Illustration; Courtesy of Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

Report: Instead of emission silver bullet, offshore CCS rush deemed as fossil fuel extension cover-up

While the energy transition tale comes with a myriad of new low-carbon and green sources of supply, many have been singing the praises of carbon capture and storage (CCS) as an important decarbonization tool. However, a new report from the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) puts this belief into question as it outlines that offshore CCS is not a solution to fossil fuel pollution. Ahead of COP28, where CCS is expected to be among the technologies being recommended to curb the carbon footprint, the report labels CCS as a smokescreen used to extend the life of fossil fuels.

Illustration; Courtesy of Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

According to CIEL’s new report, titled ‘Deep Trouble: The Risks of Offshore Carbon Capture and Storage,’ CCS is “a dangerous distraction” from real progress on climate change. This report lays out the alleged threats posed by fossil fuel industry plans to store carbon dioxide beneath the ocean floor. While examining the new push to massively scale up offshore CCS by pooling CO₂ waste in shared storage hubs in the world’s oceans, the report underlines that this presents “uncalculated risks and unprecedented monitoring challenges.”

As the report entails a public database covering 62 offshore CCS projects globally, including in the U.S., the UK, Australia, Norway, and the UAE, CIEL’s analysis of proposed projects found that many were allegedly being used to justify the expansion of new fossil fuels, rather than slashing existing emissions.  With this at the forefront, the report claims that offshore CCS entrenches reliance on fossil fuels and puts coastal communities and overtaxed marine environments at “greater risk.” As a result, CIEL recommends halting the rush to develop offshore CO₂ storage hubs and strengthening regulatory regimes at the domestic and international levels to prevent so-called harm from offshore CCS.

Source: Center for International Environmental Law’s report

Nikki Reisch, CIEL’s Climate and Energy Program Director, commented: “The fossil fuel industry has a long history of turning waste streams into profit streams, and the push to build out massive CO₂ dumping grounds under the ocean floor is just the latest example. Proposed offshore CCS ‘hubs’ are enabling big polluters to amplify the myth that we don’t need to phase out fossil fuels, we can just ‘manage’ their emissions. But CCS’s track record is riddled with failures and warning signs about the technology’s feasibility and safety.

And a rapidly warming climate is not the only problem: fossil fuels also damage ecosystems, acidify the oceans, drive millions of deaths per year, pollute our water, and destabilize our economies. CCS is a false promise that only helps to keep fossil fuel facilities running and oil and gas fields pumping. The last thing we should do is trust the same industry that has pushed the world’s oceans and climate to the brink to bring us back from it. We need real climate action, not misguided attempts to sweep pollution under the seabed. It’s time to safeguard our oceans and accelerate the transition to a fossil-free future. Offshore CCS does neither.”

What are the report’s salient points?

  • Unprecedented Growth of Offshore CCS: As of mid-2023, over fifty new offshore CCS projects have been announced worldwide, potentially leading to more than a 200-fold increase in annual CO₂ injection beneath the seabed.
  • Serious Feasibility and Safety Concerns: Many proposed projects seek to pool CO₂ from multiple sources in subsea storage hubs, an untested approach. Until now, global experience with offshore CCS has been based on just two projects in Norway. Both encountered unpredicted problems, highlighting the complexity and unpredictability of offshore CCS, and raising questions about its risks.
  • Covering Up Fossil Fuel Expansion: Some offshore CCS projects mask expanded fossil fuel production and use, hindering the transition to cleaner energy sources.
  • Uncalculated Risks: Injecting CO₂ under the seabed poses uncalculated risks like seismic activity and toxic brine displacement.
  • Prone to Leaks: Proposed CCS storage hubs concentrate in areas with legacy oil and gas wells, increasing the risk of CO₂ leakage.
  • Pressure on Oceans: Offshore CCS perpetuates the exploitation of oceans, which are already in crisis from climate change and decades of oil and gas production. Leaks and other accidents could pose major hazards to sensitive marine organisms and add to the ocean acidification crisis.
  • Public Subsidies: Offshore CCS is a costly endeavor that is heavily dependent on government subsidies. Government support for offshore CCS diverts significant public funds away from proven solutions and towards polluters.
  • Legal Bulwarks and Gaps: Existing national and international laws can help put the brakes on offshore CCS projects and protect the oceans, communities, and the climate. Evolving CCS-specific regulations must be strengthened to prevent harm. In many jurisdictions, there are still questions regarding who bears the long-term liability and costs for CO₂ storage wells.
  • Decades of CCS Failures: CCS projects have repeatedly fallen short of capture targets and encountered financial and technical hurdles, raising doubts about their feasibility and safety.

Steven Feit, CIEL’s Senior Attorney and Legal and Research Manager, remarked: “The United States is the epicenter of the global push for CCS, with a long history of using captured carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery and extraordinary subsidies for carbon capture. As the oil and gas industry turns to the seas as a destination for their carbon pollution and a source of ever more government largesse, the Gulf of Mexico is a major target, threatening the ecosystems and communities within and around it and the climate as a whole. The accelerating efforts to build ever more dangerous, unnecessary, and expensive infrastructure offshore should be abandoned, and subsidies for CCS should be eliminated.”

The findings from this report are not in line with widely held beliefs about CCS as an emission reduction tool that can lend a helping hand in reaching net-zero goals. Wood Mackenzie, an energy intelligence group, recently pointed out that emerging sectors could not usher in net zero by 2050 without carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS). Due to this, additional investment in decarbonization through more CCUS projects was recommended. Currently, Wood Mackenzie is tracking globally planned CCUS capacity at 1,400 Mt CO2 Pa and the U.S. is in the lead with 33% of all projects. 

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On the other hand, the International Energy Agency’s recent edition of the Net Zero Roadmap reduced projections for CCS deployment in 2030 by around 40% compared to the original NZE scenario, due to – what it described as – “a history of unmet expectations.” Just like CIEL’s report, many environmental activists and organizations claim that CCS is being touted as a climate silver bullet, but they see it as a lifeline for new oil and gas development.