How to Capture the Future and Store Capital – the plans for CCS in Liverpool Bay

5 Nov 2021 james
Digram of the proposed HyNet scheme created by Cadent gas distribution company.

You can see the future from Formby Beach. You don’t even need to climb up on one of steep sand dunes to catch a glimpse of it. It is out there yellow and white lights blinking in the grey dusk away to the North West. It has supplanted the red dots of the turbines on Burbo Bank. The wind farm’s claim over the future has suddenly been eclipsed by the plans to store carbon in the rocks beneath Liverpool Bay, and the yellow and white lit platform at the Lennox gas field is a new weapon in the battle against climate chaos – the weapon of HyNet.

The Lennox gas field platform off Formby Beach

Steve Rotherham, Metro Mayor of Liverpool City Region, whose realm stretches from Formby to the Wirral, declared on 19th October in the newspaper of Liverpool City Council: ‘Today’s decision (by the government to back HyNet) is a massive show of confidence … that the North can lead the country’s transition to net zero – with our region front and centre… I’ve been a longstanding and passionate advocate of HyNet, for its revolutionary approach to clean, green energy, and for its capacity to protect and create thousands of high-skilled, high-paid jobs across the region’.

His words were swiftly echoed by Joanne Anderson, Mayor of Liverpool, who tweeted ‘This is really great news as the region looks to be at the forefront of tackling the climate emergency’.

On the same day Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said: ‘This firmly puts the UK as the world leader in clean energy. The ability of HyNet to transform the North West, safeguarding jobs, creating new ones and positioning the region at the forefront of green innovation is hugely exciting.’ 

Each of these players picked up on lines a month earlier by Phillip Hemmens, Senior vice president of Europe at Eni, the Italian oil & gas multinational, who said: ‘It is win-win. I’ve spent my career enjoying oil and gas but times change…I’m with a company that has an Italian expression ‘punta della freccia’ (‘the point of the arrow’). We want to be the point of the arrow to really start making this happen.’

In parallel, Richard Stevenson at INOVYN, a subsidiary of oil and petrochemicals corporation INEOS, pronounced: ‘The project is a game-changer and will provide a lasting legacy for generations to come in the North West and North Wales.’

All of the stars are aligning: politicians – city, regional and national – and corporate executives. All parties support this new venture to tackle the climate emergency by burying carbon beneath the Bay. A new common sense of how the future should be is being defined. The future is being captured.

What is this scheme? For so long carbon capture and storage – CCS as it is known – seemed out on the edges of the reasonable, full of implausibility, often derided as nonsense purveyed by oil & gas corporations as a gimmick of greenwash. Now it seems that creating such a project in Liverpool Bay – and elsewhere – is a proposition that all should embrace, a way to tackle climate chaos and boost the regional economy, something utterly common sense.

The plan is to run gas extraction in reverse. Since 1995 gas has been pumped from beneath the northern Bay, piped 20 miles across the seabed to the Point of Ayr terminal in Flintshire – just across the Dee from the Wirral. From here it has fed the gas-fired power station at Connah’s Quay and passed into the National Grid, supplying domestic heating systems and gas cookers across the UK. But the gas fields are depleting, leaving a void in the geology. Not a moment too soon, for now, Eni the corporation that has extracted the gas, can sell the vacant space to the citizens of Britain as a place to dump their carbon waste.

This waste is not gathered house to house, as the refuse workers of Liverpool City Council do, but it is ‘captured’ in the handful of places within the region that produce carbon on a massive scale. Several of these are already partners in HyNet – the Hanson cement works at Padeswood and the Uniper gas-fired power station at Connah’s Quay, the INEOS chemical works in Runcorn and the mighty Essar refinery at Stanlow. Each of these heavy fossil fuel users aims to ‘capture’ the carbon dioxide from their plants and pump it back through the Point of Ayr terminal, across the seabed, and inject it into that void beneath the Lennox platform and elsewhere across the Liverpool Bay gas fields.

Here the carbon will be ‘stored’. However, whereas storage normally implies something temporary – ‘I’ll put the jam in the store cupboard until we need it …’ – this is ‘storage’ forever. It is not lifetime imprisonment but incarceration for eternity. The carbon once ‘stored’, must never be allowed free or else it would escape into the atmosphere and the whole exercise will have been futile. (In this way the ‘storage of carbon’ echoes the ‘storage of nuclear waste’.)

Alongside dumping the carbon from these existing facilities, the HyNet scheme aims to establish a plant at Stanlow Refinery that will manufacture hydrogen from natural gas. By dumping under the Bay the CO2 generated in the creation of this hydrogen, it will be able to declare it Net Zero, or ‘blue hydrogen’. It will then sell the hydrogen as liquid fuel for buses, trains, cars and potentially ships operating in the North West Region. The entire scheme is illustrated through diagrams on HyNet’s promotional website.

