CCS – Norway to the rescue?

This piece originally appeared in BusinessGreen on 9th May 2016

I’m still coming to terms with the supreme act of folly that constituted the government’s recent decision to ditch the entire carbon capture and storage programme just at the moment when the two projects that could have led to early full scale capture and sequestration demonstration were about to submit their detailed proposals for the use of the funding for the projects. And, in one instance at least, with indications of considerable international investment for future development in the pipeline.

The National Audit Office has launched an investigation into the decision to end the competition early, at the request of the Shadow Secretary for Energy and Climate Change, Lisa Nandy. However, with one stroke of a pen, the prospect of becoming a world leader in CCS technology with all its consequential advantages for future supply has gone, leaving the UK with a few million pounds invested in some very marginal research efforts, and precious little else.

Despite this, the government is still making generally supportive pro-CCS noises, although that has not extended as far as producing a revised CCS strategy which was the subject of some amendments moved by the opposition during the passage of the Energy Bill, and rejected by the government. Activity has been restricted to the insertion into the Bill of some mildly more favourable approaches towards the prospects for a future North Sea sequestration industry, and the establishment of a CCS task force under the redoubtable chairmanship of Lord Ron Oxburgh.

So we might say that CCS, as far as the UK is concerned, is not dead, but merely resting. But we really do need some kind of roadmap as to what direction UK CCS is likely to take now that the pilot projects are gone. Indeed, we already know that the text of the Fifth Carbon Budget – which the Government has to respond to and (hopefully) accept as our future climate change action framework – will contain some very strong assumptions about the relationship between effectively operating CCS by the early 2030s and the maintenance after that point of viable decarbonisation plans.

I do not know what the Oxburgh task force is going to say, but one area they will undoubtedly be thinking about is whether we can pull out at least some of the momentum from previous programmes by perhaps sharing the load for full CCS with one or more international partners. Here, by coincidence comes a prospect for just such a possible international partnership right in our backyard, or more precisely in the Norwegian zone of the North Sea oil fields.

I recently met with Statoil, the Norwegian state energy company with long experience in CCS activity, and at the meeting, they outlined to me a project they were embarking on with the support and commissioning of the Norwegian government, namely to identify and establish a repository from among the depleted fields relatively close to the Norwegian coast. They are looking at several depleted fields and will be reporting formally back to the Norwegian government in June.

The government itself has said that it wants to get at least one fully operating full scale plant up and running by 2020. Sequestration in the first instance would be by ship, not by pipeline, and the facility is envisaged in the first instance as one to sequester emissions from Norwegian heavy industry, but the potential is far larger than that: it really calls out for some international collaboration to establish the full chain of capture, transport and sequestration, with at least the latter two being substantially de-risked by the activities that are already in the planning stage. It opens the prospect, with such co-operation, of the UK concentrating on establishing capture clusters that are within reach (by ship) of the chosen Norwegian field and are capable of exploring the commercial aspects of such clusters (such as hydrogen production and possible enhanced oil recovery) whilst a partner looks after the potentially more tricky issues around transportation and sequestration.

It would require some investment by the UK. But it would probably need far less investment than envisaged in the original plans for the pilot projects, and would, for that smaller level of investment, revitalise the CCS momentum in the UK. I would like to think that the government is, at this moment, actively engaged in the process of early phone calls that could give this collaboration life: I will certainly be pressing ministers to do so at an early date. After all, if a stroke of a pen can cut our CCS programme, the dial of a phone might equally revive it again: well, that and an indication from Treasury that the reinvestment of even a fraction of the money captured and sequestered from the pilot projects might be on the cards. How about it? Tomorrow, perhaps?

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