Carbon Capture and Storage – what I think I think (today)

tl;dr my views on Carbon Capture and Storage have evolved and will probably continue to do so. I have written something for the Conversation which many will see as another tired greenie attack on the suite of technologies that fly under that banner of “CCS”. My actual views, I like to believe, are a little more nuanced (though some would say vague and contradictory). Right now, I am pretty convinced that it is “necessary” for storing unavoidable industrial emissions, but we need to be very alive to the problem of “mitigation deterrence”.

My interest in CCS goes back to 2006. I was part of the very small crew of people involved in putting together the first “Camp for Climate Action”. I had the idea to create a book of resources about climate change- “Time Up” – and as part of that, I contacted an academic at University of Manchester who kindly answered the questions I put (see below).

When I was doing my PhD, ten years later, I took a deep-ish dive into the literature around the Australian CCS experience (though none of it made the cut for my thesis). The Australian experience was kinda obviously about prolonging the life of power CCS, and so I was of the opinion that it was just another excuse, just another part of “predatory delay” (though I didn’t know the term then).

In 2015 I happened to be present at a CCS event in Glasgow when they got the news that Treasury was pulling the funding. They were all shocked and disheartened. I don’t recall my attitude. Was I amused? Satisfied that taxpayers’ money wasn’t being spent on another white elephant? I don’t know.

More recently, I’ve been working for the last year on a project looking at the politics of industrial decarbonisation. And so I have had to read much more deeply – and – this is the crucial bit – talk to clearly very intelligent and decent people who have devoted a lot of time, energy and “political capital” to trying to make CCS “work.” While I am pretty sure there are lots of things I would disagree with some of these people about, on industrial CCS, I get where they are coming from. And I think their arguments – that industrial efficiency, fuel switching, new processes will only get you so far – are sound.

I have come to see their tenacious and skilful efforts to get an enormous CCS infrastructure built, for the capture, transport and storage of carbon dioxide as actually praiseworthy. I have found myself agreeing with and respecting the efforts of people I would probably have dismissed as stooges and lackeys 15 years ago. Am I getting old and conservative? Have I been captured cognitively (an occupational hazard for academics)? Am I self-censoring/cutting my clothe because I hope to keep working on this stuff? I don’t know, and these are not particularly relevant or interesting questions to anyone, not even myself. What is an interesting question is this – how would we cut industrial emissions at speed and scale withOUT CCS?

Now, the problems are twofold. One is this – to pay for CCS infrastructure, you need lots of customers, and so the propositionthat CCS has a role to play in providing electricity is going to get more respect than it deserves. And the blue hydrogen for domestic heating thing will similarly get more airtime than it deserves. And the second is this – the people with the expertise (in geology, pipes, pressures, you name it) are those oil companies that don’t exactly have a stellar record when it comes to environmental protection, human rights, paying their taxes etc etc. The idea that we are beholden to oil companies for the technology which will be needed to clean up the mess they helped create will be very very VERY unpopular. It sticks in the craw, no?

So, it is all very very tricky and I do not know what I will think in a year’s time (or even a month’s??)

But I will say this. What Michael Gove did yesterday – invoking CCS to excuse his Whitehaven decision – is an opportunistic farce. Not only is it an insult to all those people who have slogged their guts out to try to make CCS ‘work’, but it risks CCS’s fragile reputation for momentary political convenience.

IF we are to have CCS, its reputation will need very careful husbanding. Gove is not helping.

2 thoughts on “Carbon Capture and Storage – what I think I think (today)

Add yours

  1. Disclaimer: I have 48 years in oil & gas. My small engineering company has been involved in CCS projects since 2008.
    The world is clearly not doing enough to even flatten the atmospheric CO2 curve. There are many levers to pull and CCS is but one. The IEA say it is an essential part. CCS is proven. Norway has been capturing and putting away one million tons per year for over 25 years, very quietly and safely as I write. We are not waiting for any new tech to upscale it to meaningfull volumes. Just add the political will and money (any net zero option costs huge sums). But this will require thousands of wells to be drilled globally. We will need at least 50 in the UK alone (that’s one a month if we start now) just to meet UK government targets by 2030 and more after that. So if not the dreaded Oil companies who do know how to do this safely despite the comments above, then who will. No wells = no CCS. Yes there have been CCS project failures and we need to learn from those for sure. Yes please build lots of turbines (which you currently can’t do without oil products). But until we stop the oil and gas consumption we need it from somewhere. Try closing down all the petrol stations and gas pipelines. That would also be very very unpopular.

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