A manga-style visual shows the CCUS  forum and a member of the fossil fuel industry stands up with a golden ticket. In a turquoise rectangle the text reads "oped by Belén Balayá"

How a fossil-fuel-dominated group you’ve never heard of secured a ‘carbon coup’ in Europe

What sounds like a better choice: pursuing rational climate policy in the face of an increasingly urgent crisis? Or giving a golden ticket to the fossil fuel industry to continue extracting oil and gas forever, no matter the cost?

Worryingly, the EU – thanks to corporate capture by the very industry that is responsible for, and is profiting from, causing climate change – seems to think it’s the latter.

This article was written by Belén Balayá (CEO) and originally appeared in Real Zero Europe.

The EU has spent the past two years turbo-charging policies to support Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS), a risky, costly and repeatedly failed technology intended to capture CO2 from polluting activities like burning fossil fuels and store it in products or pump it deep underground (in the hope it will stay there). The most recent of these is the European Commission’s February 2024 Industrial Carbon Management Strategy (ICMS), which proposes an array of measures designed to massively scale up CCUS, CO2 transport infrastructure, and technological carbon removals.

Numerous proposals and entire sections of wording in the ICMS proposal closely resemble the recommendations of working groups set up by the little-known CCUS Forum. This is the reality uncovered in a recent investigation by Corporate Europe Observatory and ReCommon.

Fossil fuel industry-dominated groups are increasingly being given an official role in shaping EU climate and energy policy, and the CCUS Forum, set up by the European Commission in 2021, plays a particularly influential role. The Forum is an annual event at which working groups are set up, which in turn publish papers with recommendations for the Commission to follow. Yet both the CCUS Forum and its working groups are dominated and steered by fossil fuel industry.

The ICMS sets out a vision of the EU capturing 280 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 by 2040 and 450Mt by 2050 – building on the earlier target of 50Mt by 2030 put forth in the Net Zero Industry Act. To put this in perspective, today EU countries capture just 1 Mt CO2 per year. That means scaling up the carbon capture industry 450 times in the next two and half decades – despite the last two and half decades of repeated failures to get carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects and infrastructure off the ground. Failures that the European Court of Auditors concluded wasted hundreds of millions of euros of public funds.

The scale and unreality of this ‘vision’ begs the question of why the EU is ignoring the urgency of phasing out fossil fuels and instead planning a massive scale-up of a risky, costly, almost non-existent technology at a speed and magnitude that has no basis in reality? The answer lies in just whose ‘vision’ it is. Much of the Commission’s ICMS proposal is copy-pasted from CCUS Forum recommendations, as our new report The Carbon Coup reveals. And the Commission isn’t even trying to disguise this democracy-defying fact: Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson told the 2023 CCUS Forum, “you called for a specific and verifiable target for storage capacity, industrial support, and structural solutions… And this proposal does exactly that... And I do believe that this is an opportunity for EU oil and gas producers.”

The CCUS Forum has been allowed to shape regulation and public funding for CCUS and associated CO2 infrastructure, as well as speculative CCS-based ‘carbon removal’ technologies.

The ICMS proposal – which mentions the CCUS Forum by name ten times – closely follows the template drawn up by the CCUS Forum’s ‘vision’ working group. But this template is based on a number of false premises, including that without large-scale CCUS – and CCS-based carbon removals – the EU cannot meet its climate targets (“no CCUS, no net zero”). Carbon removals are a greenwashing fantasy for fossil-entrenched governments and corporate interests who claim that their pollution can someday be compensated for by sucking equal amounts of carbon back out of the atmosphere. The fossil fuel industry uses the promise of these problematic, risky and colossally expensive future technofixes to justify prioritising (and publicly funding) CCUS infrastructure today.

The fossil fuel industry was by far the largest single sector represented in the CCUS Forum’s ‘vision’ working group, taking up 28% of its members, while two of its three organisational co-chairs had fossil fuel ties. The CCUS Forum’s ‘vision’ paper was the blueprint for DG Energy’s subsequent ICMS proposal, which explicitly gives the CCUS Forum an even bigger role in shaping EU CCUS policy and funding in the future.

