By the Inside Energy reporting team on May 22, 2019
In the middle of Canada's windswept Alberta flatlands, the symbolic opening of a steel valve nearly four years ago signalled an important step in the development of a technology that many now see as critical in the fight against climate change.
As political, business and community leaders watched on, compressed carbon dioxide (CO2) in liquid form flowed through a pipeline that carried it 65 kilometres (40 miles) north beneath farmland and forests.
At the end of the pipeline, the CO2 was injected more than two kilometres underground into a porous rock formation. Natural layers of impermeable rock sealed it in, while a network of sophisticated sensors continuously monitored the containment of the stored CO2.
That moment in 2015 may have seemed neither dramatic or exciting. But this was the start of carbon capture and storage, or CCS, in action.
The launch of the Shell-operated Quest CCS facility came three months before the Paris Agreement saw nearly 200 countries unite with the intention to limit global warming to well below 2° Celsius below pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) is now among a growing chorus of experts that argue climate goals may not be achievable without CCS.
By May 2019 Quest had officially captured and stored more than four million tonnes of CO2 deep underground. That is roughly equal to the emissions from about one million cars. It means Quest has stored more CO2 than any other onshore CCS facility with dedicated geological storage in the world. It is a milestone that has been reached ahead of schedule and at a lower cost than expected.
Accelerating adoption around the world
A 2015 report by the IEA says CCS is the only technology able to deliver significant emissions reductions from the use of fossil fuels. The agency's modelling suggests 6 billion tonnes a year of carbon would need to be stored by 2050 to stay in line with the Paris Agreement goals.
CCS can significantly reduce CO2 emissions from power plants and other major industrial processes such as refining, petrochemicals and steelmaking. But cost and technological hurdles have historically hindered the pace of development.
That could soon change. As knowledge helps improve efficiencies, costs are expected to fall, according to Stuart Haszeldine, Professor of CCS at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
"The projects built at industrial scale have been one-off projects on power stations or gas separation facilities. Many [of those involved] have said that...if we did this again we would save about 30 per cent on the cost of the project," he recently told The Energy Podcast.
Michael Crothers, Shell Canada President and Country Chair, agrees. He says lessons from the Quest are being shared openly with others to advance the technology. "While Quest has benefited from significant government funding, the rapid learning curve and cost reductions are making CCS increasingly self-sufficient," he says.
"If Quest were to be built again today, we estimate that it would cost about 20 to 30% less to construct and operate."
Then and now
Today, there are 23 CCS projects around the world in the operational or construction stages, according to the Global CCS Institute. Some 20 others are in various stages of development.
High cost and technical challenges were among the reasons the US government cited in 2015 when it cancelled $1 billion in funding for a major CCS project, FutureGen, that would have reduced carbon emissions from a coal plant in Illinois. It came the same year that a UK CCS project at Peterhead Power Station, backed by energy firms SSE and Shell, was ended.
But things are changing. In November 2018, the UK government unveiled an action plan to develop carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) technology. The first project could be up and running by the mid-2020s, the plan says, with an ambition to roll out the technology at scale by the 2030s.
Separately, Shell is one of six oil and gas companies studying the feasibility of building the first commercial CCS project in the UK. The Clean Gas Project in Teesside, north-east England will capture carbon dioxide emitted from a power plant fired by natural gas and transport it by pipeline into depleted oil and gas reservoirs in the North Sea.
Meanwhile, the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a coalition of global energy companies, has just announced plans to invest in what is billed as the USA's largest carbon sequestration project, which expects to see up to 1.75 million tons of CO2 emissions each year captured and stored in a saline aquifer about 2,100 metres (7,000 feet) underground.
Many believe that an effective government-led carbon pricing system will also help make CCS more economically attractive. David Hone, Shell's Chief Climate Change Advisor, says: "We do have a carbon price in places like the European Union already. But I think tailoring an aspect of that to pull CCS into the mix and actually force projects to happen through commercial incentive is what's needed to get this industry going."
Note: this story was originally published in 2015 and updated in May 2019