Last year was a big one for carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) as countries rolled out new policies to encourage the deployment of the technology intended to facilitate the transition to a net-zero world. Tax credits and supportive government policies prompted companies to advance their CCUS plans, and in 2022 the number of projects surged by 44% relative to 2021, according to the Global CCS Institute. As the CCUS expands, more and more people will be affected by related infrastructure, potentially creating grounds for protest and legal action as evidenced by the latest lawsuits against project developers in the United States. And while the CCUS industry has a role to play in tackling the climate-change crisis, it may face significant public challenges and is yet to gain its social license to operate.
What Do People Know? Do They Know Things?
In the 5th season of Taylor Sheridan’s Yellowstone, a proposed CO2 pipeline that would run through Tribal lands in Montana is facing opposition from the Indigenous community supported by high-profile political players. The carbon capture and storage sector is now making its way into popular culture in the United States, likely indicating the sector’s rapid development and underscoring the emerging perceptions of associated risks. We may soon see similar stories in movies, shows or books in other countries with CCUS plans. However, there are relatively few opinion polls that explore public attitudes towards carbon capture and storage and most of them are associated with ad hoc academic research. In this regard, the United Kingdom Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Department’s Public Attitudes Tracker is a valuable source of data, which used to be a critical indicator of public sentiment towards hydraulic fracturing.
The United Kingdom is a strong proponent of CCUS and made significant progress in advancing regulations to establish a clear and transparent investment framework and held its first offshore carbon storage licensing round in 2022. Still, the latest issue of the Public Attitudes Tracker shows low public awareness of carbon capture and storage. 59% of the respondents said they knew hardly anything or never heard about CCUS. In the meantime, 47% of people could not give an opinion on whether they supported or opposed carbon capture, with 28% saying they neither supported or opposed the technology and 19% stating that they didn’t know. This is a remarkable situation for the country where the government has prioritized carbon capture as a solution to cut emissions and reach a net-zero target by 2050. Such a share of undecided population indicates that there is room for the proponents and opponents of CCUS to win the hearts and minds of people in the United Kingdom. Doubts about the ability of carbon capture and storage to address climate change and safety concerns were among key reasons to oppose the technology. Politicians and investors have some work to do and improve their communication with the general public to demonstrate the benefits of CCUS. In the meantime, environmental activists are pretty experienced in the United Kingdom, and it is not unlikely that they launch legal and public campaigns against CCUS, which is considered by some groups to be a way for extending the life of fossil fuel industries.
In February 2020, a CO2 pipeline (owned by Denbury Inc) leak in Mississippi resulted in the hospitalization of 49 and evacuation of about 300 residents. The incident prompted the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to review federal CO2 transport regulations in an effort to improve the safety of such operations. In North Dakota, landowners and activist groups are concerned about the impact of the proposed Midwest Carbon Express pipeline by Summit Carbon Solutions on the property and environment. In the meantime, the safety of carbon storage facilities is also questioned. The Louisiana Clean Energy Complex by Air Products and Chemicals Inc. is facing legal obstacles from local authorities and residents due to the plan to store CO2 captured from blue hydrogen production at a site deep beneath Lake Maurepas, which could delay project development. The opposition is driven by concerns about the safety of the proposed storage facility and overall project’s impact on the ecosystem of the lake and the livelihood of the locals. In July 2021, the safety of CCUS infrastructure was also a subject of an open letter from over 500 organizations across the United States and Canada that urged policymakers in these countries to end the support of carbon capture and storage.
Given health risks associated with CO2 leaks, government agencies need to make sure that safety regulations are robust, and compliance is strict. However, there is still potential for protests and legal action against CCUS projects due to the lack of trust in public institutions. According to the Pew Research Center, only 20% of Americans trust their government. In the United Kingdom, 35% of citizens trust the national government, while the percentage for local government is slightly better at 42%. The figures are not encouraging at all and could indicate that major actions by the authorities in the CCUS space could be closely watched at the local level and any incidents could trigger strong backlash against project developers. Therefore, public awareness campaigns, community engagement, transparent environmental reviews, and compensation mechanisms to share the benefits with the people directly affected by such projects would be crucial to mitigate the risk of lawsuits.
Where is our money, Lebowski?!
In the Sustainable Development Scenario by the International Energy Agency (IEA), CCUS will be responsible for almost 7 gigatons of CO2 emission reductions in 2070 compared to 0.01 gigatons in 2021. This would be more than enough to make carbon-neutral such a country as the United States that emitted 4.6 gigatons of CO2 in 2021. To develop a pipeline of projects with the capacity of such magnitude, governments across the globe will have to provide significant financial support to CCUS investors to make capture and storage facilities economically viable. The United States and Canada already have tax credits in place, Norway is investing billions of kroner in a CCS project directly from the budget, and the United Kingdom has established a £1-billion fund to finance carbon capture and storage developments. It is not impossible that at some point voters will question public spending on expensive technologies with remote benefits for the current generation, when there are more urgent needs, particularly at a time of skyrocketing energy prices. Sure thing, CCUS projects will create new direct and indirect jobs, and local communities will likely capitalize on these developments. But what about other taxpayers? Policymakers who support carbon capture and storage could face such questions in the future and poor answers could cost them votes and parliamentary seats. It is crucial that governments boost the transparency of their CCUS policies and clarify their funding commitments to wider population.
On the other hand, tax incentives, grants, and low-interest loans to CCUS projects could be seen as fossil fuel subsidies as capture and storage facilities would extend the use of fossil fuels in hard-to-abate industries. In 2021, at COP26 at Glasgow, countries made a commitment to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. However, there is hardly any consensus around the definition of such subsidies, but the commitment could be enough to spur legal action by environmental groups against governments that fail to comply. It remains to be seen whether CCUS support could fall under any definition of fossil fuel subsidies, and the outcome of any potential court case will depend on the interpretation of legislation. Still, the risk is not non-existent and the concerns about government spending could also shape public opinion about CCUS along with the potential impact on the environment and the safety of transport and storage infrastructure.
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem. This article has also been published on Medium.