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Carbon capture projects require more policy incentives to work, study finds

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The factors behind the repeated failure to successfully commercialise carbon capture projects have been explained in a new study from University of California San Diego.

In the last two decades, private industry and government have invested tens of billions of dollars to capture CO2 from dozens of industrial and power plant sources.

Despite extensive support, these projects have largely failed, with the researchers estimating that 80 per cent of projects that seek to commercialise carbon capture and sequestration technology have ended in failure.

Nevertheless, the team recently called on governments to fund fleets of direct air capture (DAC) systems that remove CO2 from ambient air in order to help mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) has become increasingly important in addressing climate change, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) saying the technology is essential to reaching zero carbon at low cost.

The team identified 12 factors that can be taken into account in order to estimate the success of a CCS project:

  1. Technological readiness
  2. Credibility of incentives
  3. Financial credibility
  4. Cost
  5. Regulatory challenges
  6. Burden of CO2 removal
  7. Industrial stakeholder opposition
  8. Public opposition
  9. Population proximity
  10. Employment impact
  11. Plant location
  12. The host state’s appetite for fossil infrastructure development

CCS is among the few low-carbon technologies in US President Joe Biden’s proposed $400bn clean energy plan that earns bipartisan support, as it enables fossil fuel firms to continue extraction without being forced to shift to newer technologies.

“Instead of relying on case studies, we decided that we needed to develop new methods to systematically explain the variation in project outcome of why do so many projects fail,” said lead author Ahmed Y. Abdulla.

“Knowing which features of CCS projects have been most responsible for past successes and failures allows developers to not only avoid past mistakes, but also identify clusters of existing, near-term CCS projects that are more likely to succeed.

“By considering the largest sample of US CCS projects ever studied, and with extensive support from people who managed these projects in the past, we essentially created a checklist of attributes that matter and gauged the extent to which each does.”

The researchers also said that policy design from governments is a key driver in helping to commercialise the industry because CCS projects typically require a huge amount of capital up front.

Some existing policies already act as incentives, such as the availability of tax credits in the US that can provide companies with a guaranteed revenue stream if they sequester CO2 in deep geologic repositories.

The only major incentive companies have had thus far to recoup their investments in carbon capture is by selling the CO2 to oil and gas companies, who then inject it into oil fields to enhance the rate of extraction.

Beyond selling to oil and gas companies, CO2 is not a valuable commodity, the researchers argue, so few viable business cases exist to sustain a CCS industry on the scale that is necessary to stabilise the climate without policy-backed incentives.

“If designed explicitly to address credibility, public policy could have a huge impact on the success of projects,” said researcher David Victor.

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