It sounded so promising. Five years ago, the US multinational energy corporation Chevron committed to capturing and storing at least 80 per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions generated at its Gorgon liquefied natural gas project in Western Australia over its first five years. It would amount to around four million tonnes of CO2 per year, which would be injected beneath a small island. However, the five years are up and the plan has failed. Just four million tonnes of the greenhouse gas have been buried underground, instead of 20. A hefty fine will ensue.
Carbon capture and storage technology, or CCS, has a long string of fiascoes under its belt since it was hailed by George W Bush 20 years ago as a magic way to keep on burning fossil fuels. The basic idea is to extract CO2 from the smokestacks of coal plants or steel factories, compress it, transport it and finally inject it into some sort of underground reservoir, where (in theory) it will abide forever. But not only is the technology enormously expensive, it’s also largely unproven at scale.
Bush’s US$1.65 billion FutureGen CCS project folded in 2015. Numerous trial projects have been shut down since then. Environmentalists argue that CCS is a fig leaf, just another way to extend the fossil fuel industry’s life, and rightly so. Every oil and gas company has some flavour of ‘carbon capture’ included within its corporate plans and net-zero goals.
After 20 years of trial and error, a mere 20 commercial CCS projects are currently operating globally. They jointly capture about 40 million tonnes of CO2 a year, or one thousandth of current carbon emissions. According to the Global CCS Institute, a lobby group, 2.8 billion tonnes of CO2 must be sequestered annually by 2050 if we’re to reach the goals set in the Paris Agreement. This would mean scaling up carbon capture operations 70-fold in the next three decades. How many hundreds of miles of pipelines would be needed to accomplish that? How many subterranean aquifers with the right geology in the right location would need to be placed at our disposal?
Nevertheless, CCS enthusiasts keep on touting the idea. In October, Downing Street is expected to pick two or three hugely expensive CCS projects and provide them with financial support. Meanwhile, Chevron has already pledged to invest another US$3 billion just trying to fix its Gorgon CCS plant.
The technology that was supposed to buy us some time is now just wasting our time.