Max out: Conservative Britain re-embraces oil & gas and leans on mythical CCS

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s conservative British government has reversed its green energy course by announcing a massive embrace of new oil and gas production, including the opening of the vast Rosebank oil field. However, the government promises that emissions from this and other industrial pollution will somehow be rendered “Net Zero” by 2050 via a fleet of to-be-built carbon capture and storage (CCS) hubs. Backed by £20 billion in subsidies, CCS will play an integral role in the ‘maxxing-out’ of domestic oil and gas resources while ensuring energy independence. London says capturing and storing future CO2 emissions in ‘depleted’ offshore oil and gas fields will enable the UK’s industry to thrive for decades to come. As NGOs and scientists cry foul, lead blogger and podcaster, Michael Buchsbaum, reviews the deteriorating narrative.

(Photo by Aron Van de Pol on Unsplash)

Maxing out oil and gas

Instead of accelerating the shift towards renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the conservative led UK government has decided instead to expand domestic oil and gas production while betting big on eventually capturing CO2 and storing it offshore under the North Sea.

The course change was first announced in the Spring Budget published in March 2023 when Grant Shapps, the UK’s energy and net zero secretary, unveiled the new ‘powering up Britain’ strategy squarely placing CCS at the heart of the nations’ revised energy transition.

Claiming that the continued production of oil and gas will be necessary for decades, Shapps boasted that the UK had a geological advantage in being able to store most of the carbon likely to be produced in Europe for the next 250 years in large geologic caverns and ‘depleted’ oil and gas reservoirs under the North Sea.

‘Unless you can explain how we can transition [to net zero] without oil and gas, we need oil and gas’, he said. ‘I am very keen that we fill those cavities with storing carbon.’

In the months since, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has continued to reverse his nation’s climate progress by slowing new wind energy development and firmly re-embracing fossil fuels.

In September, Sunak’s government issued a flurry of new North Sea oil and gas production licences, unleashing a new round of intensive drilling.

Acting to provide ‘energy security options’, he promised that ‘unlocking carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) and hydrogen opportunities’, will also protect over 200,000 jobs.

Rosebank greenlit

While visiting a Shell gas terminal north of Aberdeen, Scotland, in September Prime Minister Sunak gave the green light to develop Rosebank, perhaps the UK’s largest remaining untapped offshore oil resource.

It is hard to fully comprehend the size of the Rosebank field in the North Sea. Potentially containing 500 million barrels of oil and gas. When burned, this would emit the same amount of carbon dioxide as the running of 56 coal-fired power stations for a year.

Discovered almost two decades ago, prohibitively high projected costs tied to its location in the far northern part of the North Sea, about 80 miles northwest of the Shetland Islands, kept it from being developed.

However, a new and cheaper production approach led by the Norwegian state-controlled energy giant Equinor has changed the calculations.

Further sweetening the deal, tax incentives offered to Equinor, which owns 80% of Rosebank, will effectively subsidise development. Oil production should commence in 2027 and continue for around twenty years.

Tip of the Acorn

To ‘remain on track to meet net zero by 2050’ while simultaneously expanding domestic oil and gas production, the government intends to lean heavily upon a fleet of new carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities.

Spurred on by a £20 billion subsidy, the UK’s new CCUS Cluster Sequencing Process has set a target to deploy two carbon capture, utilisation and storage clusters by 2025, plus two more by 2030 – up from zero operating CCS facilities today.

In August, Sunak announced additional millions of pounds for the offshore Acorn CCS project, allowing progression into the front-end engineering and design phase.

Lead by UK supermajor Shell, Acorn has been on the drawing board for more than a decade.

Envisioned to receive captured CO2 via pipeline as well as ship, the government promises Acorn’s success will ‘future-proof’ jobs, attract economic investment and develop additional green-tech industries.

But Acorn is just the beginning.

In September, the government awarded 21 offshore carbon storage licenses to 14 companies including Shell. Going forward CO2 captured from various industrial sites will be injected into depleted oil and gas reservoirs as well as saline aquifers across a roughly 12,000 square kilometre area under the North Sea.

With the first of several clusters to be deployed in the mid-2020s, the government’s goal is to scale offshore CO2 storage capacity towards 30 million metric tons per year by 2030 – or approximately 10% of UK annual emissions (341.5 million tonnes in 2021).

However, reaching an eventual net zero may require as many as 100 different CO2 storage licences – or CCS on a scale never before attempted.

Unstated in the recent CCS announcements, but literally just below the surface, is the technology’s close ties to additional oil production. Though often touted as an emissions solution, the development of CCS is directly related to using CO2 to push more oil out of already tapped reservoirs – a process known as enhanced oil recovery (EOR).

As myself and Edward Donnelly co-wrote in a recent analysis published by DeSmog, of the 32 commercial CCS facilities today operating worldwide, 22 use most or all of their captured CO2 for EOR. On average each ton of captured CO2 can help squeeze between two to four barrels of oil out of already developed fields.

Though neither Sunak nor the government have specifically announced an intent to conduct EOR, previous studies written by Shell, Equinor and many of the other players involved in Acorn and other new CCS schemes concluded that using captured CO2 for EOR along the UK’s continental shelf could yield approximately 6 billion barrels of additional crude oil. But economically producing at those volumes, they consistently wrote, would require a steady supply of cheap CO2 feedstock. A decade ago seen as impossible, going forward, oil producers will now be asked to take and “store” as much CO2 as possible.

Devil’s bargain

The government’s about-face prompted more than 700 scientists to write to the Prime Minister. Asking him to halt the licensing of new fossil fuel developments, they criticized using CCS as a ‘get-out-of-jail card’ allowing the continued extraction of oil and gas ‘without any downside’.

‘A deal with the devil is not wanted here’, said Stuart Haszeldine, Professor of Carbon Capture and Storage at the Edinburgh University. It’s essential, he wrote, that Acorn and other CCS projects ‘provide a genuine decrease of emissions. Storage of two or five million tonnes CO2 per year should not become a policy excuse to release additional 10’s or 100’s of million tonnes of CO2 from development of new oil and gas extraction.’

The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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