Policy on carbon capture, use and storage needs correcting

THE NEWLY appointed Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Claire Coutinho, has an urgent task to allay concerns that carbon capture, usage and storage technology (CCUS) is simply being used as an excuse for the UK to drill more oil and gas. Instead CCUS must be reinstated as part of a genuine emissions reduction strategy for the UK.

Extracts from an article by Esin Serin, policy fellow at the LSE

Carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) has been deemed by climate change experts a “necessity not an option” for the UK to deliver net zero emissions. But the Government announcing its support for two new CCUS clusters (shared infrastructure to transport and store carbon from multiple emitters) at the same time as its decision to grant hundreds of new oil and gas licenses has fuelled concerns that the technology is being used as an excuse for the country to drill more oil and gas.

CCUS can enable emissions reductions across industrial processes, electricity generation and hydrogen production. CCUS provides the only deep decarbonisation option available in parts of industry where the majority of emissions result from the process of chemical transformation (such as in cement production) as opposed to the burning of fossil fuels.

In the electricity sector, CCUS can be used in conjunction with a small number of gas-fired power stations to help deal with the variability of output from renewables if other mechanisms, such as electricity storage or demand management, are not feasible at the scale needed. CCUS can also be used to produce ‘blue hydrogen’, which can substitute for fossil fuels in some industrial processes or other hard-to-abate activities, such as heavy goods transport.

Crucially, CCUS can also be used with bioenergy or direct air capture to remove existing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere to generate negative emissions. This will be necessary to compensate for residual emissions in sectors where it has not been possible to eradicate all emissions.

Overall, the evidence is clear that the UK has a minimal chance of reaching net zero by 2050 without employing CCUS. Developing a strong domestic CCUS industry is also set to open up important economic opportunities for the UK from a growing export market. The government’s support for two new CCUS clusters in itself is thus welcome.

Nevertheless, there remain significant challenges to the widespread use of CCUS. For instance, there is much still to be understood about the feasibility of long-term geological storage of CO2 – a critical part of the CCUS process. This is demonstrated in reports from the Gorgon Project in Australia (where problems like sand contamination are obstructing CO2 injection) and the Sleipner Project in Norway (where stored CO2 has shown unexpected behaviour in the subsurface).

In addition, it has been argued that investments in the development of CCUS could divert funding away from other clean technologies or create a form of moral hazard by reducing the pressure to cut emissions if they can be compensated by negative emissions.

It is against this backdrop that the government’s decision to grant hundreds of new oil and gas drilling licenses, announced simultaneously with its support for two new CCUS clusters, has raised concerns. The former is seen as a sign that the government intends to slow down the domestic transition away from natural gas towards cleaner sources of energy. New development in the North Sea risks contributing to a further oversupply of fossil fuels globally and would not help the UK’s energy security in any significant way either.

CCUS should be developed alongside an urgent push for other clean technologies – not as an excuse to delay it.

CCUS should be scaled up urgently where realistic alternatives do not yet exist, or where using CCUS over other clean alternatives would bring clear cost-efficiency benefits, while proactively managing the risk of the UK being locked into the avoidable use of natural gas as a result of CCUS development. But the government’s sector-level delivery plans currently fall short of the mark.

The government’s current plans risk under-delivery of CCUS where the technology is an indisputable necessity and over-delivery where developing too much CCUS would lock the UK into avoidable consumption of gas for a longer time.

Addressing these risks calls for an urgent course correction from the newly appointed Secretary of State to fully align UK CCUS policy with the delivery of net zero in the country by 2050.

Read the full article, which contains more detailed analysis

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