An article by: Editorial board

There are those who argue that carbon capture and storage technologies are some kinds of panacea to stop climate change. Environmentalists protest: this is “greenwashing” carried out by oil companies

Switzerland will bury thousands of plastic barrels of liquid CO2 in the sea

Almost unnoticed was the news that “starting 2024, Switzerland will be able to export carbon dioxide (CO2) abroad and store it on the seabed.” In such a way, this Alpine country will try to achieve the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions. On Wednesday, November 22, the Federal Council, as the Swiss parliament is called, “ratified a special amendment to the appropriate international treaty.” Permanent CO2 storage is an important part of climate policy if “we are to achieve our international and national climate goals,” the Swiss government said.

Indeed, carbon dioxide can be stored on the seabed, according to the 1996 Protocol to the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (London Protocol). This Protocol prohibits any export of waste for disposal at sea, as the Federal Council has emphasized. However, the 2009 amendment creates an exception specifically for CO2 sea storage.

Carbon capture and storage technologies have been known for decades, but are currently being debated, as there is no information about the impact of CO2 re-entry into the soil

Although this news has been ignored, it highlights one of the many challenges associated with the development and implementation of carbon capture and storage technology, increasingly referred to by the acronym CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage).

Carbon capture technology has been around for decades. Back in 1972, a natural gas processing plant began operating in Terrell, Texas, delivering carbon dioxide through the first large-scale, long-distance CO₂ pipeline to an oil field. However, the use of carbon capture technology for energy production is relatively new. Today, when we talk about carbon capture, we usually add a fundamental step: storage. One of the first projects to implement CCS was the project of the Norwegian company Equinor: in 2008, then under the name Statoil, the storage of CO₂ was started at the Snøvit gas field in the Barents Sea, where CO2 was reintroduced into the field itself. The maximum planned storage capacity was 700,000 tons of CO₂ per year.

Of all the European countries, Norway appears to have the most confidence in CCS technology: in September 2020, then Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg announced funding for the Longship megaproject, which included a range of CCS initiatives, including an emission capture plant of the HeidelbergCement group’s cement factory and another CO2 capture plant from a waste incinerator near Oslo, the capital of Norway. The package also included the Northern Lights initiative: a joint venture between Equinor, Shell, and Total to create a CCS system that could transport liquid CO2, captured from various industrial enterprises, by ship to a terminal on the west coast of the country.

The scientific world is divided in its opinions regarding the prospects for the technologies that are now available to humanity

Scientists around the world are divided into two camps: there are those arguing that CCS technologies represent the “real panacea” for treating the planet increasingly plagued by global warming. Others, however, argue that humanity does not yet have adequate technology, so the billions of dollars allocated to build CCS plants would be better invested in strengthening sources of renewable energy production, given that most of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere comes from using fossil fuel. International scientific authorities have recognized that excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a major cause of climate change, and numerous research centers around the world are developing technologies and systems to capture it in industrial quantities.

The current concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere is estimated at 420 ppm, 1.5 times the amount (278 ppm) recorded before the Industrial Revolution. That is, the content of carbon dioxide in the air is only 0.042%.

The still relatively low concentration is the main obstacle to CO2 capture directly from the atmosphere: a simple calculation shows that removing one liter of CO2 will require to filter at least 2,500 of air, a very expensive and inefficient process.

For this reason, in the last decade, scientific research has largely focused on developing carbon capture and storage technologies that would be placed directly where most of the pollution is produced. But it appears that the path to commercial maturity for CCS technology is becoming increasingly difficult.

In Italy, ENI wanted to invest the resources of the National Plan for Recovery and Resilience (PNRR) in building a giant carbon storage facility inside former gas fields off the coast of Ravenna. This proposal has been removed from the new version of the PNRR, which is currently being considered by the Houses of Parliament.

In the United States, CCS suffered a series of resounding defeats in 2021 following the indefinite decommissioning of the Petra Nova power plant, which had sequestered some of the CO2, emitted by the coal-gas power plant Parish Generating Station in Texas, a 3.6-gigawatt giant that is the second-largest fossil fuel power plant in the United States. The plant’s operator, NRG Energy, said at the time that it no longer considered the CCS plant to be “economically and financially sustainable.” And this is because the currently available CCS technologies are very expensive: to power the American Petra Nova system, a special gas installation had to be created. As the experts explained, “Petra Nova burned fossil fuels (without compensating for the associated polluting emissions) to power the CCS plant, which in turn captured only a small part of the CO2, thrown out by the entire coal giant.”

