By Rebecca Bell, SCCS Policy & Research Officer
With a major oil and gas conference having taken place last month there have been a lot of announcements around the industry’s role in a zero-carbon future.
Inevitably, there was discussion about whether maximising oil and gas production from the North Sea was the best way to transition to net-zero (a resounding “no” from pretty much everyone outside the industry), and, equally inevitably, carbon capture and storage (CCS) was drawn into the debate.
Oil and Gas UK stated that the sector was “supporting the development of carbon mitigating technologies, which offset emissions resulting from the use of oil and gas in the wider economy [such as CCS]”. This implication that CCS is, firstly, just about dealing with fossil fuel emissions, and secondly, that CCS can offset emissions from fossil fuel use, presumably so that extraction and consumption can carry on as usual, is deeply flawed.
CCS does have strong ties with the oil and gas industry: what we know about the UK’s geology, and its potential to store CO₂, builds on decades of research in the oil and gas industry. The CO₂ storage sites that are most well understood, and therefore ready to be used, are in mature oil and gas fields. Wells and pipelines that have reached the end of their oil and gas lifespan have the potential to be re-used for CO₂ transport and storage. The skills and expertise in the North Sea workforce are exactly what are needed to get CCS going in the UK.
At a conference in Aberdeen this week, the chief executive of the Oil and Gas Authority said delivering CCS for the UK was “remarkably achievable” and that North Sea depleted oil and gas fields held "massive potential" for CO₂ storage.
However, this doesn’t mean that deploying CCS gives oil and gas companies a free pass. The oil and gas sector’s ability (some might say, responsibility) to deploy CCS does not absolve it of its historical responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, but it does offer an opportunity to start to redress the balance.
CCS will be a crucial part of a just transition to a low-carbon economy – it can provide jobs for offshore workers and those in the oil and gas supply chain; it will also help retain jobs in industry, by allowing industry to decarbonise without ceasing production; and it will enable us to continue using oil and gas while alternatives are developed. But this transition also has to include a move away from business-as-usual for oil and gas companies.
One way to make this happen would be to establish CO₂ storage certificates (as recommended by the Parliamentary Advisory Group on CCS that require oil and gas companies to store (or pay someone else to store) an amount of CO₂ equivalent to a fixed and rising proportion of the CO₂ associated with the fossil fuels they produce. This would ensure that hydrocarbon producers begin to offset some of the emissions from the fossil fuels they supply.
CCS is part of a hierarchy of actions to reduce emissions, and it needs to happen alongside substantial decreases in energy demand, behaviour change across the board, increases in renewable power generation, process improvements and innovation in technology. CCS can’t solve climate change on its own – and it mustn’t be used as an excuse for inaction in other areas – but it will be essential.
The main value of CCS is in its ability to decarbonise parts of the economy where it is difficult to reduce emission by other means. Primarily, this means industry, where there is a high demand for heat that can only be met with fossil fuels, or where the process is such that CO₂ is unavoidable, such as cement production.
Once CCS is in place, it opens up more options for decarbonisation. As part of a low-carbon transition, it means that low-carbon hydrogen can be made in bulk from natural gas, giving the option to use hydrogen in heating and transport as an alternative, or a complement, to electrification. It also means that CO₂ from biogenic sources – such as anaerobic digestion, fermentation and distilling – can be captured and stored, providing “negative emissions”, which will be crucial to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
There is a climate emergency, but it isn’t practical to stop hydrocarbon production straight away until we have alternatives in place for the energy and products we need. That word “need” is the key: there will be a role for oil and gas as we transition to a net-zero economy, but we must do everything we can to reduce the demand for fossil fuels. This means not wasting energy, food and resources and tackling our “throwaway” culture.
Scotland has a huge capacity for carbon storage – hundreds of years’ worth of our emissions – that can also create a new source of income as part of a just transition. But we simply cannot continue with business-as-usual. The sooner we all play our part in the low-carbon transition, and share our expertise with other countries, the better our chances of tackling the global climate emergency.