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Public acceptance of CCUS: where do we stand?

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By Alex Chyzh

· 7 min read

Costs, lack of policy frameworks, permitting hurdles, and insufficient funding are frequently cited among major concerns for carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) development. However, as more projects are being announced across the globe, a growing number of people become aware of or are impacted by CCUS infrastructure. The changing landscape is likely to require meaningful stakeholder engagement to mitigate the risks of public opposition and legal challenges.

What do we know about public attitudes? 

Public acceptance of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) is generally a terra incognita as the awareness of the technology remains low despite all the global, regional and national announcements over the past couple of years. Even in the United Kingdom, which is betting big on CCUS to reach the 2050 net zero target, over 50% of the population never heard of or hardly know anything about carbon capture and storage. In the Netherlands, a staggering 92% of respondents have never heard of the country’s flagship Porthos and Aramis projects. Similarly, Indonesian citizens have demonstrated low levels of awareness, even though the country’s government is an active CCUS proponent and there are currently at least 15 planned projects, which are expected to launch by 2030. The situation indicates that governments and companies need to better communicate CCUS policies and strategies to increase public awareness. Sure thing, when a storage facility or a CO2 pipeline is announced in one’s backyard, they will know. However, for some communities, it may not be a pleasant surprise, which could cause trouble for project developers.

The public is concerned about the safety of carbon storage sites and pipelines and their potential impact on the local environment. Positive attitudes could be associated with job creation and safeguarding the future of local industries. For example, if it is a cement plant, equipping it with a CO2 capture facility would be seen as a guarantee of its continued operation as the country moves to a low-carbon economy. But what if locals have nothing to do with industrial activities? French winemakers could be opposed to such developments because vineyards are part of their regional identity — not an underground carbon storage facility. Moreover, the concerns about the use of carbon capture and storage to extend the production and consumption of fossil fuels persist and can contribute to unfavorable public perceptions of the CCUS industry. The Canadian government recently announced a plan to phase out fossil fuel subsidies but left an exemption for carbon capture and storage. The decision was criticized by Canada’s most prominent advocacy organization – Environmental Defence – as a loophole for upstream companies to continue hydrocarbon production. 

While offshore carbon storage is considered a more publicly acceptable option than onshore facilities, there are specific concerns about keeping CO2 under the seabed. The latest study of public attitudes towards CCUS in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Norway by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy highlighted several preferences. First, the respondents were in favor of capturing and storing CO2 domestically instead of sending it for storage in a neighboring country. Second, the participants of the survey opposed the imports of carbon dioxide for storage as they viewed it as dumping someone else’s waste (and CO2 is ‘waste’ under international law) into the waters of their country. In addition, some respondents expressed concerns about encouraging the continued burning of fossil fuels elsewhere if their country of residence offers offshore carbon storage services and imports CO2. While this sentiment is unlikely to become a major obstacle to transborder carbon transportation and storage over the near term, activist groups may leverage these concerns to organize protests and file lawsuits over the medium-to-longer term, when projects come online.

The United States: a CCUS hotspot

The United States represents a case study of any possible challenges CCUS developers could face when it comes to stakeholder engagement. Although there are some hurdles related to project permitting and approvals, the overall federal regulatory and policy environment is conducive to companies pursuing the development of CCUS facilities. Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has 117 pending applications for carbon storage wells (Class VI), indicating strong interest and willingness among investors to advance carbon storage in the country. However, it becomes more difficult once we move to the level of states. In Louisiana, a potential low-carbon hub, opposition to CCUS projects is growing among local communities and authorities. On the one hand, there is a lack of trust in the oil and gas and petrochemical industries — major proponents of carbon capture and storage projects. Air quality and public health concerns are likely the reasons why Louisiana residents may not want ‘life extension’ for the local industries. Moreover, the potential impacts of a planned storage facility under Lake Maurepas on tourism and fisheries — critical industries for many communities around the lake — drive another set of concerns about CCUS projects.

In the Midwest, local residents, activists, and lawmakers are concerned about the safety of CO2 pipelines and the property rights of owners, whose land such pipelines would cross. Illinois is about to become an important hub for storing carbon dioxide from multiple ethanol plants across the region, which prompts questions about the stringency of federal safety regulations. The 2020 incident in Satartia (Mississippi) remains a major source of concern for communities located near potential CO2 pipeline routes, even though federal regulators are gradually tightening safety standards to prevent similar accidents. As in the case of Louisiana, public opposition in the Midwest translates into lawsuits and legislative proposals that could impede or significantly delay the buildout of carbon dioxide transport and storage infrastructure.

How to bolster public acceptance of CCUS

Bringing onboard every single member of an affected community is virtually impossible and hardly required. However, winning the hearts and minds of the majority of local residents could reduce the risk of protests and litigations, and help to advance the vision of a shared and sustainable future. What could be done to improve existing stakeholder engagement practices?

  • Give local residents a genuine voice and make sure that they are heard during the public consultation process. The representatives of authorities and companies should demonstrate that they take into consideration public concerns and provide evidence that necessary (and reasonable) adjustments to a project are being made. In addition, there are residents who may not be opposed to new developments, but they can easily turn into strong opponents. Inger Helene Svartdal and Berit Kristoffersen introduced the concept of 'Why in my backyard' (WIMBY), referring to communities that are indifferent to participating in changes in local energy landscapes. The idea is framed around green energy transition but can be also applied to the CCUS industry. Understanding how communities live and work, and what impact the proposed project would have on their day-to-day practices could pave the way for mutually beneficial arrangements between companies and local residents.
  • Show the benefits of a proposed project. The United Kingdom’s government claims that the CCUS industry will create 50,000 jobs in 2030 and add up to £5 billion to the economy by 2050. However, these are national and highly uncertain figures, while local communities need something more tangible. How many jobs will be created in a specific project area? What will be the tax impact on the local economy? If a storage facility is located under the lake, the backbone of livelihood for the community, why should it support this industrial site? Companies could consider community benefits agreements that would contribute to the development of the local economy if the potential to directly benefit from a carbon storage facility is non-existent.
  • Policymakers, regulators, and project developers need to build trust by being transparent, particularly when it comes to the safety of CO2 pipelines and storage facilities. The lack of trust, especially in government institutions, is likely to drive negative perceptions and suspicions about proposed developments. 

This is not an exhaustive list of options to improve current stakeholder engagement practices in the CCUS realm and we are likely to see new innovative approaches as the industry’s story unfolds, but these could be important starting points to facilitate constructive dialogue between project proponents and local communities.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Alex Chyzh is an oil and gas risk analyst and decarbonization researcher investigating government policies and regulations to advance energy transition in the upstream sector.

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