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ExxonMobil holds out hope for Fawley decarbonisation hub

Despite missing out on government support via the cluster programme, ExxonMobil is pressing ahead with plans to decarbonise the country’s biggest refinery. It will use blue hydrogen and carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), the US major’s head of low carbon solutions in UK, Michael Foley, told E-FWD.

The Fawley refinery and petrochemical complex in Southampton is Exxon’s second-biggest oil processing facility in Europe. The facility has throughput capacity of 270,000 barrels per day.

In November 2022, Exxon, the University of Southampton and Solent Local Enterprise Partnership founded the Solent Cluster. This aims to capture around 3 million tonnes per year of CO2 from the refinery and other industry in the area. The number of organisations participating has since risen to 140.

Exxon and its partners applied for the Solent Cluster to win support under Track 2 of the cluster sequencing process.

The government has set out the aim of capturing 20-30mn tpy of CO2 by 2030. In order to support this, it will provide projects access to £20bn in state funding over the next 20 years.

Under Track 1, the government selected the East Coast Cluster (ECC) and HyNet North West. The Solent Cluster lost out on Track 2 status in favour of the east coast-based Viking CCS project and Scotland’s Acorn CCS.

“We continue to work with the government consistent with its vision for beyond 2030 – the Solent Cluster provides a way to help meet the government’s ambitions for CCS and helps us with our roadmap to reducing emissions,” Foley said.

“We’re working with the government to try and find a way to accelerate forwards. We’re also able to build on the learnings from the other clusters – we’re working closely with many of them to try and find a faster pace.”


Progress so far, work to come

The Solent Cluster is still in an early engineering feasibility stage. But it is set to involve the production of blue hydrogen from natural gas. The operator intends to use this as a heat and power source, both at the refinery and other industries in the area.

It would also employ CCUS to capture the emissions, and develop sustainable fuels for marine, aviation and road transport.

Initially, Exxon looked at options for shipping CO2 from the cluster for storage elsewhere. Ultimately, it determined this option was costly and technically challenging, Foley said. Following a geological study, it identified an opportunity to store CO2 in close proximity to Fawley, in the English Channel, instead.

“That really changed our view on the potential for Fawley,” he said.

What followed was technical work. This looked at the scope for reducing emissions at Fawley and storing CO2, while working with customers and co-venturers to identify further potential. “So it’s been a fairly significant amount of work over the last two or three years.”

Exxon brings to the project its decades of experience in CCS and hydrogen, Foley said. “It’s fair to say we consider ourselves a market leader in that.”

Agnostic approach

Society will “require lots of different solutions”, he continued. “One of the reasons we’re very positive about the UK is that it’s taken a very technologically agnostic approach. For some time, there isn’t going to be the ability to reduce emissions in these hard-to-abate sectors with the current technology set if we don’t use hydrogen with CO2 capture and storage.”

Exxon has not provided guidance on when it expects a final investment decision (FID) at Fawley, for CCUS and large-scale hydrogen production. Obtaining a CO2 storage licence in the English Channel will be a key next step for the project.

“It is important to recognise that projects like these are huge undertakings,” he explained.

“We’re in the early engineering feasibility stages to determine what it could look like and we are working closely with government to find ways to progress faster. One of the key steps will be to secure a mature storage opportunity in the English Channel. We are working closely with the North Sea Transition Authority on how we progress that.”

Exxon plans to spend $20bn globally on energy transition projects between 2022 and 2027. “Our team supporting the Solent Cluster is working hard on the engineering definition, seeking secure permissions and pressing for appropriate policy to enable the UK to compete effectively for its share of that investment.”

Open market

One such policy is a move away from a regulated business model. The next step is a competitive merchant type model for CO2 transportation and storage systems, for which the government has already outlined plans.

In the meantime, Exxon continues working to improve efficiency at the refinery, which lowers emissions, Nick Bone, site manager at the facility, told E-FWD.

The US major is also shifting the plant’s production away from gasoline and towards diesel, jet fuel and chemicals, in response to changing demand.

An £800mn expansion project at the plant will start up in the first quarter of 2025, raising its low-sulphur diesel output by 40%. This will reduce the UK’s reliance on imports of the fuel by 25%, Bone said, which in turn eliminates emissions associated with shipping.

The facility can be reconfigured at a later stage to produce standard jet fuel, or sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from vegetable oils. It will also build a small-scale hydrogen plant, to support diesel and petrochemical production.

Other refineries

Notably, of the eight projects that the government has selected for Track 1, none of them relate to refineries. Phillips 66, Prax and Essar all unsuccessfully applied for projects at their Humber, Lindsey and Stanlow refineries respectively. The government picked projects according to criteria such as cost, efficiency and the wider benefits they bring.

The refiners are now looking at options to connect their projects to the transmission and storage networks. These could come in either the Track 1 expansion or Track 2.

“The unsuccessful Track 1 projects have been developing plans to connect to the transport and storage network at a later stage,” Georgina Katzaros, policy manager at the Carbon Capture and Storage Association (CCSA).

“Phillips 66’s Humber Zero was one of the shortlisted but unsuccessful projects in the Track 1 process that is now looking at joining Viking CCS as part of Track 2.”

Critical technology

Katzaros told E-FWD that CCS was one of the best ways for refineries to decarbonise. “It’s a critical technology for them to reach net zero. In terms of technology readiness and availability, CCS is well-established, and it’s proven.”

A joint venture between Phillips 66 and VPI, Humber Zero strives to capture at least 3.3mn tpy of CO2 by 2028. This would source emissions from the Humber refinery, as well as the Immingham power plant. It would increase capture rates to 3.8mn tpy in 2029.

Humber Zero involves piping CO2 to depleted gas fields off England’s east coast. The partners plan to invest  more than £2bn.

Prax, meanwhile, plans to build a £300mn carbon capture plant by 2028. This would aim to capture more than 85% of CO2 produced at its Lindsey refinery, or over 1mn tpy. As part of the ECC, it could store emissions at depleted gas fields.

Essar is looking to spend £360mn on a carbon capture facility at the Stanlow refinery. This would reduce CO2 emissions by 0.81mn tpy from 2027, using storage under the HyNet cluster. Furthermore, Vertex will supply blue hydrogen for the plant’s furnace.


The UK set out its plans for the evolution of CCUS in December 2023. Currently, the focus is on market creation, which culminates with the 20-30mn tpy target for 2030. By the mid-2030s, it has said the UK may need to be capturing 50mn tpy of CO2.

The second phase is the emergence of a commercial and competitive market, while the third is “self sustaining”.

The CCSA has estimated the CCUS sector will need an revenue support from 2028 of £2-3bn per year. This includes the £1bn already committed in the UK’s 2023 Spring Budget for the technology’s early deployment.

As the CCUS industry scales up, clusters will reach full capacity. Furthermore, carbon prices will increase. As such, the association expects necessary revenue support to rapidly fall. It should drop below £2bn per year from 2035.

The government’s vision includes the extension of the regulated asset base model into the second phase. However, it has noted where government support is less required, it would play a reduced role in matchmaking between emitters and storage.

It is only in the third phase where a mature market will begin attracting international companies to the country for CCUS investments. Costs would fall, as competition grows, and the sector would be “largely free” of government support.

Refineries will need to decarbonise. Given their scale, there is a clear link with CCUS plans, in addition to low-carbon hydrogen facilities. While some companies are willing to sign up to projects on a regulated asset basis, others are not.

The government is moving cautiously on its CCS plans, following a number of historic missteps. Companies such as Exxon may be sceptical of a regulated asset model, but how it will navigate its carbon storage plans outside the cluster plans is a concern.

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