The ICMS mirrors the ‘vision’ paper’s plans to channel public funding into fossil fuel industry pockets and to give the industry more power over planning CCUS infrastructure. For instance, by including CCUS in the Important Projects of Common European Interest (IPCEIs), thereby making CO2 transport and storage infrastructure eligible for public money from Member States’ national budgets.

Worse, the ICMS indulges the ‘vision’ paper’s dangerous fantasy of a ‘carbon removals market’, which would allow polluters to continue to emit CO2, providing they purchase removal credits from ‘offset’ projects, such as those that involve CCS-dependent carbon removal technologies. The ICMS, in turn, promises to consider how the EU’s carbon market, the Emissions Trading System (ETS), could help to support industrial carbon removals. The desire for the ETS to be expanded into a ‘carbon removals market’ is also an explicit demand of the European Roundtable on Climate Change and Sustainable Transition (ERCST), a think tank with fossil fuel members whose founder – the influential carbon market zealot Andrei Marcu – co-chairs another of the CCUS Forum’s working groups (on ‘public perception’).

The ‘vision’ paper’s call for a CO2 Network Plan to be “developed by a wide consortium of companies” is likewise answered by the ICMS’ promise to use the EU’s “participatory approach” towards gas network planning as a model for designing “EU-wide CO2 transport infrastructure”. But it was this approach in the gas sector that allowed companies with vested interests to plan for overinflated gas pipeline and storage needs, as well as receive public money to build them!

Nonetheless, the fossil fuel industry knows that if it can lock-in the CO2 infrastructure, it can effectively lock-in the future of fossil fuels.

That’s why it is particularly notable that the Commission’s ICMS proposal also takes on board so many of the demands of the CCUS Forum’s infrastructure working group.

To get an idea of what’s at stake, here, the ICMS envisages 7,300km of CO2 transport infrastructure by 2030 (costing €12.2 billion), rising to 19,000km (costing €16 billion) by 2040. Infrastructure that is packed with dangers: high-pressure CO2 pipelines can leak or rupture, potentially explosively, while the release of compressed CO2 can result in the asphyxiation of humans and animals.

In April 2024, for example, an ExxonMobil-owned CO2 pipeline leaked in US state Louisiana, causing a shelter-in-place order to be issued to the surrounding residents to avoid risk of asphyxiation. This followed a similar pipeline rupture in Mississippi, which necessitated evacuations and medical treatments.

Yet the EU – urged on by its fossil fuel advisers – wants to thrown tens of billion of euros at building tens of thousands of kilometers of such infrastructure, all with the aim of creating a single market for CO2 in Europe. A market that may never take shape, due to being so risky and so expensive – for commodity for which there is no current demand for, or supply of.

Nonetheless, the recommendations of the CCUS Forum’s infrastructure working group have been largely followed by the Commission’s ICMS proposal, incorporating ways to collectivise risks while privatising profits. These include minimising costs for polluters when building CO2 networks, funnelling EU and national public funds towards CO2 pipelines and storage sites, and planning provisions to protect fossil fuel companies from costs, risks or liabilities if things go wrong (or if the promised CO2 market fails to emerge).

Recommendations that are resoundingly in the interests of two of the group’s co-chairs, fossil fuel lobby groups the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (IOGP) and Zero Emissions Platform (ZEP). The group’s third co-chair, meanwhile, was pro-CCS NGO Bellona, which is vice-chair of ZEP, and received funding from the Equinor-Shell-TotalEnergies CCS partnership Northern Lights as recently as 2021.

Moreover, the largest single sector represented in the group’s membership was once again the fossil fuel industry (at 22%), including Shell, BP, TotalEnergies, ExxonMobil, Equinor, Eni and Snam.

The latter two, Italian oil giant Eni and gas infrastructure company Snam (which were also members of CCUS Forum’s ‘vision’ and ‘public perception’ working groups, as well as between them having speakers at every annual Forum so far), have a joint CCS project off the coast of Ravenna in Italy.

This is part of an even bigger cross-border project dubbed the Callisto Mediterranean CO2 Network, which the Commission has deemed eligible to access public funding through the EU’s Connecting Europe Facility. Amazingly, however, information about the economic sustainability and safety of the project remain unclear and not in the public domain.

