‘Decaf gas’ can help to tackle climate change

Thursday 30 January 2020

Professor Paul de Leeuw
Professor Paul de Leeuw, Director of the RGU Energy Transition Institute, proposes a solution to the highly polarised debate on the impact of fossil fuels on climate change and suggests how we can learn from the beverage industry which addressed concerns about excessive consumption of caffeine.

The debate around fossil fuels and the impact on climate change is getting increasingly polarised. What we urgently need is a more informed debate based on facts and evidence.

Maybe there is something we can learn from the beverage industry. With over two billion cups of coffee consumed in the world every day, coffee is a global commodity. Given some of the health concerns relating to caffeine, great strides have been made to create decaf coffee. Imagine if we could do something similar for the hydrocarbon industry, while supporting the climate change agenda at the same time. Basically, keep the good bits with the benefits they bring, but remove the polluting parts. This would be a real win-win. Actually we can.

In 2019 the world produced around 160 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, of which c. 60% was oil and around 40% was gas. Some promising new technologies are currently being developed to decarbonise oil at source. However it is already possible to produce ‘decaf gas’ at scale by splitting natural gas into hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2), with new technologies being developed to improve these processes further. As hydrogen is a clean source of energy – the only by-product of using hydrogen is water - it is going to be a key part of the solution to deliver the world’s net zero agenda.

The current use of hydrogen around the world is predominantly as an industrial feedstock and for the production of ammonia. In the future, it is expected that hydrogen will play an increasingly important role in the heating, transport and power generation sectors.

Progress is also being made in developing new technologies to transport hydrogen at scale to markets around the world. Companies in Japan are developing the world's first marine carrier to transport liquefied hydrogen between Australia and Japan. If successful, it has the potential to turn hydrogen from a regional, niche energy source into a global commodity.

Although there are almost 200 countries in the world, around 70% of the world’s gas is produced in only ten counties, whilst c. 60% of the world’s gas is consumed in ten countries. Six countries - Russia, Canada, Iran, USA, China and Saudi Arabia - feature both in the top 10 producer and consumer list. Decarbonisation of natural gas at source combined with associated carbon capture and storage (CCS) in these six countries would be a major lever to reduce global CO2 emissions, whilst helping to accelerate the global energy transition. For the countries involved in natural gas production, they will continue to be able to extract value from their extensive natural resources, but do this in a far more environmentally sensitive, socially acceptable and collaborative way.

Where decarbonisation at source is not a workable or economically viable option, natural gas can be decarbonised instead at key landing points in specific user countries (e.g. at Liquid Natural Gas or LNG terminals, pipeline connection points or at gas gathering plants) with the hydrogen produced used as source fuel for heat, transport or power.

In the UK there are six large industrial clusters, which combined represent around 40 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. This equates to roughly one third of all business and industrial emissions in the UK. Most of the UK’s LNG import terminals and natural gas pipeline landing points are already within the catchment areas of these six industrial clusters.

The CO2 resulting from decarbonising natural gas at these LNG terminals or landing points can be combined with CO2 emissions from the existing key industrial clusters and subsequently stored in new CCS facilities, either onshore or offshore. The hydrogen can be used as an alternative fuel or feedstock in these cluster to reduce emissions further.

The cluster approach and associated investment in strategic infrastructure development such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage in each of these clusters need to be a key part of the UK’s energy transition and to feature in the UK Government’s upcoming White Paper. The UK oil and gas industry’s Roadmap 2035 – A Blueprint for net zero, highlights the key role the sector can play to deliver this.

‘Decaf gas’ is likely to be a key part of the solution towards delivering net zero. Decarbonising at source or at key landing points can help to deliver the net zero agenda, because it can’t be oil and gas versus renewables. It has to be about using all the world’s existing resources in a more environmentally sensitive, socially acceptable, collaborative and economically beneficial way.

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