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Carbon capture isn’t a silver bullet but it’s part of the answer

The priority for the energy transition should be to reduce emissions. Systems integration can do this

A worker examines rolls of steel rods. Carbon capture can help to reduce emissions from hard-to-abate sectors such as steel production Oriental Image via Reuters Connect
A worker examines rolls of steel rods. Carbon capture can help to reduce emissions from hard-to-abate sectors such as steel production

There’s a common misconception about the energy transition – that it is primarily about replacing fossil fuel energy sources. 

The adoption of renewable energy is important, but the priority for the transition should be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, rather than simply to eliminate fuel sources. 

To be sure, transformative technology will be needed to meet climate targets. But world energy demand cannot be met by subtraction.

According to the International Energy Agency, carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) can provide a significant portion of emissions reductions, offering scalable and feasible decarbonisation. 

It is critical for reducing global emissions because of its ability to decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors such as cement and steel.

In CCUS, carbon dioxide is captured from industrial processes or directly from the air. It can be used in several ways, including enhanced oil recovery, manufacturing, producing synthetic fuels or in greenhouses for enhanced plant growth.

CO2 that cannot be used economically is injected deep underground into geological formations such as depleted oil and gas reservoirs, saline aquifers or coal seams, where it is securely stored to prevent its release into the atmosphere.

Carbon capture in the GCC

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE are actively boosting their CCUS facilities because of their large CO2 emissions. These countries also have access to ideal geological formations for storage. 

Three CCUS projects in the GCC region already account for nearly 10 percent of the CO2 captured globally, compared with Europe’s total annual carbon capture accounting for 4 percent globally.    

Jubail Industrial City in Saudi Arabia aims to capture 9 million tonnes of CO2 annually by 2027 and about 44 million tonnes a year by 2035. The state oil company Saudi Aramco alone intends to capture 6 million tonnes of that capacity. 

Aramco’s natural gas liquids plant in Hawiyah already collects and processes 45 million standard cubic feet of CO2, transmitting it via an 85km pipeline and injecting it into the Uthmaniyah oil reservoir.   

CCUS investment needs to grow ‘at warp speed’ to meet climate goals

In 2016 the UAE completed Al Reyadah, the first commercial-scale CCUS facility in the region. It injects captured CO2 from Emirates Steel Industries into onshore oilfields, with a yearly capacity of up to 800,000 tonnes.

The UAE is also investigating the permanent mineralisation of CO2 within rock formations, with the first CO2 injection well in a carbonate saline aquifer. 

The Ras Laffan facility by Qatar Energy, which opened in 2019, has captured 5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent since then. It plans to store up to 2.2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually. 

These large-scale projects speak for the region’s strong commitment to achieving climate targets.

Carbon capture challenges

Detractors characterise CCUS as a greenwashing tactic, arguing that it perpetuates investment in fossil fuels at the expense of renewable energy development. 

The technology’s implementation faces numerous challenges linked to project financing, slow issuing of permits and public perception. These are coupled with underdeveloped infrastructure, uneven and uncertain policy and mounting safety and environmental concerns. 

At present, scaling and commercialisation are challenging, with uncertain revenue streams and limited short-term viability. 

According to the International Energy Forum, CCUS investment needs to grow “at warp speed” to meet climate goals. 

To suggest that CCUS is a “silver bullet” is misleading – it is not for everyone, everywhere. But the electricity sector can enhance energy security by maintaining a diverse energy mix that includes both renewable and fossil fuel-based generation with CCUS. 

Global electricity demand will double in the coming 30 years, but replacing fossil-fuelled electricity entirely is impractical in this timeframe. Renewable electricity capacity does not equal delivered electricity, and battery storage at this scale is unfeasible over the coming 30 years. And all that said – it accounts for less than 40 percent of the emissions challenge.

CCUS spans an entire energy supply system that must be decarbonised. To achieve this, comprehensive networks and a broad commercial deployment across multiple markets and facilities are needed. The German word “Verbund” – meaning to “combine” or an “integrated system” – illustrates this concept.

Broad commercial deployment demands integrated approaches globally, beyond institutional research conducted at individual sites on the back of government grants.

We must strive to create commercial value at scale and provide a solution that is sustainable.

Charles McConnell is executive director at the Center for Carbon Management in Energy, University of Houston, and is a former US assistant secretary of energy

Osama Abazeed is vice president for the Middle East at RESMAN Energy Technology

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