This lack of transparency is accompanied by a complete blank around the market ‘demand’ for the project: Snam only launched its survey on the potential market for CO2 transport and storage at the Ravenna site in February 2024 (and has already extended the deadline by a month, to give companies “more time”...).

Meanwhile, the pie-in-the-sky CO2 storage targets, as noted above, bely the reality that “as of today, no CO2 at all is being captured for permanent storage within the EU” – as even pro-CCUS industry lobby group CCS Europe recognises. The targets also ignore the fact that underground storage comes with the risk of potential leakage, contamination of drinking water, and stimulation of seismic activity.

Equinor’s pilot offshore CO2 storage projects Sleipner and Snøhvit in Norway, for example, while portrayed as ‘success stories’, in fact cast doubt on its feasibility, with pressure rises and unexpected CO2 movements risking leakages and causing project suspensions.

Despite this, Equinor’s much larger Northern Lights CCS project – in partnership with Shell and TotalEnergies – has received over €1 billion from the Norwegian government (which promised to publicly fund 80% of the project) and at least €131 million from the EU’s Connecting Europe Facility. Public money that is going to oil and gas giants with vested interests in, and a history of lobbying hard to secure, the future of fossil fuels.

Money that could be better spent on real solutions like scaling up renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, rather than on a technology promoted by the fossil fuel industry to preserve its climate-wrecking business model.

Yet the CCUS Forum has not only been successful in pushing the Commission to dedicate vast public resources to building transport and storage infrastructure – and creating a market – for CO2, it is also playing a strategic role in convincing Member States. The 2023 CCUS Forum, for example, saw the signing by a number of EU governments (including Denmark, France and the Netherlands) of the Aalborg Declaration, which calls for a European CO2 network and market.

And what of getting the public on board the CCUS train? Through it’s ‘public perception’ working group, the CCUS Forum is urging the EU to fabricate consent for this dangerous and flawed techno-fix, telling the Commission that “it is crucial to establish the legitimacy of CCUS technology among the public”. And the Commission has listened, in its ICMS proposal promising to “use the CCUS Forum” to “increase public understanding”.

The CCUS Forum is a clear example of institutionalised corporate capture. It lacks any democratic legitimacy, and is quite clearly a vehicle for fossil fuel industry influence. If left in any doubt, The Carbon Coup found that the CCUS Forum has become bigger and more dominated by fossil fuel interests each year – from companies like Equinor, TotalEnergies, Shell and Snam, to lobby groups like IOGP and ZEP. What’s more, to date, every working group of the CCUS Forum has been co-chaired by the fossil fuel industry or organisations with links to it, and the largest sector represented in these working groups has consistently been the fossil fuel industry.

Meanwhile, the role of NGOs and academia is comparatively tiny – while the role of groups critical of CCUS is practically non-existent.

The Commission’s efforts to present the CCUS Forum as a ‘balanced’ multi-stakeholder group are clearly misleading, and doubly so, in light of the ‘neutral’-sounding organisations active in the CCUS Forum that, on closer inspection, have links or history with the fossil fuel industry. Pro-CCS NGOs Bellona and the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) for example, or the Florence School of Regulation. The latter has a wide array of fossil fuel funders, and two of its ‘part-time professors’, Andris Piebalgs and Christopher Jones, were formerly high-level officials in the Commission’s DG Energy.

Corporate capture clubs like the CCUS Forum are prolonging the fossil fuel industry’s sway over our politics and economy, distracting from and delaying the real solutions needed now. The CCUS Forum, and all examples of institutionalised corporate capture, can have no place in a democratic European Union, or one that is capable of meeting its climate justice responsibilities.

Decarbonisation poses an existential threat for fossil fuel companies. That’s why the industry has created multiple ‘escape hatches’ to continue fossil fuel burning, including techno-fixes like CCUS and blue hydrogen and get-of-jail-free cards like carbon offsets and carbon markets – false solutions that delay and distract from real climate action.

Severing the influence of this industry, through fossil free politics, is vital if the EU is to deliver real solutions to the climate crisis and get carbon emissions down to real zero, instead of the corporate greenwashed 'net zero' that relies on fossil fuel industry delay tactics like CCUS.

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