Plenty of chips are being placed upon carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology as the answer to improve the sustainability of industrial supply chains, with the UK government recently pledging £20 billion over two decades into such projects. What is the state of play and where is the future direction of travel, asks James Bourne.
March 2023 saw the two-year anniversary of the launch of the North Sea Transition Deal (NSTD). Don’t worry if you missed it – most people did. But within this deal is a very important development in terms of carbon capture and storage (CCS).
The 2021 deal, in the words of the UK government, ‘sets out an ambitious plan for how the UK’s offshore oil and gas sector and the government will work together to deliver the skills, innovation and new infrastructure required to meet stretching greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.’ The offshore energy sector contributes around 4% of total UK emissions, so it is a not inconsiderable amount. More specifically, there are five key commitments to the plan: carbon capture and storage (CCS); supply chain decarbonisation; hydrogen; supply chain transformation; and people and skills.
CCS is very much in vogue right now, with the government announcing in its most recent budget £20 billion to be pledged across the next two decades into such projects. Commitments in the NSTD include establishing ‘at least two industrial clusters by the mid-2020s’, or, zoomed out, ‘four by 2030 at the latest’, which translates to a total capture rate annually of 20-30 million tons of CO2 per year by the end of the decade.
So to the important development. In May, the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) announced awards for 20 carbon storage licences at offshore sites, a process which had begun last June with applications closing in September. The total area of these sites is set to be at 12,000 square kilometres in size and, according to the NSTA, once the storage sites are in operation – six years’ time is the initial target – they ‘could make a significant contribution’ to the 30m tons capture target.
Something to shout about then? While the NSTA announcement includes expectedly ebullient remarks from Martin Callanan, minister for energy efficiency and green finance, the last update in terms of government publications was a paper in March 2022, in association with Offshore Energies UK (OEUK), celebrating the one-year NSTD milestone.
OEUK, however, has got the bunting and streamers out for the deal’s second birthday. Last month saw OEUK articles appear in publication Energy Voice and trade association Energy UK with similar messages; the former offered a similar progress report of ‘lots achieved, but lots more to do’, particularly highlighting hydrogen and skills, while the latter noted there is ‘a lot of work to do’, specifically looking at unlocking the potential for deploying floating offshore wind to align with decarbonisation targets.
A leaflet published by the trade association in April to commemorate the anniversary assessed the state of play and what still needed to be done. The leaflet notes several next steps with regard to CCS; releasing of pipeline and flow assurance standards, as well as other industry standards and support financial framework; while two major capture sites, Acorn in Scotland and Viking in Humberside, are set to secure final investment.
“The NSTD has been instrumental in driving progress in carbon capture and storage, with several successful licensing rounds resulting in the development of new infrastructure and technology to capture and store carbon emissions,” OEUK noted. “As we celebrate [NSTD’s] second anniversary, we can look back with pride on what has been achieved and look forward to the future with optimism and confidence.”
David Whitehouse, OEUK chief executive, noted at the time of the NSTA announcement that 100 such sites will be needed – and clusters accelerated – for net zero to be achieved. “We look forward to the government’s continued support for [CCS] to make sure the UK secures a leadership position in this exciting new sector,” said Whitehouse.
While trade associations and individual actors can certainly help with any sustainable technology, government support is vital – not just in terms of investment but organisation. Carbon capture is an area where government-level leadership is necessary, according to Peter Matthews, director at agency Nucleus. While the technology works and facilities are in place, expansion, investment, and joined-up thinking – the sort of thing an agency director is naturally competent at – are required.
Matthews insists he is not an expert on carbon capture per se, but he has previously cited the example of decommissioned gas fields in the North Sea which could become effective carbon storage ‘sinks’, but with no plans for infrastructure requirements to get the carbon there.
“I cannot comprehend why it has taken so long for the UK government to invest in carbon capture, usage and storage – particularly given that the UK has so many potential offshore storage assets in the North Sea, which should be seen as a competitive advantage,” Matthews tells Sustainable Future News. “The government’s net zero strategy might aim to move the UK closer to meeting its legally-binding carbon commitments, yet as we notch up another year of climate extremes, the writing isn’t just on the wall, it’s spray-canned over every surface.
“We are late, and we are now in a race that we have to win.”
Matthews notes that carbon capture is only one card in a successful hand, citing wind, photovoltaics, and green hydrogen, as well as the perils of greenwashing in communicating the benefits of what are, ultimately, complex technologies. “Carbon capture may also be seen as an opportunity for the UK to communicate environmental stewardship,” he notes. “However no one solution is a silver bullet.
“From my perspective, this is where branding comes in,” Matthews adds. “Powerful, inspiring brand stories need to be told clearly, transparently and honestly, so customers can make the right choices and be able to tell the pale, mid or dark green from the greenwash.
“In my experience, based on the recent new brands we have created, clearly communicated environmental benefits are all well and good so long as no-one claims to have a silver bullet. Being honest and clear in the claims made is imperative if we are to have a positive impact.”
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