Carbon Capture and Storage: The Key to Stopping Climate Change?

The last few years have seen remarkable strides being made in the field of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology and have seen it touted as the ‘magic bullet’ in helping to halt climate change. In particular, the oil and gad industry have seen it as the best way forward to reduce fossils fuel emissions, whilst making sure that energy demand is met. Oil and Gas UK, the professional representative body of the industry have said in their Vision 2035 that “ developing and commercialising low carbon technologies, including carbon capture usage and storage” is going to be key part of the sector’s development over the next 15 years, as buy building on already existing technology, oil and gas companies can become leaders in the field of stopping climate change. CCS is undoubtedly going to play a large part in our efforts to combat climate change, but is it the catch-all solution that some have promised?

CCS is based on the principle of capturing large CO2 emissions at their source, and when being used for purely environmental purposes, and storing it in a isolated location where it cannot be released into the atmosphere. It is worth noting that small-scale CCS technology has been used for decades to increase their production levels, but recently it has been developing towards solely reducing emissions. CO2 can be captured pre- or post-combustion, allowing it to be applied to both hydrocarbon production, and fertilizer-based fuels. Post-combustion is the method most favoured by the oil and gas industry, as it can be easily retrofitted into existing technology. Once captured, it is proposed that the CO2 is transported to be stored in underground geological formations, such as used gas fields, or unmineable coal seams. This ‘geo-sequestration’ is aimed at not only reducing atmospheric carbonisations, but at lowering marine levels as well.

There are a number of startups that have been developing this technology, but this year has seen a large swing behind it from the giants of oil and gas. Smaller companies such as Carbon Engineering, founded in 2009, have been working to develop the existing technology from what is already integral in fossil fuel processes. Their method is to capture atmospheric CO2 in a solution to produce a liquid that is rich in carbon dioxide, which can be sold and used in industrial applications or permanently sequestered deep underground. This is just one example of how CCS has been grown by independent companies, and now with increasing political pressure to cut carbon emissions bigger companies have begun to take advantage of this groundwork. Oil and Gas UK have been mentioned above, but there are other significant ones. The largest CCS pilot project is currently being run by Shell in Alberta, Canada, which aims to capture and store over a million tonnes of CO2 annually. It is undoubtedly to the credit of companies like Shell that they have committed so strongly to implementing carbon capture technology in an effort to reduce their carbon emissions, but it this path is not without its critics.

The technology itself has come under some fire. Simon Lewis in the Guardian has written that “negative emissions (CCS) are treated as a “get out of jail free” card – a licence to keep emitting and clean up the mess later,” and this argument has some merit. The Vision 2035 mentioned above has laid out the UK oil and gas industry could continue to produce at its maximum level alongside trying to implement CCS technology, arguing that one will offset the other. That they are seeking to develop the technology on a national scale is admirable, but it should not be used as an excuse to ignore any other way of cutting emissions. Oil and gas have their place in a diverse energy economy, but if companies are truly serious about combatting climate change, they will need to accept a larger share of renewable power. CSS may not be the magic bullet the industry claim, but it should be at the heart of what they produce going forward. What cannot happen is for them to kick the can down the road with the promise of more going forward. CCS should be integrated as soon as possible, and if it is the oil and gas industry can be transformed.