x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Carbon capture's uphill fight

Advocates for the storage of carbon dioxide underground are making a case for public funding, arguing that the technology needs subsidies such as those given for alternative energy.

The Salah facility in Alegria, which is being run by Statoil, BP and Sonatrach, has been storing carbon dioxide since 2004. Adam Berry / Bloomberg News
The Salah facility in Alegria, which is being run by Statoil, BP and Sonatrach, has been storing carbon dioxide since 2004. Adam Berry / Bloomberg News

Solar power has been flourishing in nations from Spain to China thanks to government subsidies.

Now, proponents of a technology to bury carbon underground say they should get similar public financial support. Projects to capture greenhouse gas emissions before they hit the atmosphere require big up-front investments, which industry executives say they should not have to make alone.

"You really need incentives of the kind that are applied to renewable energy at the moment," says Jeff Chapman, the chief executive of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association in London. Carbon capture and storage "is no more expensive than renewable sources of energy."

While solar panels and windmills have captured the public imagination, discussions of carbon capture - a technology that relies on solvents, pipelines and reservoirs - remain largely confined to oil industry conferences and academic papers.

This could be partly because the supporters of carbon capture and storage (CCS) often come from within the industry, while many green purists reject the technology. For the energy industry, CCS is seen as helping to extend the life of fossil fuels by removing carbon from emissions, but some green advocates argue it will serve only to delay the development of renewable alternatives.

They have little time to come to agreement.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which advises 28 developed nations on energy policy, CCS is integral to meeting the world's targets to cut emissions. About 100 large-scale CCS projects are needed in the next decade to halve the carbon emissions related to energy production, and more than 3,000 by 2050, the IEA says.

But rather than gaining speed, the introduction of CCS projects is slowing because of a lack of funding and public fears that dangerously high concentrations of carbon dioxide could escape from underground storage sites.

Last year, one fifth of planned carbon capture projects - they now number about 70 worldwide - were delayed or cancelled, according to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute.

"People around the world have yet to get to terms with the size of the financial commitment, the associated risk and the necessary incentives to try to overcome those things," says Mr Chapman. "You must bear in mind that we will be using very, very secure and very well-proven geological structures to contain the [carbon dioxide]. And don't forget there is 100-per-cent leakage of [carbon dioxide] at the moment."

One source of public funding could be credits from the averted emissions. UN delegates met in Abu Dhabi last week to iron out the details of granting credits for carbon capture to developing nations, which could in turn sell the credits to European markets.

The discussions stem from the decision at December's UN climate change talks to allow carbon capture projects to earn credits, so long as issues such as liability in the case of an accidental carbon dioxide release are resolved.

The amount of money to be earned from the credits is relatively small. Futures on the ICE exchange in Europe trade just above €8 (Dh40.13), and industry executives say that needs to rise to €30 at least to make a difference in large-scale carbon capture projects.

But the most significant gain for carbon capture was not in potential cash earnings but in being ranked alongside solar power, reforestation and other emissions-cutting measures that are also embraced by green activists.

Carbon capture is a cornerstone of Abu Dhabi's plan to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. The emirate is among the world's top five emitters per capita.

One arm of its clean-energy company, Masdar, is dedicated to developing UN carbon credits for renewable energy and carbon capture projects.

Building renewable energy and nuclear power plants while pushing ahead with carbon capture projects could help the emirate cut its emissions by more than one quarter over the next 10 years, according to the Executive Affairs Authority.

Abu Dhabi has some of the world's most ambitious carbon capture plans, including a 500km pipeline network to connect industrial sites to oilfields and an innovative hydrogen power plant that would yield 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year as a by-product that would be injected into the emirate's older oilfields to boost production. This would extend their life by an estimated 15 per cent.

But it is cheaper for oil producers to reinject their own natural gas instead, one reason the pipeline network and hydrogen plant are on hold for now.

"If you don't give them incentives or inducements, they will not come to oil-exporting countries, because the cost of CCS is high," said a delegate from another Gulf country who asked not to be named. "It makes a difference if you have incentives for that as investors, as a company."