Carbon capture, an attempt to stop the release of carbon dioxide at the point of generation when fossil fuels are burned, has developed a well-earned reputation of false promise over the past few decades.
As RenewEconomy reported last year, there are a litany of predictions from the past few decades suggesting carbon capture – particularly for burning coal to make electricity – would be ascendant, and that was always just around the corner.
A paper focusing on America’s carbon capture and storage industry has just been released that paints roughly the same picture, while carving out some possible future roles for CCS, even among the hype of the previous decades. “While many projects essential to commercializing the technology have been proposed, most (>80%) end in failure”, the authors wrote in December 2020.
By gathering up data and conducting a systematic and empirical analysis of CCS projects, the largest analysis to date, the paper creates a database of CCS plants that were proposed and never built, along with plants that eventually did get built and are operational:
It’s buried in the caption, but that’s a measly 10% of carbon capture plants completed, for power generation. The promise of “clean coal” has been around for quite some time. In 1991, then Minister for Primary Industries and Energy John Kerin said: “The challenge for Australia is to convince the world that clean coal efficiently utilised represents the best balance between the need for economic energy production and minimum greenhouse gas emissions”.
CCS projects have encountered failure for three key reasons, according to the study: high capital costs, low levels of technological readiness and a low credibility of project revenues. The more successful projects have been ‘monetising’ the carbon captured by pumping it into oil wells to extract more fossil fuels; something highly questionable in terms of its CO2 removal effectiveness.
In fact, that process, known as ‘enhanced oil recovery’ (EOR), is the dominant reason fossil fuel companies are capturing CO2. The most recent report from the Global CCS Institute highlights this very clearly – most existing projects end up putting the captured to use in extracting more fossil fuels, whereas the planned projects promise far more permanent storage underground.
CCS as a false promise rather than a realistically and carefully managed proposition is still cropping up in modern energy planning, despite the long years of underperformance. Most recently, a major new fossil hydrogen project in Victoria promises to store unprecedented quantities of carbon – more than the entire capacity of the world’s dedicated geological storage today – with near-zero evidence of near-term feasibility and currently, a hard zero megatonnes captured to date.
Of the total 40 megatonnes of carbon capture capacity in the world, 4 of that is in Australia, at the Gorgon CCS project, plagued with problems. Of the additional 75 megatonnes planned to come online by the end of the next decade, 1.7 is Santos’ Cooper Basin CCS project.
The authors of the paper consulted a range of experts on where the balance will lie for future CCS projects, in terms of the likelihood of them becoming operational. They maintain that the vast majority of captured CO2 – around 90% – will be used in EOR to extract more fossil fuels:
“As an industry, CCS systems sit firmly in the so-called valley of death,” write the authors of the study. “They are stuck between a small number of early demonstrations that have received government support and later mass deployments that would stand on their own financial merit”.
The report then calls for targeted incentives to ‘rescue’ CCS from the valley of death, with a focus on feasibility and previous successes, in addition to avoiding past failures.
That is a tall order – the underlying narrative for CCS has been its use as a tool for delaying regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, providing distraction and deflection from expanding fossil industries, and all of that playing out as a series of seriously and significantly overwrought predictions and an industry struggling to stay relevant.