The growing global drive to curb emissions has called attention to the processes of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), heralded as an indispensable technology that will help the world reach the much-hyped net-zero emissions.
The carbon capture concept and related technologies have been around for years. But the fight against climate change has prompted governments, major oil and gas companies, and scientists to pay more and more attention to the idea that sucking carbon out of industrial emissions or directly from air could be a way to reduce emissions from oil and gas operations, as well as from hard-to-abate emissions in industrial processes such as steel, chemicals, or cement production.
CCUS is becoming increasingly popular among governments as they try to “build back greener” after the pandemic. It is also gaining popularity with some of the biggest oil firms. However, questions remain. Can carbon capture become a viable large-scale cost-efficient technology that will reduce emissions? If so, will it reduce emissions enough to allow world economies and Big Oil to achieve their ambitious net-zero targets?
But there is one thing that CCUS will not do. CCUS will not help the world’s biggest oil companies abate the Scope 3 emissions—those generated by the products they sell—Philippe Roos, Senior Reporter at Energy Intelligence, argues. CCUS could also be a smaller industry than currently anticipated if there is a breakthrough with green hydrogen production, which could significantly cut costs in the coming years and eliminate the need for CCS in blue hydrogen production, Roos said.
Still, the Paris Agreement to limit global warming and the increased pressure from the world’s biggest investors on carbon-intensive industries to curb emissions make CCS and CCUS key pillars in all plans for build back greener, both for governments and major oil companies.
It looks like everyone in the oil and gas sector and other heavy industries is now taking carbon capture seriously and working on related technologies, while governments support such technologies because environment-conscious investors and the general public will not have greenwashing anymore and demand decisive actions.
“CCUS Critical To Meeting Net-Zero Goals”
“Reaching net-zero will be virtually impossible without CCUS,” the International Energy Agency (IEA) says.
Big Oil includes CCUS in their plans to reduce emissions and become net-zero energy businesses by 2050 or sooner. They are also actively pursuing and promoting various projects that will help them reach their goals.
Last month, BP, Eni, Equinor, Shell, Total, and National Grid formed the Northern Endurance Partnership to develop offshore carbon dioxide infrastructure in the UK North Sea, with BP as an operator. The infrastructure will serve the proposed Net Zero Teesside (NZT) and Zero Carbon Humber (ZCH) projects that aim to establish decarbonized industrial clusters in Teesside and Humberside.
“Carbon capture and storage is a crucial technology for reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement and we are committed to working with others to create real change,” Grete Tveit, senior vice president for low carbon solutions at Norway’s Equinor, said in a statement.
Days after the partnership was announced, the UK government included investing in CCUS as one of the ten pillars in its Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. The CCUS plans in the UK could use up to US$1.3 billion (£1 billion) of public investment by 2025 and aim to capture and store by 2030 emissions of CO2 equivalent to taking around 4 million cars off the road.
One of the world’s biggest oilfield services provider, Baker Hughes, said earlier this month it is buying Compact Carbon Capture (3C), a technology development company specializing in carbon capture solutions, as part of Baker Hughes’ strategic commitment to provide decarbonization solutions for carbon-intensive industries, including oil and gas and broader industrial operations.
Direct Air Capture
Occidental Petroleum, which became the first major U.S. oil firm to announce a net-zero emissions goal this month, is betting big on direct air capture—sucking CO2 directly from the atmosphere—to reduce the carbon intensity of its operations, beginning with the Permian.
“We expect to go from the Permian, the Powder River, DJ and ultimately internationally. So it’s something that is going to become a, we believe, a significant business for Oxy over the next few years. And in 10 to 15 years, we expect that the cash flow and earnings from a business of this type could be similar or more than what we get from the chemicals business,” Oxy’s CEO Vicki Hollub said on the conference call.
MIT said last year that its engineers had developed a new way to remove CO2 from the air. The idea is based on passing air through a stack of charged electrochemical plates, and it could work from power plant emissions to open air, and it’s cost-effective and quite energy-efficient, MIT says. The researchers have set up a company to commercialize the process, and hope to develop a pilot-scale plant within the next few years, MIT postdoc Sahag Voskian, who created the process, said. The system is very easy to scale up, he added.
Scale Is A Challenge
Still, large-scale cost-efficient CCUS around the world will require much more research, government support, and company investments if the world has a chance to limit global warming anywhere close to the Paris Agreement targets.
Recent research by Jorgen Randers and Ulrich Goluke at BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo, Norway, shows in a climate model that the world is already past the point of no return and there would be self-sustained melting of the permafrost for hundreds of years ahead, even if the world stopped all emissions of man-made greenhouse gases immediately.
To avoid self-sustained temperature rise in the centuries ahead, the world will need to build 33,000 big CCS plants and keep them running forever—a technically feasible but hugely expensive endeavor, say the authors of the paper published in Scientific Reports.
Currently, there are just around 60 operational CCS projects of varying capture capacity in the world, Wood Mackenzie said in a recent report on the North Sea potential to net-zero.
CCUS is not the only pathway to curbing global emissions, but it could prove critical—in addition to transport electrification and rising renewables share in the power mix—to limiting global warming to some reasonable degrees. However, CCUS will need a lot more investment and support to become a meaningful solution in the fight against climate change.