Carbon capture: where there’s green there’s gold

Photo by Niklas Dehmel, courtesy of unsplash

Even the sparrows coughed in Teesside’s Haverton Hill. Doctors warned parents the air, polluted by ICI’s sulphuric acid plant, was too toxic to raise a child. Curtains rotted away. In the 1960s Haverton Hill’s housing was demolished, its residents relocated, and the plant was later closed.

How fitting then that a world first in the move to reduce that deadliest of pollutants, the greenhouse gas Carbon Dioxide (CO2), is planned on Teesside by Net Zero Teesside (NZT).

NZT aims to use Carbon Capture Utilisation  and Storage (CCUS) to extract CO2 from a cluster of carbon intensive industries at source,  concentrate it, then move it through pipes to the Southern North Sea to be pumped under the seabed. 

The CCUS facility will be based at Redcar where the River Tees meets the North Sea, on land of the former SSI steelworks which closed in 2015, shedding 2,200 jobs and wrecking the local economy.

Phase One on the same site, renamed TeesWorks, will be the world’s first gas-fired power station with CO2 emissions removed using CCUS. It could be operational as early as 2024.

NZT was launched in February this year, a consortium of five world leading oil companies:  BP, Total , Eni,  Equinor and Shell, with BP  taking the lead role. 

The aim is to decarbonise the Teesside Industrial Cluster of businesses by 2030.This will be the UK’s first “Decarbonised Cluster” and will help the government reach its target of net zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

Teesside industries account for 5.6% of industrial emissions in the UK and it is home to five of the UK’s top 25 CO2 emitters. 

NZT is being developed to store up to 10 million tonnes of CO2 a year, the amount emitted by over 3 million UK homes.

The project could create up to 5,500 jobs including in construction and secure many others in Teesside’s heavy industry as producers find a way of dealing with their CO2 emissions.

NZT’s construction phase could contribute up to £450 million to the Teesside economy.

The NZT location has a unique set of advantages:  swathes of brownfield land for development, access to water, gas and electricity, available workers, and an adjacent major port with Freeport status on the cards. Plus ideal sites for CO2 storage under the North Sea.

Middlesbrough Labour MP Andy McDonald has championed CCUS in Parliament since 2013, seeing the process as providing high-paid local jobs, employing  ex-steelworkers with their transferable skills and rescuing them from the Rust Belt scrap heap.

Not everyone in the environment lobby is happy, however.  Critics argue that CCUS is a way for oil companies to bury their problem, rather than adopting less carbon-intensive alternatives.

For Teesside this is an opportunity to put the region on the map as the first green Industrial Cluster. There’s a plan to extend the operation to all the industries of the Tees Valley under a Net Zero Tees Valley banner.

But does there have to be a choice between CCUS and options like lifestyle changes, as we count down the final seconds on the doomsday clock? Why not do both and build Teesside’s green reputation?

The NZT scheme only covers industry, not homes or other businesses. Could the new clean energy brand extend to these users with solar panels, home insulation and electric transport?

The area is already involved in green energy, serving off-shore wind farms. At Seaton Port near Hartlepool, the Able UK yard, now a wind hub,  is assembling 80-metre long  blades for one of the world’s largest wind farms, the Triton Knoll off the coast of Lincolnshire. One turn of a blade can power a house for 29 hours.

Then there’s the EEW OSB yard at Haverton Hill which has been manufacturing the yellow turbine bases for Ørsted’s Hornsea wind farm in the North Sea.

A planned £90 million quay at South Bank is hoped to serve the world’s largest off-shore wind farm at Dogger Bank.

These are early days. The TeesWorks location is a demolition site as the old steel plant is torn down. While TeesWorks is now controlled by South Tees Development Corporation, the purchase of the whole site is still being finalised. A community consultation for planning permission has just closed, with its report to be expected early next year.

The project faces an uphill struggle for completion. NZT and Northern Endurance Partnership, the consortium handling the storage infrastructure, have both asked the government for financial support.

The £18 million venture received a government grant of £3.8 million last year to speed up the roll-out of CCUS across the country.  NZT is also in line for a slice of the £139 million government fund for decarbonising industry announced in July.

Government support has been patchy in the past, however.  In 2015 Prime Minister David Cameron pulled the plug on a £1 billion prize for developing CCUS.

With the expected recession caused by Covid-19 and the self-inflicted economic wounds of Brexit, how much is the government prepared to commit?

There are also the usual problems of start-up industries in an emerging sector with unpredictable demand . At Haverton Hill  EEW OSB has announced a temporary closure with layoffs because there will be no buyers until the end of next year.

Then there’s the politics. Tees Valley’s Conservative Mayor Ben Houchen has claimed ownership of the CCUS idea, a handy way of shoring up support for his new mayoral role. The South Tees Development Corporation has no Labour representatives on its board. After the May 2019 local elections of the five member councils – Stockton-on-Tees, Redcar, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Darlington – the Labour Party controls no council outright.

North East Bylines has learned that the STDC is keeping elected Labour representatives at arms length, reluctant to share information and effectively excluding NZT’s greatest supporters.   Labour politicians fortunately enjoy better relationships with big business, who value profits over politicking.

A political swing in NZT’s favour has been the election of Joe Biden as US President. He has already committed to returning the US to the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, adding urgency to member states’ efforts to control their greenhouse gas emissions.  The next climate summit, hosted by the UK, will be held next year 153 miles away in Glasgow, postponed from this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is currently mulling a ten-point action plan to present to a preliminary summit next month. The plan includes support for CCUS and off-shore wind energy, and an earlier switch to electric transport. Campaigners want him to add home insulation to the list.

While we look into the uncertain future with fingers crossed, we can only hope that dreams can come true.  If “where there’s muck there’s brass” applied to the polluted Teesside of the past, perhaps “where there’s green there’s gold” should be the mantra for the here and now.

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