Despite our awareness that burning fossil fuels is the biggest driver of climate change, CO2 emissions likely increased by another 1.0% in 2022, hitting a new record high of 36.6bn tonnes. While certainly it would be better to switch to low or no-carbon energy sources, another potential solution, one mainly championed by the oil and gas industry, is to capture as much CO2 as possible and store it underground. Though scientists begrudgingly accept that some mixture of carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems will need to be deployed to avoid dangerous global heating, to date it’s unclear if the technology actually works. Worse, the vast majority of operating CCS plants actually use captured CO2 to produce more oil. But seen as critical to the emerging hydrogen economy as well as solving climate change, with dozens of new CCS projects announced worldwide this year, in this three-part series, lead blogger and podcaster Michael Buchsbaum reviews the scene.
Global CCS capacity grows 44%
With 61 new facilities added to the project pipeline through October 2022, the CO2 capture capacity of all CCS facilities under development worldwide has risen to a potential 244 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) – a growth of 44% over the past 12 months, according to the industry-backed Global CCS Institute (GCCSI).
Their recently published Global Status of CCS 2022 report states that 196 commercial CCS facilities were at the time in the project pipeline, including 30 projects in operation, 11 under construction and 153 in various stages of development.
Combined, using their figures, various CCS systems worldwide now have the nameplate capacity to store a little more than 42 mt of CO2 annually – on first glance, about one one-thousandth of what goes up into the sky.
Supporters hail CCS as a solution to emissions problems for a range of industries, from fossil fuel-burning electricity generation plants to industrial facilities that produce cement, steel, iron, chemicals and fertilizer.
The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Energy Technologies Perspectives report, published in 2020, emphasizes the role of CCS and carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) in the clean energy transition. The IEA’s seminal Net Zero 2050 report, published in 2021, had similar messaging.
The two reports, with strong backing from the global oil and gas sectors, helped rejuvenate the argument for CCUS/CCS as a climate solution.
In recent reporting, the IEA now says annual carbon capture capacity needs to increased to 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2030 to align with a net zero by 2050 pathway.
So far, CCS has found its greatest success by being adopted by oil and fossil gas producers, as well as methanol and ethanol facilities, particularly in North America where 18 of the 30 currently operating commercial facilities are situated.
Industry developers have also sited large CCS facilities in Brazil, China, Australia, Europe and the Middle East.
Many climate-focused groups worry that the petro-chemical industry’s on-going media campaign promoting C.C.S. is becoming another chapter in their decades-long environmental disinformation fight.
Now, instead of spreading doubt about climate science, petro-chemical industries are spreading false confidence about how we can continue to burn fossil fuels while “cutting” emissions by essentially burying them underground.
Two critically overlooked questions about CCS revolve neither around feasibility nor costs, but where to place all that captured CO2 and then what to do with it.
Many media articles fail to mention that both historically and currently, the greatest use of CO2 has been to help accelerate oil production.
Since the early 1970s, oil engineers at ExxonMobil have been sending CO2 under high pressure back into wells after realizing that the gas acts as a way to increase production, a technique called enhanced oil recovery (EOR).
Today, EOR projects use about 73% of the CO2 captured annually — roughly 28 million tons.
After capture, this CO2 is reinjected into oil fields to push more oil out of the ground, – a practice producers increasingly label as “low-carbon recovery.”
Used industry-wide, EOR on average enables producers to force up another two barrels of crude oil for every ton of CO2 sent underground. (Note, some producers use a mixture of gasses, polymers and other substances for their EOR operations).
Since 1972, according to ExxonMobil, the company has stored 120MT of CO2, far more than any other single entity.
Though accounting for some 40% of the total anthropogenic CO2 that humans have captured, critically, virtually none of this was captured in order to sequester a dangerous greenhouse gas, but to produce more dangerous pollutants.
CCS operations are currently concentrated in the fossil gas processing sector where facilities refine “crude” gas by separating the carbon dioxide from methane to purify the product for sale into the global marketplace. And around 80–90% of all captured carbon in the gas sector is used for EOR.
This is the case for Brazil’s Petrobras Santos Basin CCS facility. Capable of capturing 7 million tons of CO2 annually, it’s the largest CCS operation outside North America, and by far the biggest operation throughout the “Global South.” And all of what’s captured is used for enhanced oil recovery.
To be sure, not all CCS plants use or sell the CO2 they capture for EOR. Many plants, particularly outside North America, inject it underground in saline aquifers or other deep deposits.
This is the case in Norway, where its state-owned oil-producer, now called “Equinor”, became an earlier adopter. But again, the effort was not simply climate driven, but as a way to help process fossil gas into a pipeline-ready commodity suitable for usage, i.e., burning.
“The two most successful projects are in the gas processing sector – Sleipner and Snøhvit in Norway. This is mostly due to the country’s unique regulatory environment for oil and gas companies,” says Milad Mousavian, co-author of a new report on CCS by think-tank IEFFA.
Analyzing 13 flagship large-scale (CCS/CCUS) projects in the gas, industrial and power sectors in terms of their history, economics and performance, the IEEFA’s new The Carbon Capture Crux – Lessons Learned report does find “some indication” that CCS might have a role to play in hard-to-abate sectors such as cement, fertilisers and steel.
However, “overall results indicate a financial, technical and emissions-reduction framework that continues to overstate and underperform,” says co-author and noted CCS expert, Bruce Robertson.
“Governments globally are looking for quick solutions to the current energy and ongoing climate crisis, but unwittingly latching onto CCS as a fix is problematic,” Robertson continued.
Vital role to whom?
Outside of the Western Hemisphere, the largest currently operating CCS project is in Australia.
Processing locally produced fossil gas, the Gorgon project, operated by Chevron, has been sputtering along since 2019.
With a purported capacity to store up to 4 million tons of CO2 per year and a legally binding commitment to capture 80% of emissions, it has by all accounts failed spectacularly.
Nevertheless, during the summer of 2022, the Australian government approved two new massive offshore greenhouse gas storage areas, saying CCS “has a vital role to play” to help the country meet its net zero targets.
In the next few blogs, we’ll take a deeper look at CCS efforts throughout North America, the Middle East and Europe and try to determine who’s benefiting from CCS projects so far.