OPINION: The still uncharted course of the nascent carbon capture and storage industry is drawing flak on the grounds that it could prolong the world’s addiction to hydrocarbons, but CCS has a role to play in the energy transition.

As developed economies including the US and the UK move to establish a legislative framework to support development of CCS, the stated objective of reducing emissions from industrial operations looks like a clear winner.

A growing number of oil majors have announced CCS investments and ventures, while governments in Western countries are increasingly throwing their support behind carbon capture.

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This month, the UK shortlisted 20 such projects for access to state funding. The cash will come from a £1 billion ($1.2 billion) Carbon Capture & Storage Infrastructure Fund earmarked as part of the government’s green energy strategy.

US President Joe Biden’s administration also successfully passed the Inflation Reduction Act which, among other things, includes tax breaks for a decade for facilities that employ CCS.

Legitimate concerns

But questions abound over the efficacy of CCS in helping to move the needle towards net zero, and the Biden initiative spurred a heated debate about the credibility of such technologies.

The concerns are legitimate. Does CCS really fit into a sustainable future for energy, when its deployment underpins the consumption of more fossil fuels? Would public money be put to better use if directed towards low-carbon sectors, such as renewables? Does CCS even work — is it tried, tested, efficient and scalable?

Critics see carbon capture as the latest trick for a polluting oil and gas sector to keep doing what it has been doing while avoiding the kind of overhaul of the business model that would speed up decarbonisation.

Much of the uncertainty has to do with the embryonic state of affairs for CCS today: an anxious general public reads about huge growth plans, multiple technologies and billions of dollars in public support, but only a handful of active projects offer insight into what this all means.

Proponents will tell you that organisations such as the International Energy Agency have included carbon capture, utilisation and storage as part of the technology mix in a sustainable development and net-zero scenario.

Last year, the IEA stressed that it “has consistently highlighted the important role of CCUS in achieving net-zero emissions” and the agency's net-zero pathway suggests installed capacity should surge to 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2030, compared with 40 million tonnes at present.

But accepting that CCS has to happen still leaves many questions about where, and how, it should be deployed.

The IEA clearly states CCS should be reserved for sectors where emissions are difficult to abate, such as steelmaking, cement and chemicals.

By 2050, fossil fuels are targeted to account for one-fifth of total energy supply compared with four-fifths today, so the vast majority of today’s hydrocarbon production would not exist.

The small share of remaining active facilities would employ CCS to limit their emissions — as per IEA guidelines.

From this perspective, CCS doesn’t look like an all-you-can-eat deal for oil and gas companies. Rather, it would be a viable approach only under specific circumstances for a minority of fossil fuel assets.

In short, CCS should be a bridge to net zero, not a get-out-of jail card for fossil fuels.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)