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Norway Backs Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS): Will others follow?

posted Aug 30, 2017, 9:00 AM by Paul Price   [ updated Aug 31, 2017, 2:48 AM ]

In discussing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology deployment we ended our last blogpost by noting the uncertainties in scaling up to much larger flows than the roughly 1 MtCO2/yr level being achieved by the 15 industrial scale plants currently operating (two natural gas processing plants extract 7 and 8 MtCO2/yr for use in enhanced oil extraction). For companies, the business case for CCS is currently poor as it is expensive per tonne of CO₂ stored, relative to low carbon market prices, and the risks are not well understood, particularly in guaranteeing very long term CO₂ storage.  For governments, the political case is similarly difficult given public resistance to higher energy costs and civil society concerns over the use of CCS as an excuse for perpetuating fossil fuel use.

In Norway though, the government-owned CCS business Gassnova is currently pushing forward plans to capture CO₂ at industrial plants, transport it by ship to an onshore terminal and then pump it through undersea pipeline for injection into exhausted oil and gas reservoirs.  The reported planning and investment cost could be €780m to €1360m with an uncertainty of 40 percent above and below this range. Advertising and PR are part of the investment so stories have been appearing in media this week following a recent Gassnova funded tour of CCS and industrial facilities for reporters: see here, here and here.

Beyond helping its appearance as a leader of international climate action Norway has additional advantages and motivations that make developing CCS attractive. First, the depletion and exhaustion of its North Sea oil and gas reservoirs gives it available storage capacity to support a CCS industry that could profit from future decarbonisation of industry and processes in northern Europe.  If carbon prices rise through the EU-ETS or other carbon regulation then the business case will also improve. In 2016 Norway had 45% of Europe’s small CCS capacity but one financial projection is for a US$6 billion global CCS market by 2024.

Norway was to be a partner in the UK’s planned development of CCS that was twice cancelled for cost reasons, but now it is pushing ahead to a larger scale on its own with the ultimate aim of making money from the slowness of others, potentially charging profitably for taking their waste CO₂ and storing it.  If CCS it to play a part in decarbonisation pathways to zero emissions aligned with meeting the Paris Agreement temperature targets it is likely only national government that have the ability to underwrite CCS development costs, and the long-term capability to oversee long-term storage, a risk that commercial entities have been reluctant to take on.

A second motivation for pushing CCS investment may lie in the contrast between Norway’s ‘green’ image – it has abundant hydropower to keep its domestic electricity emissions low and has further lowered its domestic emissions by increasing its proportion of electric vehicles – and the major source of Norway’s recent wealth, its oil and gas extraction and export. Developing CCS boosts its international credentials as a climate leader in a way that is - arguably - compatible with, or even dictated by, its continuing oil and gas production.

A report by Oil Change International, commissioned by NGOs, points out that Norway’s current push into the Arctic for oil and gas exploration, appears greatly at odds with its strong advocacy for climate action. The report says annual ‘exported emissions’, 500 MtCO2, due to burning of the fossil oil and gas extracted by Norway, are about ten times its domestic emissions. The case is made that if Norway is to be a genuine climate leader it has the responsibility to ramp down its fossil fuel extraction in accord with Paris-aligned decarbonisation rates.  A different recent NGO report about Canada, another major fossil fuel producer makes the same argument. These arguments are strong unless Norway (and Canada) can credibly demonstrate that the vast majority of the generated CO2 will be re-captured and put in permanent storage via CCS.

Even with scientific uncertainties in mind, climate scientists are speaking out with similar clarity given the need to leave most fossil fuels in the ground. Nonetheless, unless radical reductions in whole-economy emissions are achieved, especially by high emitting richer nations, starting without delay and maintained over decades and at far faster rates than hitherto contemplated, then CCS for low carbon industry and possibly for negative emissions bioenergy with CCS (BECCS), and even direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS), become necessary for any plausible hope of meeting the global carbon budget related to the Paris Agreement's "well below 2ºC" temperature target.

Getting serious about Paris: CCS and BECCS? Or not?

In a recent article in Nature Climate Change (discussed without a paywall here by David Roberts), Peters and Geden examined the output from four integrated assessment models used in the IPCC assessment to project energy use and CO₂ emissions. The ‘cost-optimal’ pathways show significant amounts of CCS in BECCS even before 2050 and much more afterward to 2100.  The median outcome for the EU is cumulative BECCS storage of 7.5 GtCO2 (where Gt = billion tonnes) by 2050, the equivalent of two years current emissions, and 50 GtCO2 stored by 2100. This would be in addition to substantial CCS applied to conventional fossil fuel usage. For Ireland, based simply on the current share of EU emissions, this scale of CCS development would be equivalent to storing a total of at least 80 MtCO2 from BECCS energy production by 2050. Enabling this storage would require serious policy proposals in the very near future and speeding up CCS progress to get to larger scale faster.

However, the EU’s “Nationally Determined Contribution”, its current pledge toward meeting the Paris Agreement, makes no mention of CCS or BECCS. In Ireland a further study into geological CO2 storage potential has been proposed in the recently released National Mitigation Plan; but there is no commitment to substantive CCS deployment, and BECCS is not mentioned explicitly at all.  The Climate Change Advisory Council’s recent periodic report mentions the need to consider “the potential use of negative emissions technologies such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS)” to enable CO₂ removals from the atmosphere and notes the IPCC as saying “large scale reliance on such approaches may entail significant risks”. The CCAC does not indicate any immediate climate action policy requirement to enable CCS or BECCS.

Without EU regulations and incentives to drive CCS or BECCS investment and development timelines to overcome uncertainties it seems unlikely that EU states or corporations will work to deliver CCS in the short-term despite its presumed ‘cost effectiveness’.

In this context of the risks, research and costs, Norway’s leadership on CCS seems timely and necessary, but the “well below 2ºC” global carbon budget could certainly also do without Norway’s planned extraction and export of additional fossil fuels, especially from the vulnerable and melting Arctic. For all developed nations, meeting the Paris targets now has to become a lot less abstract, concrete decisions are needed on mitigation pathway options that will actually deliver sustained whole-economy emission reductions.

Peters and Geden suggest three key policy areas to push political and national engagement with carbon dioxide removal if it is to be part of Paris-aligned climate policy:

  1. Update national and regional emission reduction pledges: countries already need to begin negotiating equitable sharing of negative emissions and outlining the amounts of CO2 removals that might be achieved.

  2. Enable an internationally coherent system of negative emissions accounting with dependable measurement, reporting and verification is needed to create trust in and incentives for carbon dioxide removal.

  3. Ensure national and regional policies push international policy forward in these first two areas and incentivise research aiming for rapid domestic delivery of negative emissions at scale including CCS.

For CCS to be part of low carbon transition planning policy needs to target very early CCS delivery at significant scale. If any substantive mitigation contribution is expected from negative emissions technologies, then CCS is likely to be an essential enabling technology. Nonetheless, mitigation policy still needs to reduce ongoing and substantial whole-economy emissions rapidly to hedge against the possibility that CCS, and negative emissions in general may not deliver at scale (see the recent paper in Climate Policy by Larkin et al.).

If the EU and its member states are not paying serious attention to these areas now then the logical interpretation is that radical ongoing cuts in fossil fuel use are required in the EU to align emission pathways with the Paris Agreement carbon budgets. Otherwise it might be concluded that the Paris targets are not being taken seriously.