it as a way to prolong business as usual.”
Given the enormous cost of CCS projects, oil and gas companies are hoping other big polluters will help pay for them.
In June, 2021, TotalEnergies and Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, a subsidiary of U.S. driller Occidental Petroleum, teamed up with South Pole, Perspectives Climate Group and others to form the CCS+ Initiative industry coalition.
The goal is to create a standardised carbon accounting framework that will enable developers of CCS and other forms of carbon capture to sell carbon credits to other big polluters looking to offset some of their own emissions. Shell, BP and other oil companies have also joined the CCS+ Initiative, alongside much smaller companies pioneering technology to suck CO2 from the air – a process known as Direct Air Capture.
“What’s happened is that the fossil fuel industry has pivoted from climate denial to control of ‘solutions’,” said June Sekera, a visiting scholar at the New School for Social Research, and co-author of a 2020 report on the technical and economic limitations of carbon capture. “Fabrication of the devious idea of ‘carbon offset markets’ to finance carbon capture projects is the latest burgeoning manifestation of that strategy.”
To some segments of the oil industry, the advent of new carbon-sucking technologies represents the promise of future revenue streams in an increasingly carbon-constrained world.
In the United States, Occidental Petroleum says it plans to become the first American driller to transform itself into a “carbon management” company. Occidental says it aims to draw enough CO2 from the atmosphere to offset the emissions associated with producing and burning its newest product: “net zero-oil.”
Occidental’s 1PointFive unit announced in March 2022 that Airbus had agreed to purchase 400,000 tonnes of carbon credits generated by its first Direct Air Capture plant – which is due to go online in the next few years.
Critics point out that oil companies have been talking about building new business models based on capturing CO2 and financing projects via multi-billion-dollar carbon markets for 20 years without result. The latest round of hype is merely a distraction from the need to wind down the fossil fuel industry in time to preserve a habitable climate, they say.
In a report published in July 2021, the nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law laid out a range of objections to CCS, including the potential safety and environmetal dangers associated with building the thousands of kilometres of pipelines that would be needed to deploy the technology at scale.
The report noted that in February 2020, a 24-inch high-pressure pipeline containing CO2 and sulfur dioxide ruptured in Yazoo County, Mississippi, which led to more than 300 residents being evacuated from the area, and dozens hospitalized.
The report also flagged potential physical risks associated with CCS projects. Carbon dioxide stored underground has the potential to leak and contaminate groundwater. It can also induce seismic activity due to pressure built up from the large volume of CO2 injected underground. Stored CO2 could also impact the climate through slow or large releases of CO2 to the surface, further affecting soil, trees, and other vegetation.
“Carbon capture technology is super expensive, takes a long time to develop, and it’s inefficient. In what situation is that better than investing heavily in renewable energy, which is cheap and available?” Carsten Warnecke, a carbon market specialist at the NewClimate Institute think tank in Cologne, told DeSmog. “In the end, the only climate neutral gas or oil is the gas and oil that stays in the ground.”