Government gambles on carbon capture and storage tech despite scientists’ doubts
The UK government will defy scientific doubts to place a massive bet on technology to capture and store carbon dioxide in undersea caverns, to enable an expansion of oil and gas in the North Sea.
Grant Shapps, the energy and net zero secretary, will on Thursday unveil the “powering up Britain” strategy, with carbon capture and storage (CCS) at its heart, during a visit to a nuclear fusion development facility in Oxford.
Shapps said the continued production of oil and gas in the North Sea was still necessary, and that the UK had a geological advantage in being able to store most of the carbon likely to be produced in Europe for the next 250 years in the large caverns underneath the North Sea.
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“Unless you can explain how we can transition [to net zero] without oil and gas, we need oil and gas,” he said. “I am very keen that we fill those cavities with storing carbon. I think there are huge opportunities for us to do that.”
Shapps pointed to the £20bn the government is planning to spend over 20 years on developing CCS, which he said would generate new jobs and make the UK a world leader in the technology.
Among the 1,000 pages of proposals to be published on Thursday will be boosts for offshore wind, hydrogen, heat pumps and electric vehicles. A green finance strategy, to be set out by the chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, will be aimed at mobilising private-sector money for investments in green industry, and there will be a consultation on carbon border taxes, aimed at penalising the import of high-carbon goods from overseas.
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But the plans contain no new government spending, and campaigners said they missed out key elements, such as a comprehensive programme of home insulation and a full lifting of the ban on new onshore wind turbines in England.
Ministers are also thought to have rejected or modified scores of the 130 policy recommendations made by Tory MP Chris Skidmore in his review of the net-zero strategy, published in January. For instance, oil and gas companies will not be forced to stop flaring, carmakers will not be set a target for the proportion of electric vehicles they must sell, and the ban on sales of new gas boilers from 2035 will not be brought forward.
Meanwhile, the government is in the midst of a new licensing round for North Sea oil and gas development, which will run until next June, and oil and gas companies, which have made record profits in recent months, are proposing new developments, encouraged by tax breaks for investment in fossil fuel assets under the windfall tax.
Proposals under consideration include a potentially massive new field called Rosebank, which campaigning group Uplift said could receive an effective subsidy of £3.75bn under the windfall tax.
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Scientists told the Guardian that an overdependence on CCS was ill-advised. More than 700 scientists have written to the prime minister asking him to grant no new oil and gas licences, describing CCS as “yet to be proved at scale”, and the UN secretary-general called on governments last week to stop developing oil and gas.
Bob Ward, head of policy at the Grantham Institute, said CCS technology would be needed for certain industries, but that using it to enable the continued use of fossil fuels was a mistake. “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. While the costs of CCS will come down, it will make fossil fuel use even more expensive, and it will not eliminate all the risks resulting from the price volatility and energy insecurity of fossil fuels. A successful and competitive economy in the future will be powered by clean and affordable domestic energy, not unreliable and insecure fossils fuels,” he said.
“CCS is not required if the government moves to renewables as quickly as possible – especially as I am unaware of any CCS that works,” added Mark Maslin, professor of earth science at UCL.
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Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate at Manchester, said: “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.”
Emily Shuckburgh, director of Cambridge Zero at Cambridge University, who organised the letter by scientists, said: “Advancing CCS is important because there are some sectors that are hard to decarbonise which will require it if we are to rapidly reach net zero. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear that the level of greenhouse gas emissions this decade will determine whether temperature rise can be limited to 1.5C [above pre-industrial levels]. In that context, the focus of our energy strategy must be on scaling up proven renewable technologies, developing energy storage, supporting energy efficiency and reducing demand.”
The government’s plans could also face legal challenge. The “powering up Britain” strategy is in large part a response to a high court ruling last year, when a judge agreed with campaigners that government policies at the time were inadequate to meet the legally binding commitment to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The court ordered a rethink, with a deadline of the end of this month.
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Mike Childs, head of policy at Friends of the Earth, which led the case, said lawyers would closely examine the documents and return to court if the proposals did not add up. “These plans look half-baked, half-hearted and dangerously lacking ambition,” he warned. “These announcements will do little to boost energy security, lower bills or put us on track to meet climate goals.”
Alok Sharma, Tory MP and former president of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, said: “The announcements made are a very welcome step in the right direction and rapid delivery is now vital. However, what we still need to see is that big bazooka moment, commensurate with the scale of the challenge. We cannot afford to wait for the government to set out the UK’s strategic response to green growth initiatives from other nations, like the US Inflation Reduction Act, which is helping to hoover up billions in private-sector investment right now.”