OPINION: As newly appointed UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak scrambles to stitch together yet another Cabinet and restore some sense of credibility to the Conservative government, questions are raised once again over the future of the country’s carbon capture ambitions.

With Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss throwing in the towel late last week and making her mark in the history books as the shortest-serving head of government, the UK political lottery wheel was spinning again as the country is in the midst of an energy crisis, eye-watering inflation and a spiralling cost of living.

The chaos in Westminster is bound to spell trouble for the UK’s climate and energy commitments, including its support for carbon capture and storage.

The industry's concern was palpable during the Carbon Capture & Storage Association (CCSA) 2022 conference held in London early last week — Truss was still PM at that point, although her fate was already sealed.

What is Westminster doing?

Clarity, commitments, timing, outline of business models were all talking points delegates urged the government to address. Developers are ready to move forward, they said. What is Westminster doing?

Government representatives from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) at the event were at pains to address the worries.

They promised the government remains “fully committed” to CCS but could offer no specifics of what would happen and when.

Even Climate Minister Graham Stuart, in a last-minute video address as (now former) business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg failed to attend, gave away little beyond talk of a “financing envelope” the government would table to support projects.

If attendees were hoping to come away with a better idea of what the government had in store, they were disappointed.

And despite the appointment of Sunak — the fourth PM in four years — it is easy to see how the attention towards CCS could fall by the wayside.

The government made a series of commitments over the past two years on what it wants to achieve.

Its CCUS Cluster Sequencing Process targets the deployment of two CCS clusters by 2025 and two more by 2030.

HyNet and the East Coast Cluster are the first two in development, with projects shortlisting for due diligence ongoing.

Holding their nerve

A decision on business model, priorities and financing is not expected until the first or second quarter of next year, sources told Upstream. Meanwhile, investors and developers hold their nerve.

The undercurrent to this is a fear that Sunak’s administration could simply disavow the previous commitments to the clusters, or leave them on the shelf indefinitely as it battles other priorities.

That would be a severe blow for the sector, which is enjoying strong momentum but is also facing scrutiny to prove it can deliver on its emission-mitigating promise.

And there is a real risk that investors will simply look elsewhere. If, until recently, developers were committed to the UK because of a lack of a better option, the Inflation Reduction Act in the US, passed in August, changed that.

Delegates pointed to the US act as the blueprint they need because it spells out the scale and volume of state backing and financial support that CCS projects could access, as well as a timeline for these to be deployed. It tells developers: this is what you can get, and this is what you have to do.

On this side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, the game of thrones in Westminster is raging, and the country’s carbon capture ambitions hang in the balance.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)