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Bullet the Blue Sky - U.S. Energy Markets Progress Toward Carbon Capture Solutions

A couple of weeks ago, Shell announced a large-scale carbon capture and sequestration initiative at its Scotford refinery complex near Edmonton, AB. It’s one of the largest recent efforts to marry hydrogen production with CCS — an increasingly popular solution informally referred to as “blue” hydrogen. Shell is not alone. Across North America, the idea of capturing carbon dioxide to clean up our collective act is quickly gaining momentum and support. Whether we’re talking about refineries, ammonia plants, steam crackers, ethanol plants, or any other carbon-generating industrial process, capturing the CO2 — making the process “blue” — is seen by many as a way to make significant progress toward climate goals without over-burdening governments or consumers with the sky-high costs associated with some of the more technically challenging energy transition technologies. Today, we discuss the energy industry’s embrace of carbon capture solutions and how it could shape our energy future.

Environmental and climate concerns have cycled into the limelight a few times over the last several decades, but interest in these topics has reached a fever pitch in the past couple of years. Compare the current intensity to one of those earlier cycles when interest cranked up — during the 1973-74 Oil Shock, when OPEC enacted an embargo on western nations perceived to have supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War (we talked about that recently in Been Around A Long Time). Oil prices soared, and those prices supported serious investment in alternative energy technologies, including hydrogen. Government-sponsored financial incentives were committed, and infrastructure development was just getting off the drawing boards. But before the effort to reduce global reliance on fossil fuels could even get up a head of steam, it was over. That’s because in the mid-1980s, crude prices crashed, and interest in alternative energy sources seemed to evaporate overnight. Expensive alternative fuels don’t work economically when traditional fossil fuels are cheap. Unless, of course, there are other, non-economic forces at work, pressing for changes to the status quo.

And such pressure really began to build in late 2015 and 2016 with the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, which re-invigorated the global conversation. Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues became top-of-mind and ESG became a well-known acronym in the industry. (Check out our Paradise blog series for everything ESG.) By the time Greta Thunberg gained widespread media attention in late 2018, there was a lot of talk about major infrastructure funds, pensions, university endowments, and the like pulling their money out of carbon-intensive industries. The shift was definite and palpable.  By the end of 2019, new energy and industrial projects seeking funding faced an uphill battle if they didn’t begin to address their environmental impact. We noticed the change in RBN’s consulting practice. Investors had been disappointed by financial returns from the energy sector (see Take it Easy) and were no longer willing to overlook the environmental implications of backing such operations. Faced with the choice of addressing ESG concerns or risk getting hammered by their investors, our clients started to focus on phrases like “energy transition.”

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