Carbon capture strikes out Down Under

Should governments keep throwing finite funding at far-fetched technologies?
By Julian Spector

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(Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

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We cover a lot of surprising successes and innovators pushing the bounds of what’s possible. Today we’re turning instead to a tale of mediocrity and disappointment. Not from the clean energy industry, per se, but from the oil companies trying to minimize their carbon emissions.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the process of taking carbon emissions from a polluting facility and preventing them from escaping into the atmosphere. Depending on whom you ask, it’s a get-out-of-jail-free” card to keep polluting or a vital insurance policy to keep the climate in relatively livable conditions.

But when you look at the track record for CCS as a real thing that’s supposed to, like, work, it’s not something you’d want to bet your future on. 

The latest major failure comes to us from oil giant Chevron, which built a $54 billion natural gas drilling and export facility in Australia called Gorgon.

  • Since this new project was destined to be one of the biggest carbon emitters in the country, Chevron made a deal with Australian regulators to capture 80 percent of gas field emissions.
  • Hopes of success turned to stone when Chevron admitted this summer that Gorgon only got about halfway to this goal.
  • 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.

If at first you don’t succeed, right?

If you’re an ancient Greek warrior or a CCS optimist, Gorgon’s tough to look at. The folks with top oil and gas engineering talent and billions to spend couldn’t make it work as advertised, so you’ve got to wonder who can.

Nor is Gorgon the only CCS project off to a rocky start, reporter Jason Deign points out.

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.

Here’s how the authors of that study summarized the findings:

The record of CCS project development is overwhelmingly one of failure.”

The big question facing CCS as a potential climate solution is how much of a grace period it should be given before it needs to be good at its job.

  • Governments struggle to allocate sufficient resources to building clean energy projects that actually work — should they divert scarce dollars to CCS in the hopes that it will get better?
  • Then again, if governments didn’t fund wind and solar in their early days, they wouldn’t have grown into the mature and profit-generating technologies they are today.

But where wind and solar produce something useful — electricity — CCS reduces the waste generated by fossil-fueled industry. It’s only valuable if there’s still a mess to clean up. Many of its most enthusiastic boosters are people and companies with a vested interest in making that mess for as long as possible.

Still, plenty of level-headed climate analysts see no way to fully eliminate carbon-emitting activities from the entirety of human activity by midcentury. In that case, having some way to dispose of the emissions will be essential to meeting net-zero emission goals. 

That dynamic makes CCS analogous, in my mind, to much-hyped clean hydrogen.

  • It exists in an early stage and will continue to play some role in decarbonization, but the extent of that role is up for debate. 

  • When people do advocate for an expansive role for it, scrutinize their profit motives. 

  • It makes sense to use more cost-effective and mature clean energy alternatives wherever possible to minimize the need for it.

And other governments staring down Gorgons of their own would do well to shield themselves with some contractual penalties for underperformance. If there’s no consequence for incompetence, why strive for excellence?

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.