For as long as I can remember, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has been promoted as a way of making it possible for us to go on using fossil fuels without further destabilizing the climate. By capturing the emissions of from the combustion of these fossil fuels BEFORE they’re released into the atmosphere, and then compressing, liquefying and storing that CO2 in old oil and gas reservoirs, the argument is that we can enjoy all the benefits of fossil fuels without the downside of further cooking the planet.

Its noisiest champions are the big oil and gas companies, with governments providing billions of dollars of R&D investment over the last 20 years.

This has made CCS a big favourite in what I call the ‘all-of-the-above’ school of thought, as in: ‘there are no silver bullets here, and the climate challenge is SO vast that we need to chuck everything at it, whatever the cost and the complexity. Including CCS.’

That all-of-the-above school of thought is itself much loved by those involved in the dark arts of PREDATORY DELAY: diverting policy-makers’ attention away from urgent, cost-effective and proven decarbonisation strategies by promoting all sorts of long-term, costly and speculative technologies – which just happen to ensure a continuing role for fossil fuels.

Climate campaigners need to be very clear about this. A huge amount of both public and private money is involved in all the different variations of PREDATORY DELAY, creating increasingly problematic barriers to the kind of accelerated decarbonisation we need over the next decade.

Unfortunately, there are a lots of well-meaning, deeply committed climate campaigners seduced by these technological distractions, unwittingly providing cover for the self-serving fossil fuel companies and their investors.

By any standards, the pay-back for taxpayers from these massive CCS subsidies (over $5 billion in the USA between 2010 and 2018) is pretty poor. According to the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, there are now 65 CCS facilities of one kind or another in operation; independent analysis by the Tyndall Centre suggests a figure of just 26. According to the CCSA, the equivalent of 116 million tonnes of CO2 had been stored away by the end of 2020; the Tyndall Centre suggests no more than 39 million tons. But both agree that at least 80% of that sequestered CO2 has been used for what is known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), with the CO2 injected into declining oil and gas assets to get more out of them – not exactly a massive benefit when the key priority today is to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

Given the combination of industrial muscle and taxpayers’ money thrown at CCS over the last three decades, this is a pathetic outcome. And there’s no reason to suppose things are likely to get any better anytime soon:

1. CCS is a relatively mature technology with limited scope for optimization. It is also an inherently expensive technology, not least as it’s highly energy intensive, increasing energy consumption in any fossil fuel plant by around 30%. If that extra energy comes from fossil fuels, then those extra CO2 emissions must also be captured and stored!

2. Even the most efficient CCS units cannot capture 100% of the CO2. Data is hard to come by, but it would appear that anything around 80% capture is seen as a ‘good result’. For the operators, maybe, but not for the atmosphere.

3. Installation is slow. Even the UK Government (one of the technology’s biggest cheerleaders) acknowledges that the volumes of CO2 sequestered before 2030 will amount to no more than 10 million tonnes – if all goes well!

4. All the emphasis so far has been on the ‘capture’ side of things, with little on the ‘storage’ side – apart from the EOR schemes. There are highly significant technological, regulatory and economic barriers that will need to be addressed before any significant storage goes ahead.

In short, this is a clunky, ineffective and costly technology. All those tons of CO2 were already captured and stored underground – in coal, oil and gas deposits – and that’s where it should’ve stayed. It’s also increasingly unnecessary when it comes to abating emissions from power plants. A combination of renewable electricity, efficiency, storage and smart grids will deliver a far greater decarbonisation benefit for the same amount of money.

So what’s going on? CCS is clearly not ‘a climate solution’. But it IS a very significant way of helping today’s oil and gas companies in that it permits them to go on extracting, refining and profiting from hydrocarbon resources that would never see the light of day if we were treating accelerating climate change as a true Emergency.

As such, it’s both devious (as in people being cruelly suckered into thinking of it as a climate solution, when it’s just another way of supporting fossil fuels) and damaging. Those taxpayers’ pounds would be so much better invested in proven technologies – and particularly in energy efficiency.

We know, for instance, that billions of pounds of public money will be needed to retrofit our leaky, hopelessly inefficient housing stock, simultaneously addressing one of the great scandals in the UK today in terms of the millions of people living in chronic fuel poverty. Every pound thrown away on another CCS scam is a pound diverted from addressing that scandal.

Thus far, my comments have been about CCS in the context of generating power, sticking CCS units on coal or gas-fired power stations. There is zero justification for this, and no plants of that kind should be permitted.

It’s a different story with cement plants and other possible uses, which I shall cover in a separate blog, digging down a bit deeper into this phenomenon of PREDATORY DELAY.