The carbon capture project that couldn’t: Chevron misses targets for its huge Australia facility

If one of the richest companies on earth can’t get CCS to work as promised, what does that say about the embattled technology?

Chevron’s Gorgon LNG plant in Australia, where a major project to capture and store carbon emissions has fallen behind on its goals. (Chevron Australia Pty Ltd)
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With the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that average global temperatures are likely to rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels before 2050, it appears that carbon capture and storage (CCS) will be needed on top of clean energy build-outs to keep global warming in check. This means that discussions on how to achieve safe and cost-effective industrial-scale CCS will likely be high on the agenda at the COP26 U.N. climate conference in Scotland this November. 

But CCS faces a number of formidable hurdles: The technology is not yet cost-effective at scale, and critics contend that it isn’t reliable.

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This summer, it was revealed that one of the world’s top CCS projects is lagging far behind on its targets. Project owner Chevron admitted breaching the terms set by regulators for the approval of its $54 billion Gorgon liquefied natural gas processing hub in Australia after the CCS plant attached to the project failed to meet the guidelines set for carbon storage. 

The CCS plant, Australia’s largest, was supposed to lock away 80 percent of Gorgon’s gas field emissions over its first five years, a period that ended in July 2021. But at that point, the CCS facility, which only began operating two years ago, had captured just 5 million metric tons of CO2. By one analyst’s calculations, it should have captured approximately another 4.6 million metric tons to meet its commitments, meaning it had a shortfall of around 48 percent.

Chevron nevertheless hailed the 5 million metric ton mark as a significant milestone,” stating that more time than expected was needed to safely initiate the operation of the system and pointing to that as the main reason for missing its target. 

Like any pioneering endeavor, it takes time to optimize a new system to ensure it performs reliably over 40-plus years of operation,” said Chevron Australia Managing Director Mark Hatfield in a press statement.

Is Gorgon’s shortfall a sign of broader problems?

Jodi Woollam, head of communications and media relations at the International CCS Knowledge Centre, cautioned against drawing wider conclusions from the Gorgon experience. 

While we aren’t in a position to speak specifically about Gorgon or Chevron, an organization making or not making their targets could be indicative of a variety of things, from site-specific operations and business decisions to regulations in their regions,” she said in an email.

Operations from one particular facility cannot then be narrowed to be a model or a signal of operations at others.”

But the failure of one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies to be able to get a technology that has been around in various forms since the 1970s to work at scale and deliver promised results is a blow to the reputation of CCS

Even before the Gorgon shortfall, the technology already had a poor track record. A December study found that more than 80 percent of the 39 CCS projects attempted in the U.S. have ended in failure. The last such U.S. project, attached to a coal-fired power plant, NRG Energy’s Petra Nova plant in Texas, was shuttered permanently earlier this year.

Failures have been frequent elsewhere as well. In the U.K., for example, the National Audit Office said in 2017 that CCS was currently inconceivable” without government support, after investigating the collapse of a 100-million-pound ($136 million) project. 

Some critics claim CCS’s shortcomings run deeper than companies such as Chevron are willing to admit — in part because CCS plants’ massive power requirements make them huge emitters of carbon. 

If it’s a coal plant that has carbon-capture equipment, then you need about 25 percent more electricity,” said Mark Jacobson, senior fellow and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, in an interview. None of that CO2 is captured,” he said. 

In addition, he said, There’s an unknown percentage of CO2 that goes back to the air after it’s supposedly sequestered. When you account for the extra energy requirements and the potential leakages downstream, there’s no proof anything is captured.”

Researchers are divided on the efficacy of CCS

Differences of opinion over the value of CCS — and of a related concept, carbon capture, utilization and storage — are clearly evident in peer-reviewed studies on the topic. 

One study published this year by two members of the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute surveyed the 26 CCS facilities in operation worldwide today and said they demonstrate that the technology has been deployed to scale and can safely capture and store carbon dioxide.”

But the authors of the aforementioned research into 39 attempted CCS projects in the U.S. came to the opposite conclusion: The record of CCS project development is overwhelmingly one of failure,” they wrote. 

The fact that CCS is routinely proposed as a key carbon abatement tool by the oil and gas industry does little to add to the credibility of the technology. 

One of the few applications where CCS does seem to have been an unquestioned success is in enhanced oil recovery, where CO2 is injected into wells to help extract more fossil fuels — but that’s not really a great way to halt climate change. 

Meanwhile, in the power sector, when you run the numbers, there’s virtually zero capture rate,” according to Stanford’s Jacobson. I think the whole thing is a scam, just a big scheme to get funding subsidies.”

The IEA’s cautious outlook on CCS

Even the International Energy Agency, which was long regarded as a booster of the oil and gas industry, seems to have misgivings about the large-scale viability of CCS.

The organization sees carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) as an important part of the portfolio of technologies needed for the global energy sector to reach net-zero emissions,” said public relations rep Merve Erdil in an email. 

But the IEA’s proposed pathway to net-zero emissions envisions a smaller role for CCUS and CO2 removal than they play in comparably ambitious scenarios developed by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Also, said Erdil, Given the economic, political and technical uncertainties around the prospects for the rapid scale-up of CCUS, the roadmap additionally considers a low CCUS case’ that explores the implications for reaching net-zero emissions in 2050.”

Jason Deign focuses on global trends in climatetech, energy storage and wind. He is based in Barcelona, Spain.