The growing interest in carbon capture and sequestration is providing a welcome, if as yet uncertain, diversification option for geophysical services companies.

All the main marine seismic players have added carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS/CCS) credentials to their What We Do profiles — some with more enthusiasm than others.

This caution is understandable, because it is hard to read the signals about the practicality of establishing offshore storage sites around the world, the scale required to be effective in reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and, crucially, the value proposition for companies or governments to invest.

Last November, the International Energy Agency (IEA) confirmed the perception that developments in this field, onshore and off, are not on track.

It pointed out that the number of new projects online, and “a large number under development”, fall far short of the sequestration capacity needed to reach the net zero by 2050 target of almost 1.15  billion tonnes per annum.

Daunting figures

The latest status report from the Global CCS Institute (GCI), the leading tracking agency, suggests that limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius requires installed CCS capacity to increase from around 40 million tpa today to more than 5.6 billion tpa by 2050.

Between $655 billion and $1.28 trillion in capital investment is needed by 2050, it added.

It acknowledges that the figures seem daunting, but points out that in 2018, $1.85 trillion was invested in the energy sector alone.

More ominously, it notes: “If we assume there is a business case for investment, and that capital is not a big constraint, the largest barrier to meeting climate targets is time.”

These are big assumptions.

In a lecture for the Society of Exploration Geophysicists in 2021, Stanford University geophysics professor Mark Zoback pointed out that “even to reach the 2030 goal, we have to increase the scale of what’s currently happening globally, which is about 40 million [tpa].

“We have to increase that by 25-fold in a decade or less. And it also means that while we have 20 commercially viable CCS projects today that are going on, we need 70 to 100 new projects added per year to achieve this goal.”

The GCI points to encouraging signs that global capacity has been growing.

Around 135 projects are in the pipeline, with 71 added in the first nine months of last year. The US leads with 36. Other significant players so far are the UK (eight), the Netherlands (five) and Belgium (four).

Most positive development is focused on the industrialised West, however. In the absence of the right drivers, prospects for CCUS in South-East Asia, for example, remain questionable, according to a report from the Institute of Energy Economics & Financial Analysis.

Recognising that CCS is still a niche in the push to net zero, Wood Mackenzie chief analyst Simon Flowers estimates that “capturing and storing CO2 accounts for 20% of the emissions reduction needed to achieve global net zero by 2050”.

The technology is expensive and capital-intensive — two-thirds of lifetime costs are upfront expenditure — but Wood Mackenzie believes costs will fall over time and the shift of investment from individual projects to CCS hubs will provide game-changing economics of scale.

Heavy industries account for almost 20% of global CO2 emissions today.

Technology solution

The IEA believes that CCUS is virtually the only technology solution for deep emissions reductions from cement production.

It is also the most cost-effective approach in many regions to curb emissions in iron and steel and chemicals manufacturing.

Captured CO2 is also a critical part of the supply chain for synthetic fuels from CO2 and hydrogen — one of a limited number of low-carbon options for long-distance transport, particularly aviation.

Storing CO2 involves the injection of captured gas into a deep underground geological reservoir of porous rock overlaid by an impermeable layer of rocks, which seals the reservoir and prevents the upward “leakage” of CO2 to the atmosphere.

This has obvious applications for the geophysical services industry.

Current geological data libraries provide information on potential storage sites, and companies can support the whole cycle from specific seismic surveys of proposed locations, involvement in the injection process and providing long-term monitoring of the storage facility and its integrity.

Yet the market for offshore CO2 storage is still in its infancy. The first large-scale carbon capture and injection project with dedicated CO2 storage and monitoring was commissioned at the Sleipner offshore gas facility in Norway in 1996.

The project has now stored more than 20 million tonnes of CO2 in a deep saline formation around 1000 metres below the North Sea.

The first major commercial offshore facilities — Northern Lights (Equinor, Shell and TotalEnergies) in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea, and Northern Endurance (BP, Eni, Equinor, National Grid, Shell and TotalEnergies) offshore the UK — are under way.

Northern Lights, due to come into service in 2024, will be part of the Longship project to create the first cross-border, open-source CO2 transport and storage infrastructure network open to companies across Europe.

Global CO2 storage resources are considered to be well in excess of likely future requirements.

In many regions, however, much more assessment work is required to convert theoretical storage capacity into “bankable” storage to support CCUS investment, according to a joint study by the Norwegian University of Science & Technology, Equinor and the University of Texas at Austin.

Good news, perhaps, for a seismic industry looking to diversify.