HyNet’s diagram of the proposed scheme stretching across the North West

There are multiple reasons to challenge the engineering feasibility of a scheme such as HyNet. Not least because, despite Hemmens saying that Liverpool will be a place of experimentation for further schemes, CCS projects have been attempted since 1972 and for fifty years have been a litany of failure. This half-century of promises is well described in a recent report by Oil Change International. But I will not dwell on those matters in this piece. What grips me is how the world of capital was captured by this engineering project, and how in turn it captured the world of politics.

Capital is, after all, interested in only one thing: the rate of return on capital, the level of profit. The engineering behind CCS has been trialled for five decades but the idea that these schemes can be profitable has only recently emerged. It depends upon the ‘waste product’ of carbon being seen as sufficiently problematic to human society as to warrant its disposal a ‘public good’ that should be paid for by the ‘public purse’. When in the nineteenth century the scale of refuse in the massively expanding city of Liverpool was seen to be a ‘public nuisance’ – not least as a driver of disease – then the council used funds from public taxes to pay refuse firms to collect the rubbish. Gathering garbage became a profitable venture.

Now that the constantly mounting signs of climate chaos make national governments recognise that carbon in the atmosphere is a ‘nuisance’ and are prepared to pay for its disposal, the business of collecting (or ‘capturing’) carbon can be profitable. So the likes of Eni switch from making profit though extracting gas from beneath Liverpool Bay to disposing of carbon and extracting profit from the public purse. Where once they drilled off Formby Beach, now they drill in Whitehall and suck in funds from the UK Exchequer.

The government’s announcement proclaimed that the UK will ‘invest’ half a billion pounds of public money in HyNet and Rotherham understandably celebrated this sum coming to the region. However the companies that will construct and operate the scheme, Eni, Hanson, Uniper, Essar and INEOS are – respectively – Italian-based, German-based, Indian-based and Monaco-based multinationals. (Cadent, another key partner, is owned by Australian, Qatari and Chinese financiers.) A very substantial portion of the UK’s public ‘investment’ will be captured by these corporations and stored in the bank balances of investors far, far from the shores of Liverpool Bay.

Not only does this scheme capture public funds for private corporations, but just as significantly it places part of the task of tackling climate chaos in the North West into the hands of perhaps twenty men who live far from the region. This scheme captures the future – and a key weapon in that capture is the gas platform visible off Formby Beach.

If this is the tale of how capital was captured by CCS, how then was politics corralled? In April 2021 Rotherham stood on the online Mayoral hustings and spoke of his commitment to renewable energy systems, of the potential of Merseyside to be a pioneer in wind, solar and crucially a Mersey Tidal Power scheme. The barrage, which has been debated in detail four times since 1976, had been a key commitment by the national Labour Party in the lead up to the 2019 General Election. But the Tidal project seems to be have been eclipsed as HyNet seizes the future. For the latter suddenly has national government backing and promises the deliver not just hydrogen but, more importantly, funding to Liverpool City region that has been brutally starved of funds by a decade of ‘Tory Austerity’. If the North West is desperately short of revenue, and there’s no money to back a tidal barrage but finances to underpin HyNet, then CCS suddenly becomes common sense in the realm of politics.

Common sense in capital and politics is underpinned by academia. One of the partners in HyNet is the University of Chester. Professor Joseph Howe, Executive Director of the Thornton Energy Institute at the university, says with passionate enthusiasm: ‘HyNet is a transformational project that will establish the North West as the leading region in hydrogen. We have the industry, infrastructure and innovation to make this a reality and we are ready to deliver.’

Thornton Energy Institute is key to this experiment in CCS. This institute (as explored in our book Crude Britannia) exists in the buildings that Shell cast aside when it sold up Stanlow Refinery and shut down its own R & D centre at Thornton in 2013. The University of Chester has extended the life of this font of oil thinking, just as CCS offers to extend the life of the refinery next door, now owned by Essar. (The refinery has been threatening to close – as covered in a recent Platform blog)

This new common sense is a punt, an experiment played out on and in Merseyside which may or may not succeed. However, if it goes ahead, it will help keep the North West and North Wales locked into fossil fuel thinking for another generation. And as it does so it also extends the life of the carbon emitting plants of its partners – the Hanson cement works at Padeswood, the INEOS chemical works at Runcorn and crucially the oil wells of Eni around the world. For this oil multinational will be able to say that it is approaching Net Zero through carbon captured by HyNet, thereby allowing it to argue the validity of maintaining oil extraction projects elsewhere in the world, such as in Niger Delta and Iraq.

It does not have to be this way. A different future can be seen from Formby Beach. One in which the Lennox platform is decommissioned when its life comes to an end in the next few years. And with it the terminal at Point of Ayr and the pipelines that run too and from it. A future in which the wind farms of Liverpool Bay and the Mersey Tidal scheme underpin an economy run entirely on renewable systems. A future in which – ideally – these machines that turn the common wind into energy and the common tide into energy, come under common ownership.

Can we not dream and build a future that is not placed in the hands of the likes of Eni, Hanson, Uniper, Cadent, Essar and INEOS?

With thanks to Andy Rowell, Gaby Jeliazkov and Terry Macalister.

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