Carbon capture and storage can play a big part in the effort to tackle Scotland’s emissions and provide a matching boost to the economy as international investors underline their faith in the approach developed in the country, experts reckon.

With firms expected to start pumping carbon offshore for storage in depleted North Sea oil and gas reservoirs in coming months, they think thousands of jobs could be in the pipeline.

“We are very confident that this is a turning point, the projects are going to start; we’re going to see shovels in the ground, if you like, very soon” said Enrique Cornejo, head of energy policy at Offshore Energies UK (OEUK).

Mr Cornejo said the planned Scottish carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) cluster could be expected to support around 15,000 jobs between 2022 and 2050, and many more in industries it will help to decarbonise.

“We expect this cluster to be operational within the next couple of years,” he noted.

However, the optimism is tempered by concerns that clusters can’t be developed on the scale and timescales envisaged by governments unless policy failings in key areas are addressed.

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In December the UK and Scottish Governments underlined their belief that CCUS will be key to the effort to help tackle climate change.

Ministers in both administrations support the development of clusters that will involve taking emissions from industry and piping them offshore for storage under the North Sea.

In the vision for the CCUS market it set out, the UK Government claimed significant progress had been made in delivering its plan to have four clusters operational by 2030, supported by £20 billion investment.

The four include the Scottish cluster project, which was snubbed by Boris Johnson’s administration in 2021. Two projects in northern England and Wales won fast track status.

The Scottish Cluster plan centres on the Acorn project, which will ship CO2 gathered from industrial plants across Scotland via St Fergus near Aberdeen for storage offshore. It was awarded Track 2 status last year.

Environmental campaigners remain bitterly opposed to carbon capture, which has not been deployed anywhere on the scale envisaged in the UK. Greens say it could be used as an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels. In December Friends of the Earth Scotland noted that a Scottish Government study indicated that ‘negative emissions technology’ may not be able to store emissions on the scale expected.

But First Minister Humza Yousaf said recently: “Scotland is one of the best placed nations in Europe to deploy CCS due to our unrivalled access to vast storage potential in the North Sea.”

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Industry leaders insist carbon capture can work and has a vital role to play in the absence of alternatives.

“If you think of a sector like cement, it’s a sector that just doesn’t have a decarbonisation route without carbon capture and storage,” said OEUK’s Mr Cornejo.

Even if producers used lower carbon energy sources to power plants, the chemical reactions involved in cement production would generate a significant quantity of emissions.

Carbon capture could be used to deal with emissions associated with oil and gas, which some expect to remain an important part of the energy mix in the UK until 2050 at least. It could support hydrogen production and decarbonise gas-fuelled power plants such as the one SSE plans to build at Peterhead. The electricity from these could complement intermittent renewable energy output.

Mr Cornejo said the UK is in a very good space because of its geology, noting: “According to the British Geological Survey we’ve got about 78 GigaTonnes of CO2 storage capacity … hundreds of years of emissions that we could store.”

On safety, he said oil and gas firms have been capturing carbon dioxide for years and pumping it into fields to boost output. The Sleipner development off Norway has stored CO2 for more than a decade.

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There appears to have been much greater excitement about the potential of carbon capture and storage than about the usage piece to date.

The independent Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit notes that captured CO2 can be used to make building materials but says such processes can be very energy intensive.

“The other really key advantage that we have in the UK is our oil and gas supply chain … we have developed across the UK, but particularly in Scotland, a strong oil and gas sector,” said Mr Cornejo.

Oil and gas firms that control fields have shown they will invest in offshore carbon storage facilities. Shell and Harbour Energy are partners in the Acorn project.

In January the firm leading work on the Scottish Cluster, Storrega, won backing from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, which took a 10 per cent stake in the business. Adnoc highlighted the potential for Storrega to win overseas business, by utilising expertise developed in Scotland.

The first UK carbon storage licensing round last year won a strong response.

“It’s also the wider supply chain, it’s not only the operators,” said Mr Cornejo, who highlighted the role small firms are playing in developing related technologies. Firms across Scotland are working on engineering studies covering offshore facilities and onshore networks.

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Mr Cornejo said the first CO2 could be injected into a field off the UK under the Track 1 process late next year. First injection off Scotland could be achieved in 2026 or 2027.

The Wood Mackenzie energy consultancy is more cautious but still sees a strong case for carbon capture and storage.

Senior research analyst Lucy King said: “The 30 Mtpa (million tonnes per annum) CCUS target by 2030 represents just 10% of the UK’s total emissions, but it will play an important role. For some sectors … CCUS is its only option for deep decarbonisation.”

Ms King observed: “The UK has had multiple attempts at launching a CCUS industry in the past, and although it seems like most of the pieces of the puzzles are falling into place this time around, we’re still a long way from crossing the finish line.”

Noting “a general lack of clarity around timelines and funding”, she added: “We think the 2030 target is challenged.”

There is concern about the scale of work that will be needed to develop the facilities required to capture industrial emissions and transport them to St Fergus. This will involve installing equipment in plants across Scotland and ensuring the required pipelines are in place.

The exercise will impose huge workloads on council planning departments which are struggling already and raise mundane questions such as does Scotland have enough welders?

Mr Cornejo said subsidies would be required until the market matures to encourage firms to invest in capturing emissions rather than paying the relevant carbon price.

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“At the moment there are only eight emitter projects, onshore emitters, negotiating with the Government to receive subsidy support,” he said.

“If you are an industrial plant, say, that has not been selected to be part of the process at the moment you don’t have another route to market. We have a lot of projects, especially on the capture side, that are really keen to move on but are waiting for more certainty.”

Last month the UK Government said it would ask Acorn to submit plans soon for an initial phase that would be “consistent with the requirement for the credible demonstration of connecting via pipeline to at least two projects”.

Ms King warned: “Post-2030, there is less certainty in terms of support and routes to market for future projects.”

This all suggests taxpayers could face big carbon capture bills long before the related environmental debate is resolved.