By Oliver Williams, Steve Everly, and Kristy Pultorak
RealClear Energy, Jun. 20, 2022
Carbon capture and storage – capturing CO2 emissions from industrial source points and safely storing them underground – is often presented as a new technology, but it has been around for decades. It was first proposed in Texas in the 1970s. Yet even today, only a limited number of CCS facilities are in operation around the world.
That number is changing, however, and changing fast: more than 135 CCS projects are now in development globally. And momentum is building, especially in the United States. According to a recent FTI Consulting survey, 86% of U.S. voters want the government to take some action to implement carbon capture. That’s one reason that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law last November, earmarked $10 billion for CCS.
More broadly, the impetus for this tectonic shift is the scale of the challenge of decarbonizing the global economy while meeting the world’s growing appetite for energy. The war in Ukraine has shown all too clearly the crippling impact of abruptly reducing supply without simultaneously addressing demand. The stakes are high in ensuring that decarbonization is done equitably, as rising energy prices disproportionately affect low-income families.
With a burgeoning global middle class and emerging nations eager to develop their economies, demand for power will only increase. Greater deployment of renewable resources will address some of this growth, but we will also need to rely on hydrocarbons to meet demand. CCS offers one of the most effective means of doing this.
Another factor driving CCS’s new momentum is the technology’s ability to do things that other technologies cannot. CCS is the only tool we have to address emissions from energy-intensive industries that can’t utilize intermittent renewable resources. These emissions are substantial. Cement production alone is responsible for perhaps 8% of global CO2 emissions.
This capability is important. Only a quarter of respondents to FTI Consulting’s survey indicated a clear willingness to reduce use of materials like concrete, steel, and plastics to combat climate change. Mitigation technologies like CCS that deliver emissions reductions without hampering critical energy-intensive industries will thus be an important piece of solving the climate puzzle.
Of course, as momentum builds behind CCS, so has scrutiny. Concerns over costs to the taxpayer (45%), long-term storage (41%) and the management of full sites (41%) were the top respondent concerns in the FTI Consulting survey. Perhaps more fundamentally, less than half of the respondents (41%) had even heard of CCS.
Opponents have also branded CCS a false climate solution, focusing on its cost and supposed lack of efficacy, and arguing that it will prolong the use of fossil fuels and delay a pivot to renewables.
Indeed, the most significant question concerns the use of enhanced oil recovery, or EOR, where CO2 is utilized to stimulate further oil or gas production. EOR has been the main method of deploying carbon capture historically, and some see it as the best path to permanent sequestration. But critics frequently claim that the captured carbon is used only to coax more fossil fuels out of the ground.
As a result, opponents argue that the foundational 45Q tax credit, a key driver of the technology in the U.S., should not be used for EOR; instead, permanent storage underground should be prioritized. Doing so could address one of the main concerns of environmental groups, smoothing the way to more widespread use in future. Recent activism focused on CO2 pipelines demonstrates the breadth of issues facing developers: it’s not just capturing carbon that opponents are focusing on, but all the related infrastructure necessary for deployment. The entire value chain is now under scrutiny.
So where does this leave us?
Industry is considering ways to address the cost and time required to deploy CCS. The infrastructure law includes a provision of $3.5 billion for the creation of large-scale pilot projects. Many companies are collaborating to create low-carbon hubs in areas with existing emissions-intensive facilities.
These clusters typically co-locate power generators alongside end users and benefit from shared transportation infrastructure and geological storage. As a result, they will be able to leverage significant economies of scale to drive greater reductions in project costs and CO2 emissions. FTI Consulting’s survey shows that low-carbon partnerships between public, private, labor, and academic groups are seen as the most effective way to advance CCS technology, with 66% of respondents supporting them.
The International Energy Agency estimates that, in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, the world must build 2,000 CCS facilities by 2040. Doing so will take a significant collective effort. The road to widespread adoption of the proven but transformative technology of CCS will be complex, but we need to get it right.