Given that oil and gas producers dominate the sector, many environmental groups and civil society organizations suspect that investments in Carbon, Capture and Storage (CCS) are being used to divert attention and resources away from a quicker build-out of renewable energy systems and other proven methods of addressing climate change. At the end of 2022, as several of the world’s largest petrochemical firms announced ambitious CCS investment plans, the European Union finally released a draft of their proposed CCS framework. As lead blogger and podcaster Michael Buchsbaum discusses, hundreds of environmental, climate and civil society groups, including the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, immediately deemed it a “smokescreen for inaction.”
Saudi Aramco to create massive CCS hub
According to the Global CCS Institute’s database, about 220 commercial-scale CCS facilities of various sizes are now planned worldwide.
Of those, 15 are specifically intended to use captured CO2 to produce more oil, a process known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), with the rest storing their CO2 geologically.
This differs dramatically from the current state of CCS, where 22 out of the 30 operating CCS facilities use their CO2 for EOR.
Though the largest CCS facilities worldwide are operating in North and South America, CCS is also being conducted at scale in Norway, Australia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil and gas producer, refiner and world-leading exporter Aramco has apparently had great success with their Uthmaniyah EOR-demonstration project, which sends some 800,000 tons of CO2 from a fossil gas production and processing facility annually into its oilfields, helping the company to produce millions more barrels annually.
During 2022’s COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the world’s second largest oil producer, accounting for roughly 11% of global output, announced plans to advance what it calls the “circular carbon economy.”
In partnership with Aramco, it signed a joint development agreement with oil service providers SLB, formerly known as Schlumberger and Germany’s Linde AG, one of the world’s largest industrial gas companies, to establish a major new CCS hub with a capacity to store up to 9 million tons of CO2 annually beginning in 2027.
To be constructed near the east coast town of Jubail, Aramco will contribute around 6 million tons of CO2 annually, with the rest coming from other industrial sources. Longer term, that number could jump to 44 million tons per year by 2035.
The facility will form a major part of Saudi’s climate neutrality plan as well as a main component in Aramco’s “blue” hydrogen efforts, a sector the company intends to dominate over the next decade.
When in operation, Aramco intends to use it to store a portion of the massive amounts of CO2 created through the transformation of methane, the main component of “natural” or fossil gas into hydrogen. In the process of producing this “clean” hydrogen, the captured CO2 will be “recycled” into EOR feedstock.
The kingdom’s choice to publicly promote CCS at the world’s premier climate conference signals a shift, many observers say, from bolstering tactics designed to stymie efforts to move towards renewables to instead lead efforts to direct vast investment funds into CCS technologies that will enable both it and the industry at large to continue producing planet-harming fossil fuels.
European CCS framework proposed
At the end of 2022, the European Commission adopted a proposal for its first EU-wide voluntary framework to boost “innovative” carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies and sustainable carbon farming solutions that are supposed to contribute to the EU’s climate, environmental and zero-pollution goals.
According to Brussels, the proposed regulation will significantly improve the EU’s capacity to quantify, monitor and verify carbon removals, thereby preventing greenwashing.
Significantly, the Commission’s proposal does not cover the capture of fossil carbon for EOR storage or “utilization” as these technologies generally only “recycle or store fossil CO2 emissions” without actually removing carbon from the atmosphere.
The Commission is also promoting technological approaches, including direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS) and bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS). However, these technologies are not currently viable at scale.
Nonetheless, EU policymakers are increasingly backing CDR technologies, deeming them “a critical third pillar of climate action” alongside emission reductions and adaptation measures.
“Capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it for the long term is indispensable if you want to achieve climate neutrality by the middle of the century,” said EU climate chief Frans Timmermans at a conference earlier this year.
Almost immediately, however, a group of environmental and civil society groups, including the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, published a joint-letter slamming the EU’s carbon dioxide removal (CDR) scheme, dubbing it a “smokescreen for current inaction.”
Endorsed by dozens of other global environmental groups, signatories warned that the current proposal could “generate false confidence in unproven future CDR” schemes and other “speculative technologies.”
Given the swiftly closing window to prevent the worst aspects of climate change, signatories worry that “every ton of promised future CDR represents emissions that are bringing us more climate chaos today.”
Worse, terming the CDR and CCS technologies as just the “latest greenwashing fantasy,” they condemn the strategy as simply another way in which “fossil-drenched and fossil-entrenched government and corporate interests keep subsidizing, producing, and burning fossil fuels.”
Many activists warn that the proposed rules are too “vague” and are ripe for misuse, lobbying and accounting tricks.
“We’re going to see a big push to stretch the scope of the rules to include everything that ‘stores’ carbon, no matter for how long,” said Wijnand Stoefs, a policy officer at Carbon Market Watch, to the EUobserver.
New European CCS projects
According to the Clean Air Task Force, currently more than 50 CCS projects are being planned across the bloc, many of which involve the cross-border transport and storage of CO2.
The highest profile European CCS project, Northern Lights, a venture in Norway involving Shell, Equinor and TotalEnergies, is expected to start phase one operations in 2024.
In coordination with EU partners, UK and Norwegian-based projects including the Norwegian government-supported Longship project is also making significant headway.
Nearby, the Danish government has just committed €5bn to CCS over ten years, where plans are moving forward to establish a CO2 hub and collection point called Greenport Scandinavia on the Danish North Sea coast.
This project will then be connected to the Greensand CCS project. Led by noted climate-wrecker and major single-use plastics producer, Ineos Energy, it is being helped along with Norwegian state-owned oil and gas producer Equinor as well as German/Russian producer, Wintershall Dea, a subsidiary of German-chemical giant, BASF. Together, they will be helping to “permanently” store captured CO2 into the depleting Nini West oil field.
Going forward, a planned 900-km open access pipeline will serve as a CO2 collection hub in Northern Germany. Expected to come online by 2032, it will be capable of holding 20 to 40M tonnes of CO2 per year