CCS’s Moment of Truth Is Here

Depending on whether you’re talking to a chemical industry executive, a politician or an environmentalist, carbon capture and storage can be seen as a saviour, a necessary-evil, or a total cop-out.

The debate around burning fossil fuel and burying the CO2 underground is a complex one and more expertly covered elsewhere. But love it or loathe it, CCS proponents are winning a few battles of late, despite lingering concerns.

For a technology that swathes of the $4 trillion chemical industry consider their only hope to meet sustainability targets, there are thought to be fewer than 40 CCS projects globally. So when INEOS lands an EU26 million grant from Denmark to move its early stage project in the North Sea to the proof-of-concept phase, it’s worth noting.

The world’s No. 4 chemical maker has a relatively benevolent location for its Greensand project: a near-empty subsea oil reservoir in a seismically stable Palaeocene sandstone field sporting “one of the most competent cap rocks” around. If CCS is going to work, this location is as good as any. Business aside, it would help Denmark get a lot closer to its 70% CO2 reduction by 2030.

“It’s a chunky number we’re talking about, up to 8 million tons, or almost half of INEOS’s entire CO2 emissions,” Mads Gade, head of INEOS Energy, Denmark, said in an interview with chemicalESG. “It’s still early days. So far CCS has been used in required areas where legislation means you had to extract the CO2. But it’s not really been used for pure climate projects, until Greensand and a few other projects.”

Betting against INEOS owner Jim Ratcliffe isn’t for the faint hearted. Founded in 1998, his company has had a meteoric rise to the top echelons of the chemical industry, driven by Ratcliffe’s flair for efficiently running assets cast off from oil-and-gas companies, alongside an undisputed talent for hard negotiating. You could argue a punt on UK shale gas hasn’t panned out (yet), but CCS and hydrogen are crucial elements of INEOS’s sustainability plan.

While the cost of CCS remains below break-even point, INEOS is banking on predictions that that could change in 10 years’ time. Estimates to capture and store a ton of CO2 in Denmark are thought to be around the EU150 mark, compared with a carbon price that stood at EU85-90 at the end of last week. Although “there are a lot of moving parts to factor in,” scaling up Greensand should get the cost close to that figure over time, Gade said.

“This is a journey,” Gade said in an interview with chemicalESG. “It’s going to be a massive market because it’s so critical.”

Similar to wind energy, it will take subsidies to open up the industry, he added. Wintershall DEA, part owned by BASF, and Maersk Drilling are partners in Greensand.

The need for state support is one of the criticisms hurled at CCS. The technology is a wall-papering over the cracks exercise, a plaster applied to the inherent problem of burning fossil fuels. Some see a danger it will soak up public money and resources, hindering other more valiant efforts to save the planet. And the public seems ambivalent toward CCS, at best.

“No-one really likes it, but it’s one of the most cost-effective evils,” said Wolfgang Falter, a partner at consultancy firm ChemAdvice. “Blue or green hydrogen is much more expensive.”

There’s also the issue of who will have liability over a reservoir that’s been filled with CO2 in the event of a leak. INEOS has installed monitoring equipment to watch over its debut North Sea site during the demonstration phase.

Given Greensands is a full-value chain CCS project — from extracting the CO2 to transportation and storage — there’s no doubt it will be watched closely for both economic and environmental reasons.

Capturing the carbon is estimated to be half the cost of CCS, according to ChemAdvice’s Falter.

So would it help if there was a way to make CCS more palatable?

Novozymes thinks so.

The Danish company already supplies enzymes that allow washing machines to clean clothes at lower temperatures. Seeing an “inflection point” for CCS, it has turned that expertise to carbon capture, according to Amy Byrick, EVP of Strategy & Business Transformation.

Novozymes is helping engineer Saipem scale up a more environmentally friendly enzymatic carbon capture solution. Biotechnology is used to extract CO2, replacing the standard process using amine-based chemicals and energy-intensive, high-temperature steam.

The star of the show is carbonic anhydrase, a lightning-speed enzyme found in lungs, activated during breathing. Reacting at 1 million times a second, its advantages are lower energy consumption and water contamination as well as less corrosion.

Like INEOS, Novozymes is starting small — the first commercial plant could be running as early as next year — before scaling up.

“We’re at an inflection point from an industry perspective,” Byrick said in an interview with chemicalESG. “The time is right now from an environmental awareness, and as we see global awareness increase, we believe this industry will be scaling up more generally.”

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