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Carbon Capture: A Smokescreen for the Fossil Fuel Industry

Britain is ‘strikingly unprepared’ to face the escalating consequences of inadequate action on climate change

Photo: PA/Alamy

Carbon CaptureA Smokescreen for the Fossil Fuel Industry

Britain is ‘strikingly unprepared’ to face the escalating consequences of inadequate action on climate change

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During a keynote speech at the Spectator’s recent energy summit, Department for Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary Grant Shapps assured Britain’s oil and gas industry that the Government would support its plans to accelerate drilling in the North Sea. Arguing that it “simply makes no sense whatsoever to deny our own oil and gas, and instead import it – with twice the embedded carbon – from elsewhere in the world”, he said that the oil and gas sector “has been remarkable in this country” and that “we want it to stay”.

Shapps advocated for the expansion of Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) technology to accompany new oil and gas development, referring to Britain’s CCUS infrastructure as a “geological landmine” and as “one of the greatest storage potentials in the entire world”.

The Government currently intends to develop several substantial oil projects, including the Rosebank oil field west of Shetland, which will produce an estimated 500 million barrels of oil and, according to the environmental campaign group Uplift, has the potential to exceed oil and gas emissions limitations within the UK’s fifth carbon budget, from 2028 to 2032, by 8%. It has also been estimated that most of the oil produced by Rosebank will be exported.

As Government advisory body the Climate Change Committee (CCC) warns that Britain is “strikingly unprepared” to face the escalating consequences of inadequate action on climate change – and the High Court grants Greenpeace permission to pursue a judicial review against the Government following a new oil and gas licencing round – concerns have risen among environmental groups and critics that prioritising speculative technologies such as CCUS over widespread investment in clean energy and climate mitigation infrastructure threatens to imperil key decarbonisation targets.

A Smokescreen for Fossil Fuels

The development of CCUS was a centrepiece in Shapps’ strategy for “powering up Britain”, as he argued that the £20 billion that the Government planned to spend on the new technology over the next 20 years would create jobs and allow Britain to become a world leader.

The plans, however, were met with widespread criticism.

Kevin Anderson, climate and energy professor at the University of Manchester, said that “when it comes to energy emissions, the claimed prospect of CCS continues its long-established role in supporting the development of the oil and gas industry and in further delaying real cuts in emissions”.

“Given the huge cost, very high-life cycle emissions and appalling record of working as promised, there is little, if any, merit in pursuing CCS as a major plank of UK energy strategy,” he told the Guardian

Meanwhile Bob Ward, head of policy at LSE’s Grantham Institute, argued that “what does not make sense is to carry on with further development of new fossil fuel reserves on the assumption that CCS will be available to mop up all the additional emissions”. He warned that CCS “will not eliminate all the risks resulting from the price volatility and energy insecurity of fossil fuels”.

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Indeed, doubts remain over whether CCUS can effectively reduce emissions when deployed at scale.

A report published by Friends of the Earth Scotland argued that global CCUS capacity stood at 39MtCO2 – just 0.1% of all annual fossil fuel emissions. The report also claimed that “81% of carbon captured to date has been used to extract more oil via the process of Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR)… this means CCS is being predominantly used for carbon emitting oil extraction that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible”.

In its current form, CCUS can provide the fossil fuel industry with a convenient reason to prolong the extraction of heavily polluting fuels, ensuring that powerful oil and gas companies are not compelled to implement detailed, coherent strategies for divesting from fossil fuels and altering their business models to align with environmental objectives. 

Prominent industry figures are intent on securing government backing, as the Government currently plans to develop four key industrial clusters: Viking, HyNet North West, the East Coast, and Acorn. BP recently took a stake in Viking, a CCUS project led by Harbour Energy, and the Acorn CCS cluster has support from Shell, SSE and Equinor.

Indeed, internal industry communications demonstrate that CCUS often functions as a tool to extend the longevity of fossil fuel production, which is why it receives support from firms such as BP and Exxon-Mobil.

According to a February 2016 BP internal paper, CCUS “could enable continued large-scale use of fossil fuels in a tightly carbon-limited world but faces substantial technology, commercial and logistical challenges”.

In a November 2017 document analysed by DeSmog, Shell stated that “we must also continue to make the case for our oil, gas and chemical products, helping to reveal how essential they are for modern life” – describing CCUS technologies as “complementary approaches” whose primary purpose was to accompany renewed fossil gas extraction and enhance Shell’s reputation, rather than to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

In the US, lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute (API) – which argued that President Biden’s failure to extract domestic oil and gas in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had “left the US and our allies vulnerable to the malicious manoeuvrings of Vladimir Putin” – advocated for the expansion of CCUS as a mechanism which would enable energy firms to continue fossil fuel extraction.

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In a 2021 document, the API stated that CCUS “enables the use of petroleum and natural gas by providing an opportunity to capture and/or offset emissions, while also offering the opportunity to lower the carbon profile of oil and natural gas production”. 

Its public messages, however, downplayed the usefulness of CCUS to the fossil fuel industry, prompting the House of Representatives oversight committee to state in a December 2022 memorandum that API’s messaging strategy “advocates for government financial support for carbon capture technologies as a climate mitigation initiative – without public acknowledgement that the support entrenches reliance on fossil fuels, thereby directly benefiting the companies’ business-as-usual operation and delaying the transition to clean energy”.

The Government’s advocacy for the development of CCUS has coincided with the oil and gas industry’s reluctance to diversify its investments. According to analysis from think tank Common Wealth, published in February, BP spent 14 times as much on shareholder pay-outs as on low carbon investments last year; while Shell spent 7.6 times more on share buy-backs than on renewable energy sources. In 2022, BP invested just 6% of its capital expenditure back into renewables, compared with 14% for Shell and 24% for TotalEnergies.

While CCUS is potentially beneficial on a limited scale within the agricultural sector, the Government’s reliance on it to mitigate rising emissions from the oil and gas industry threatens to imperil its legally binding climate change obligations.

CCUS arguably remains a centrepiece in the ambitions of influential fossil fuel companies to evade accountability for prolonging heavily polluting investments, as internal communications have suggested. As the Government continues to permit further licensing rounds to extract more oil and gas from the North Sea, speculative, under-developed technologies are unlikely to provide a stable path to net zero.  

This article was amended on 18/01/2024 to correct an error about the output of the Rosebank field

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