THE FORGOTTEN FRONTIER
WHILE CARBON CAPTURE, STORAGE AND UTILISATION IS NOT EXACTLY NEW SCIENCE, IT’S STILL VERY MUCH ON THE PERIPHERY OF OUR GREEN CONSCIOUSNESS. WILL THE AMBITIOUS PARIS AGREEMENT TARGETS REVIVE EFFORTS TO SCALE UP THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THIS CRITICALLY IMPORTA
While carbon capture, storage and utilisation is not exactly new science, it's still very much on the periphery of our green consciousness. Will the ambitious Paris Agreement targets revive efforts to scale up the implementation of this critically important technology?
If you aren't an oil & gas professional or particularly clued in to the climate debate, you might be forgiven for not remembering all the energy around Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) research in Qatar a few short years ago. Big investments, prestigious collaborations, industry tie-ins – you name it, we had it. And we weren't too shy to talk about it either. But over the last couple of years, what with all the belt-tightening and restructuring, some of these “extracurricular activities” have been silently placed on the back burner, none the wiser for it. However, something else has been happening over the last couple of years as well – the Paris Agreement and the unprecedented commitment to climate action. And all things considered, it's time not only to put CCUS back on the agenda, but to push it near the top of the list.
CCUS is pretty self-explanatory. It's the process of capturing carbon dioxide (CO₂) from power plants and industrial process emissions and putting them to use in other applications that require CO₂, for example in Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) which requires 70 MtCO₂ annually; two-thirds of this currently come from natural CO₂ sources and can be replaced with captured carbon. EOR is the practice of injecting CO₂ in oil fields to enhance hydrocarbon production (especially into mature oil fields in order to extract otherwise inaccessible oil) while storing the injected CO₂ permanently underground. Dedicated underground storage (without utilisation) is the other option, but admittedly a less popular choice.
Despite the first large-scale CCS plant coming online way back in 1972, there are only 15 in operation globally today (not counting the In Salah CO₂ Storage Project in Algeria which was shut down in 2011); most of them came online after 2013 and another six are scheduled to open by the end of 2017 (all but six of the whole portfolio of projects
will primarily feed into EOR). This is real albeit belated progress in the face of serious roadblocks like massive capital costs, limited policy and regulatory support and nil-to-negative public perception of the technology. These 21 plants together will be capturing 40 MtCO₂ annually from this year; by 2050 we'll need to capture one hundred times that every year. If not, we'll have to invest at least an additional $3.5 trillion in power generation in order keep global temperatures within relatively safe limits. But there are concerns that this momentum is stalling.
The lack of adequate support coupled with first-of-a-kind technology challenges have contributed to the cancellation of 22 advanced large-scale CCS projects since 2010. Additionally, the recent commodity market downturn has significantly reduced the interest and capacity of oil, gas and coal companies to invest in CCS. No investment decisions on large-scale projects have been taken since 2014 and few new projects are being brought forward. And although more than $30 billion in funding was announced for large-scale CCS projects between 2007 and 2010, only $2.8 billion in public funds was actually invested between 2009 and 2014.
At COP22 in November last year, where there was a noticeable shift in talks from negotiation to implementation, CCS was discussed at the highest levels. At the GCC pavilion at a high-level ministerial panel, the energy ministers of Saudi Arabia, the US, the UAE, Canada and Australia got together to speak about the uptake of CCS in their respective countries and the future of large-scale implementation of the technology. The Middle East's only large-scale CCS plants are in Saudia Arabia and the UAE and all of the six upcoming plants are in the US, Canada and Australia. It was somewhat ironic that minister after minister, from US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to Saudi Arabia's Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Khaled Al Falih, stressed the importance of CCS while in the same breath insisting that additional policy support was need to get it off the ground.
Paul Simons, Deputy Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), who spoke at the beginning of the panel, said that CCS was not optional for Paris Agreement targets. In the midst of the unprecedented energy transformation challenge that the world was facing, he compared CCS to a sleeping giant that could deliver essential emission reductions both in the power sector and industry. But to realise this, many efforts needed to come together. “Political commitment and financial support should be made clear thorough policies, subsidies and incentives,” he said.
It’s in the numbers
It is known that even if the targets in the individual Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) of all the countries are met, average global temperatures will rise to about 3-3.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures; much higher than the relatively safer 1.5 C rise that the Paris Agreement is aiming for. The IEA projects a major contribution by CCS (15% to 20%) within the portfolio of climate change mitigating tools in the 2°C scenario by the year 2060. This scenario calls for more than half of CCS
THE IEA'S 2°C SCENARIO CALLS FOR MORE THAN HALF OF CCS DEPLOYMENT TO BE IN POWER GENERATION AND OF THIS ALMOST 75% SHOULD OCCUR OUTSIDE OF THE OECD.
deployment in power generation and of this almost 75% should occur outside of the OECD. In Energy Technology Perspectives 2010, it was noted that CCS will need to contribute to 20% of total emission reductions by 2050 for GHG to be reduced in the most cost-efficient manner. To enable CCS to meet this one-fifth contribution, it will be necessary to deploy around 100 CCS projects by 2020, and over 3,000 projects by 2050. This goes to show how essential CCS is to the low carbon energy transition strategy. It's difficult to achieve 2C without CCS; impossible to go below 2C without it.
And as the pressure mounts on countries to ratchet up their climate goals in the NDCs, this will become more obvious. “In this first round, most NDCs talk about deploying existing, low-cost tech; all the low-hanging fruit, as they say. It's never going to be enough,” says Brad Page, CEO of the Global CCS Institute. “We absolutely need to deploy all technologies that are at our disposal. CCS is necessary technology and yet, while in excess of a trillion dollars worth of investment has be committed towards renewables since 2006, only a fraction of that has been allocated towards CCS. It's not a competition but there needs to be policy parity to ensure CCS alongside renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives can help us reach Paris Agreement targets.” In other words, CCS needs to be allowed to compete on a comparable basis with other clean technology solutions. Contrary to popular belief, renewable energy is not the only weapon we'll ever need in our fight against climate change. Some industries like steel and fertilisers are impossible to decarbonise without CCS, because the CO₂ emissions are not related to energy use but rather to processes. So for a vast majority of the industrial sector, which accounts for a quarter of the global CO₂ emissions, CCS is the only solution. There is a school of thought that also considers CCS a better alternative when the economic cost of decarbonisation is too high, like relatively young and high-output coal plants that will have
“IN THIS FIRST ROUND, MOST NDCS TALK ABOUT DEPLOYING EXISTING, LOW-COST TECHNOLOGIES; ALL THE LOW-HANGING FRUIT, AS THEY SAY. IT’S NEVER GOING TO BE ENOUGH.” BRAD PAGE Chief Executive Officer Global CCS Institute
(Source: UN working paper on ‘Strengthening the legal and regulatory framework in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to promote the deployment of carbon capture, utilization, and storage', by Dr I-Tsung Tsai, 2014)
A high-level ministerial panel with the energy ministers of Saudi Arabia, the US, the UAE, Canada and Australia at the GCC pavilion in COP22, Marrakech