Robin McAlpine – 21st October 2021
This week it feels like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is big news again in Scotland, partly because it looks like we’re not going to be the site of a trial of scaling the technology up. So what is CCS and – crucially – does it work?
The idea behind CCS couldn’t be more simple, crude even. If the problem for the environment is carbon being released then then why not just capture all that carbon and store it away somewhere safe? Problem solved.
You can’t actually capture the CO2 coming from everyone’s gas boiler or from their exhaust pipes, but you can from big electricity generation plants, petrochemical processing, some big industrial sites and also from the production of ‘Blue Hydrogen’ (more on that shortly). Capture the gas, send it in a pipe to some giant storage place, seal it all up when it’s full and otherwise just keep doing what we have been doing.
And what do you know, Scotland has some giant empty oil wells under the sea which could be just the thing for storing all that carbon dioxide, so that’s the problem solved then is it not? This is where we crash up against reality. Because – and this is kind of important – CCS doesn’t work.
Let’s look at why that is. First of all, if ‘just capture all that carbon and stow it away’ is the solution, it rather glosses over how tricky it is to ‘just capture’ all that carbon. There are lots of statistics that demonstrate the problem but you owe it to yourself to watch this genuinely hilarious satirical video which summarises them for you (with swearing).
Because if you want to know how CCS has failed, best to start looking at Australia, the largest example of someone trying to scale up CSS from theoretical to small-scale proof of concept stuff to fully operational infrastructure. Money has been thrown at this, and yet it seems never to have captured more carbon than it takes to actually run the infrastructure.
And we’re not talking ‘oh, come on, give it some time until we get this right’, the world has been trying to deliver this ‘miracle solution’ for more than 20 years. Billions have been spent globally – but no-one has captured any significant proportion of carbon. In fact some facilities have emitted more carbon in operation than they captured, making them net contributors.
No-one hits their targets, ever. And we’re not talking ‘missed by a whisker’, we’re talking ‘spent $7.5bn but we’ve just abandoned the whole project because it just doesn’t work’. It never works.
But let’s say it did work (which it doesn’t), what are the implications? Well for a start ‘successfully working’ doesn’t mean ‘zero carbon’. Even the most optimistic projections do not believe that it will ever be financially viable to capture more than about 70 per cent of the carbon produced. The last 30 per cent is just incredibly difficult to capture successfully and would be uneconomical if you could.
So let’s say that 70 per cent would be an acceptable compromise, what then? Well for a start that is only 70 per cent of the carbon produced when the oil or coal is burned. By the time you allow for how much energy and leakage were involved in getting the stuff out the ground and suitable for use we’re now looking at efficiencies which might only be around 50 per cent of the carbon produced over the full engineering cycle.
To continue the desperate attempt to be reasonable, what if the technology actually worked and we settled for 50 per cent collection? At that point we need to face up to the cost. This is a very expensive process and would add very large amounts to the cost of the energy. That needs to be passed on to the consumer somehow.
(Some CCS-fans point to ‘serious investors’ putting money into CCS as evidence for its credibility – but then serious investors will put money into magic beans if the government guarantees a generous retail price for them.)
What we are talking about here is a technology that doesn’t work, has never worked no matter how much money has been thrown at it, would only ever half work if it actually worked and would be incredibly expensive anyway.
At that stage you may be asking yourself some questions. Like ‘but we’ve got all the clean, renewable electricity we need, don’t we?’ and ‘but an awful lot of the carbon is coming from transport and particularly household heating which can’t be captured, so what do we get out of this?’.
Those would be good questions – if you happen not to own the rights to enormous amounts of oil and gas or own a big business geared round extracting the stuff and burning it. Were you that kind of person suddenly CCS is much more attractive. It’s basically a ‘get out of jail free’ card for your declining industry.
And since you have profited enormously from decades of extremely lucrative trade in oil and gas you have all the money you need to persuade politicians to pretend that the fairytale of CCS is a realistic solution to decarbonising our economy.
Sadly, this is the one bit of CCS that works reliably. The oil and gas lobby is extremely powerful and the Scottish Government has bought this stuff hook, line and sinker. That is basically why one of Britain’s most respected experts on climate change has described the Scottish Government’s decarbonisation plans as “on the fringes of credibility”.
The main purpose of CCS is to delay the transition to a clean economy so that oil and gas corporations can maximise their existing asset base. They may say they’re selling you ‘clean hydrogen’ or ‘carbon-free electricity from coal’, but what they are really selling you is a giant big delaying tactic.
Even now no-one is pretending that Scotland will be capturing carbon at scale in the next decade, by which time who knows where we’ll be? And every penny, every minute spent on CCS is a penny and a minute not being spent on solutions which stand a chance of actually working. It takes some lobbying effort to get a proposal on the table which is actually likely to be worse than doing nothing…
Our society is addicted to burning oil and CCS is just another narcotic to make us feel good about our addiction.
Like carbon offset, like tree planting, like Air Source Heat Pumps, CCS is a seemingly simple fix designed to prevent us facing up to our reality. Our reality is that the carbon economy we have known for a hundred years has to come to an end – or we will. We need to move to alternative energy sources as fast as we can, not greenwash the ones that are killing the planet.
Scotland is very richly placed to make that shift. We can move quickly to expunging the vast majority of the carbon from our economy, with cheap renewable energy, cheaper and genuinely clean hydrogen and renewable heating sources.
The video linked to above may put it crudely, but that’s fitting given the crudity of the PR; “CCS is a complex mining process whereby fossil fuel companies inject donations into the arseholes of politicians to delay climate action and let them keep making the ching ching.” And that’s about all you really need to know about CCS.
It doesn’t work, it won’t work and Scotland has a much, much better route out of the climate crisis. But one path involves the easy task of nodding obsequiously to oil industry lobbyists and buying into the charade while the other requires vision, commitment and hard work.
Yet again, Scotland is off on its merry way down precisely the wrong path.