CCS in Europe back in the game

Dr Jan-Justus Andreas, Policy Manager Industry, Bellona Europa, October 2019

On the morning of 5th September 2019, at the conference stage of the Oslo Opera House, a budding young soprano filled the room with the unassisted power of her voice, mesmerizing some 300 decision-makers from the EU and Norway. The occasion was the opening of the European High Level Conference on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

CCS – essential climate measure is back on the agenda

Despite its annual reiteration as an essential climate measure in the IPCC reports, for years the conversation around CCS had been reduced to the backrooms of Brussels and selected countries and organisations that continued to appreciate the technology’s necessary role in reducing emissions. While across the Atlantic, carbon capture is growing owing to tax credits for storing and using carbon dioxide (CO₂) from industrial point sources, Europe’s past experiences with “clean coal” and the financial barriers surrounding establishment of a CCS infrastructure have prevented any uptake. Yet, as coal phase-outs are being agreed across Europe, the technology’s importance to decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors, like heavy industry, and its potential to kick start the hydrogen economy have placed it, increasingly firmly, back on the public agenda in Brussels and several member states.

In this light, the September conference highlighted the interest in, and support for, CCS at the highest political levels, with leaders and ministers from the UNFCCC, EU and the host, the Norwegian Government. The Norwegian Minister of Petroleum and Energy confirmed that the present government is more than just expressing moral support for CCS; it is also prepared to channel significant financial aid to constructing and operating a full-scale CCS system in Norway.

Europe needs an open and shared CO₂ infrastructure

But Norwegian expectations do not end there. Success for the Norwegian full-scale CCS project will only be achieved if it has clearly inspired other European CCS projects to be fast followers, and to connect to the Norwegian CO₂ transport and storage infrastructure. For having learned from the commercial risks of limiting ambitions to connecting just one emitter with one storage site, current projects have subscribed to the need of an open and shared European CO₂ infrastructure.

One session outlined storage infrastructure and services in various stages of planning. The Norwegian offshore storage project and related transport infrastructure has been christened the “Northern Lights” project in Norway. Its operator, Equinor, gave a brief description on behalf of the other two partners, Shell and Total. Not to be outdone, the Porthos project in the Netherlands declared itself a future competitor as an open-access storage operator for European CO₂.

A window of opportunity for climate mitigation

Potential providers of CO₂ for storage also participated in the discussions, as leaders from three global industries gave their take on the upside CCS represents for them. Fortum, HeidelbergCement and Air Liquide each described a particular set of windows of opportunity for climate mitigation, technical synergy and commercial benefit. The CCS toolbox has something to offer many different users.

While most attendees were networking over lunch, Equinor was busy signing seven Memoranda of Understanding between the Northern Lights project and interested parties with sources of CO₂ represented by ArcelorMittal, HeidelbergCement, Preem, Air Liquide, Ervia, Fortum, and Stockholm Exergi. The Norwegian Government has explicitly stated its requirement for larger, pan-European participation in the Northern Lights project, and this signing ceremony appeared to keep them satisfied. Despite this, the Norwegian Government will still need up to 18 months to justify its final investment decision, expected by early 2021.

Financial support is available

After the lunch break, the format switched to panel discussions. The themes covered were Public Acceptance, CCS as a mechanism for a European Just Transition and Financing CCS. Among the highlights were a projection of CCS uptake from DNV GL and words of wisdom from the NGO with longest-running CCS advocacy, Bellona, represented by the leader of their Brussels office, Jonas Helseth. The representative of the European Investment Bank also gave some teasers on how the EU Innovation Fund will work.

The topic of European funding was covered in more detail during the Innovation Fund Workshop on the second day of the conference. The CCUS Projects Network participated in the workshop presenting on its activities and objectives, and sponsoring the lunch. The design and scope of the Innovation Fund was given some clarity, as well as the project selection process that will begin next year with a first project call. Crucially, the Fund has learned from the flaws of the NER 300 and will provide greater support for infrastructure-intensive climate solutions like CCS. Also, financial support through the Connecting Europe Facility’s Projects of Common Interest will be available to cross-border infrastructures ensuring Europe’s regions can gain access to a decarbonisation network.

Net-zero economy requires cooperation across Europe

Overall, the conference showed that Europe’s relationship with CCS is currently being re-defined. Under the auspice of rising climate ambitions the technology will be needed and is ready to do its part, with its focus now on industry and CO₂ utilisation, rather than on power with CCS as previously. Crucially, its deployment will require the cooperation of many European states, inside and outside of the European Union, to establish a CO₂ network that can drive innovation and new solutions for a net-zero economy by mid-century. In this sense, the conference was an important starting point of a new European debate and the discussions of the coming months, for example surrounding the Green Deal, will show how ready and able Europe is to truly tackle climate change. But in the words of Trude Sundset, CEO of Gassnova, the conference should have left everyone "a lot more optimistic".

Image Liliana Guevera, CCUS Projects Network, 2019.