Carbon Capture and Biomethane: The greenwash re-branding of fossil gas at COP25 Chile in Madrid?

12th December 2019
News Item

[A report from Ian Lumley, An Taisce Head of Advocacy, from COP-25.]

Even more visible this year than at COP24 in Poland is the presence of the fossil fuel industry in rebranding itself as the agent of climate action. COP25 saw a wide range of events promoting carbon capture and storage (CCS) and/or biomethane. These were held mainly in the national pavilions, therefore having support of the relevant governments. The promise of bringing in CCS is the new front for continuing to burn coal, oil and gas, with a bit of bioenergy to greensugar the pill. 

A coherent global strategy has emerged from the fossil energy industry in promoting CCS or the further process of carbon capture utilization & storage (CCUS).  An example of CCUS would be production of carbon fiber based products from planes to bicycles, or carbon sequestration in cement. Parallel to this was the active promotion of agriculture or crop sourced biomethane, branded “green gas” or “renewable gas." The Paris Agreement does provide for CCS, which will have to be part of viable climate action. The difficulty is that the capacity for potential ratcheting up of CCS capacity in any immediate timeframe or scale is not in place. In the meantime, there is simply no carbon budget space for adding new carbon polluting energy infrastructure at a time when existing energy emissions have to make an immediate rapid descent. On top of this, the large-scale biomethane availability being projected in current gas industry mitigation modeling also faces multiple sustainability and capacity constraints. 

With divestment in new coal and fossil gas plants as a rising global demand, the industry response is the rebranding of new investment as combined electricity generation and carbon capture (CCS) plants. However, the actual project will be for the fossil fuel power plant to be built under Phase 1 leaving the space for a merely "promissory", "Phase 2", CCS facility beside it when the cost and technology become “viable.” As long as there is no pricing regime pressure to reflect the real impact of continuing carbon emissions, CCS will remain a time-uncertain aspiration to justify continuing and developing new fossil fuel power generation.

The International Gas Union (IGU), which has as a lead statement on its web homepage that "natural gas is a clean and versatile energy source," hosted a presentation “Delivering Clean Transport“ in the South Korean pavilion. This was one of a number of events with promoters of fossil gas for transport making the case for compressed natural gas (CNG), which delivers an air pollution benefit. However, presenters were less forthright in admitting that CNG only reduces CO2 by around 20% compared to a diesel bus or truck. The emission impact would be worse if fracked gas is used since fugitive methane emissions from the extraction process are not properly calculated.  

The case was widely made that CNG transport emissions can be reduced by progressive sourcing and injection of biomethane. However, the potential for the production of a sustainable source of biomaterial for biogas is limited, and there are many other sectors competing for a piece of the bioenergy action. I kept making myself unpopular with CNG promoters in stating this, and warning of a lock-in to investing in rolling out a CNG servicing and infrastructure system, which would have to become a stranded asset because of its inability to deliver the level of emissions reductions needed. This is what Ireland is currently doing in the Gas Networks Ireland supported "Causeway" project to create a national CNG network to fuel heavy vehicles.

Toshiba Energy Systems and the Global CCS institute presented a good overview of international research in the Japanese pavilion. There was a real and genuine concern by the researchers to find viable solutions of scale. However, the only proposed Bioenergy CCS example cited was for the DRAX power station in England which is unsustainably importing forest timber from the USA and only achieving a first small first phase of CCS capacity to date. 

The US group, Renewable Thermal Alternative (renewablethermal.org) made a presentation in the WWF pavilion on the serious challenge of major industrial or factory manufacturing plants, which are large thermal users of fossil gas and therefore emitters. The focus was very much on the dilution of gas combustion with either hydrogen produced from wind or solar, or crop or animal agriculture byproduct biomethane. Information on the real emission reduction impacts projected was disappointing. As was the case in so many events at COP, the potential availability of any scale of sustainable bioenergy was not demonstrated. With hydrogen dilution capacity constrained by pipe and valve pressure designed for methane transmission, I raised the question: Would it not be better to use renewables and renewably sourced hydrogen in tandem and just phase out fossil gas altogether, particularity since so much of the US supply was coming from fracking? This was not greeted with any enthusiasm from the presenters.

Yet this technological leap is exactly what Sweden is initiating in the "HYBRIT - Fossil Free Steel" initiative to end the use of fossil fuel inputs in steel production and utilise renewably produced hydrogen as discussed at a presentation in the EU Pavilion.  

The Saudi Arabian state oil company, Aramco, participated in a Gulf Cooperation Council Pavilion-hosted forum “Can a Circular Carbon Economy be the Solution to the Climate Challenge." Aramco has just floated 1.5% of its shareholding on the international investment market showing that divestment has long way to go. Supported by a number of Saudi based academics from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), the overarching message was learning from nature based solutions and the plant photosynthesis cycle in developing a “Circular Carbon Economy.” The Powerpoint slides showed fossil fuel extraction and combustion as part of a closed cycle storing carbon in cement or other materials. Absent was consideration of carbon leakage. There was no credible evidence as to how the beguiling conceptual diagrams presented could be tuned into large-scale operating systems to capture and reduce the massive emission impact of Saudi and the Gulf States’ oil and gas production and its combustion and emissions impact across the world. 

In the audience interaction at the end of the formal presentations I was able to raise critical questions at most of the events on both capacity and timeframe for CCS or biomethane mitigation on any scale. In relation to CCS and CCUS specifically, I raised the ethical question of creating the unrealisable expectation of an immediate technological solution to justify continued and increased fossil energy extraction and development of infrastructure. In the case of Saudi Aramco, this was the second year in which I had asked the same question to a Saudi presenter, and got the same inadequate response.  

With the exception of the presenters at the Japanese hosted event, technical, sustainability and ethical questions were fobbed off, and attempts to engage with speakers in the networking and drinks receptions after were also unwelcome. Indeed, at many of the smaller events I seemed to be the only NGO representative. What was really going on was networking for fossil energy insiders, and any external engagement on the climate science or the ethics was simply unwelcome.

The problem is that creating the hope of a large scale technological solution of future CCS and bioenergy is used to justify a business-as-usual strategy of maintaining and continuing to develop fossil fuel power generation and infrastructure. This is now defining Irish energy policy, which is being driven by the expansion of the gas pipeline network by the Sate owned Gas Networks Ireland with the greenwash that a progressive bit of biomethane be injected on an annual basis and the promise that eventual CCS will make the system zero carbon by 2050. This seems like the very definition of national-scale moral hazard...