But this is not the only episode of this kind. In January 2022, US oil company Occidental Petroleum (OXY) was sold to Century, one of the largest refineries using CCS technology, again due to “exorbitantly high management costs” and above all “low system performance.” The project began more than ten years ago and, according to a Bloomberg analysis, it demonstrated “how difficult it still is to develop sustainable initiatives to reduce emissions of ‘new’ carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” According to the Bloomberg report, “the plant never delivered the results expected by Occidental Petroleum: between 2018 and 2022, the system removed less than 800,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year, which is less than 10% of what was originally proposed by OXY.”

USA is booming in direct air capture (DAC) technology that removes CO2 directly from the atmosphere

And in 2023, the USA decided to change course, giving priority to technologies for capturing CO2 from the air. As part of President Joe Biden’s Investing in America program, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced on November 9 that it will “allocate $1.2 billion to develop two Direct Air Capture (DAC) facilities for mechanical removal of CO2 directly from the atmosphere,” which will be built in Texas and Louisiana.

These two huge projects are set to be the first in a very dense national network of facilities for CO2 removal from the air. The Department of Energy emphasized in a note that “this is the largest investment in carbon removal in the world.” Projections for the plants’ efficiency are rosy: together, the two facilities should remove more than 2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere each year, equivalent to the annual emissions of about 445,000 gasoline cars. This will also create about 5,000 new jobs. The Louisiana facility, dubbed Project Cypress, has been awarded to Battelle, Climeworks Corporation, and Heirloom Carbon Technologies, while the South Texas DAC Hub will be led by a trio of 1PointFive (controlled by Occidental), Carbon Engineering, and Worley.

“Reducing carbon emissions alone will not reverse the growing impact of climate change. We also need to remove CO2 that we have already released into the atmosphere, which almost all climate models clearly show is essential for achieving a global economy with net-zero emissions by 2050,” explained US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm.

The failure of the CCS Century project has not discouraged Occidental Petroleum, which is currently experimenting with investments in DAC technology. A new facility is under construction in West Texas that will capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The plant with the name Stratos will be the world’s largest when it comes online in 2025. The project is supported directly by President Biden and funded by Occidental Petroleum, which has meanwhile acquired for $1.1 billion Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company founded by Harvard professor David Keith, and claims to have developed a “truly revolutionary technology” to capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.

DAC plants are growing like mushrooms: in California, in the San Francisco area, the Heirloom startup has launched a commercial plant for capturing CO2 directly from the atmosphere; it was announced that through “innovative and sustainable” technologies, one billion tons of carbon dioxide will be “captured” by 2035.

Environmentalists protest: “DAC is an unscrupulous greenwashing operation by oil tycoons.”

It may seem ironic, but environmentalists in America oppose projects based on DAC technologies, such as Stratos by Occidental Petroleum. As the American press wrote, “from their point of view, these are projects that will actually do little or nothing to address the urgent task of reducing emissions.” For environmentalists, this is nothing but buying oil companies and other fossil fuel industries a kind of slack to “continue to pollute while exploiting public money, which is a real greenwashing operation,” since the communication strategy is aimed at creating a positive company image with high environmental impact.

As was stated by Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdorn, whose mission is to help the world stop climate change: “We are going to pay an oil company to pump crap out of the ground and then pay them to put some back in – it’s plainly obvious this isn’t a climate solution.”

In other words, there are no simple or one-way solutions to complex problems like global warming. DAC and CCS technologies need to be improved and developed in parallel with each other. The International Energy Agency (IEA) stressed that despite the current challenges facing CCS projects, “research cannot be stopped.”

However, unfortunately, Switzerland has not found technological solutions to reuse CO2 and decided to bury thousands of plastic barrels at the bottom of the sea. But reusing carbon dioxide is a different topic.

Giornalisti e Redattori di Pluralia

Editorial board