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January 6, 2022updated 04 Jul 2022 3:20pm

A new hub for CCS: the UK’s abandoned oil wells

A new consortium is pushing for Britain’s decommissioned oil and gas wells to be transformed into test carbon burial sites.

By Scarlett Evans

As the UK begins the long process of scaling down its oil and gas industries, increasing amounts of extraction sites will reach the end of their life, with hundreds of boreholes scattered across the country that are usually plugged up with concrete once operations have finished. But a new initiative has a different idea for these increasingly abundant wells. 

The Net Zero Rise project proposes to use exhausted boreholes as deep test bed sites for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, as well as geothermal and hydrogen tech, as the UK looks to harness cleaner energy alternatives in its mission to decarbonise.

CCS has long been pitched as a viable solution to curbing nations’ emissions, though criticism remains that it signals a green light to a continued reliance on hydrocarbons – offering a safety net to retroactively remove harmful gases. Regardless of the opposition, CCS is an increasingly fundamental part of nations’ plans for decarbonisation, and finding a way to develop it safely and relatively inexpensively will be necessary if these plans are to be realised.

The Net Zero RISE project

The UK Government announced its plan to integrate CCS into its energy mix in 2017, included under its Clean Growth Strategy with the stated goal of achieving deployment of CCS at scale by the 2030s. While long perceived as an effective means of cutting back on emissions, it has to date remained an expensive alternative, though efforts to develop it at cost are ramping up as pressure to decarbonise increases.

While reservoirs under the North Sea offer the largest scale opportunities for carbon storage, the RISE team says that, given the relative infancy of the technology, onshore test sites would offer a safer and less expensive route to test the tech.

The initiative, made up of the universities of Newcastle, Oxford, and Durham, as well as fossil fuel companies IGas and Third Energy, is proposing that the UK establishes its own hub for CCS testing, with around 20 potential wells already identified. The group is still awaiting funding to take the project to the next stage, though time is of the essence if these end-of-life wells are to be used to serve the UK’s green future.

Project lead Professor Richard Davies from the University of Newcastle says that the UK is at a pivotal moment, as a host of oil and gas wells begin to reach their end of life – providing ample opportunity to create test beds.

“There are moments in time when you realise it’s the time to act,” Davies says. “And at this moment in time we’re seeing facilities being decommissioned, and we must work now to make the most use of them. We’ve identified around 20 sites, which we’ll evaluate to see which is best to use – not only for testing of CO2 but also hydrogen storage and geothermal energy.”

Creating a domestic test site

The candidate wells are predominantly located in Yorkshire and the Midlands and, according to Davies, the group would aim to inject 1000 to 1500 tonnes of CO2 in each borehole at a depth of 1km-3km. While similar test sites already exist in the US, Canada and Australia, Davies says that the UK has a unique advantage in that its geology is like that found under the North Sea. 

In addition, while these countries have drilled new boreholes to act as test sites – a costly process – the presence of empty wells means that costs can be drastically slashed, with the test sites ready to go.

“The thing we see as a big advantage around repurposing is that the infrastructure is there and offers a significantly cheaper option than the cost of drilling new wells,” says Ross Glover, development director at IGas. “The costs of doing things offshore are an order of magnitude higher than the cost of doing things onshore, while the latter also provides a controlled environment.”

Creating a domestic test site also offers the UK a level of self-sufficiency and could be instrumental in the nation’s plans to become a leading figure in CCS.

Carbon capture in the UK

The UK has made CCS a significant part of its net-zero roadmap, with the government’s strategy banking on 50 million tonnes being captured and stored by the mid-2030s. Both Glover and Davies say that the tech is too important to leave up to a potential reliance on other countries.

“I personally think this technology is so important to CO2 storage that we should have our own capabilities,” says Davies. “For something that’s so vast and so important, it seems a good thing to be doing on a global scale, because then we have projects across the world trying out different things and offering different solutions. And if one doesn’t work, perhaps another will.”

Glover says: “There needs to be enormous deployment of CCS in the UK. Part of achieving this is going to be learning about the geology, and how to effectively repurpose existing infrastructure. There is talk of providing commercial carbon storage for others outside of the UK in the future, but with CCS it is very much a self-sufficiency story.”

From a logistical side, the project is still awaiting confirmation that it has been approved for funding. Once this goes through, the group will then need environmental agency permission to carry it out.

Licence to operate

When it comes to the social licence to operate, both Glover and Davies say that oil and gas can be expected to remain a fundamental part of the UK’s energy mix in the coming years, with CCS a necessary means of cutting back emissions as nations begin their moves towards cleaner sources.

“One of the arguments that people have against CO2 storage is that it’s allowing us to continue to produce hydrocarbons,” says Davies “My own view: I believe that the CCS clusters are a great transition, they’re a stepping stone to capturing and then storing CO2 that is not related to fossil fuel production.”

Similarly, Glover says that while nations have decarbonisation on their energy horizon, oil and gas will remain crucial energy sources for some years to come.

“I think there’s a fundamental energy consumption issue there,” he says. “At the moment, there is a plan to transition away from oil and gas. But even in the projections to 2050, there’s still a substantial consumption of oil and gas. And I think that just points to how absolutely fundamental it is within the world’s energy mix. 

“It is going to be next to impossible to turn off that demand without very serious economic and social ramifications. Yes, there is a criticism that CCS is going to keep oil and gas going. What is never spoken of is that there is a demand there that will keep oil and gas going. And I think CCS is responding to that.”

While there may remain some scepticism about the use of CCS, it seems that oil and gas is preparing to forge ahead regardless. If the abandoned wells are not used soon, the opportunity will pass to repurpose the boreholes – potentially leaving the UK without a horse in the race as nations seek to find viable ways to deploy CCS.

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