Friday, March 10, 2006

Carbon storage is now under the EU spotlight.

Liberal MEP Diana Wallis:

On Tuesday I am hosting a hearing on the issue of carbon capture and storage (CCS), also known as carbon sequestration.

This hearing is an opportunity for me and others in the European parliament to hear first hand from academics, industry specialists, environmentalists and others about an issue which has gained an increasing profile over the past months.

Despite being in the spotlight, many questions surround the process of capturing carbon dioxide and burying it in the ground and it is for this reason I have along with Norwegian environmental group, Bellona,invited experts to the parliament to talk about it.

At its simplest carbon capture and storage is capturing CO2, putting it into the earth’s crust and keeping it there.

Doing this will substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help in mitigating climate change. It is a key element in the transition to a sustainable energy supply.

How does it work in practice? The majority of CO2 emissions, around 60 per cent, come from what might be termed stationary sources such as power plants and refineries. In most cases, the exhaust flue gas from these sources can contain up to 15 per cent CO2.

After capture, CO2 can be stored in geological formations, including depleted oil and gas reservoirs, deep saline aquifers and unmineable coal seams.

It is estimated that the worldwide capacity of potential CO2 storage in depleted oil and gas reservoirs alone stands at around 37 years.

The Norwegians have a great deal of experience of this process with their Sleipner project, the first commercial injection CO2 project in the world.

In this development about one million tonnes of CO2 are injected annually into an aquifer under the North Sea so demonstrating that CO2 can be effectively stored in large quantities.

This Norwegian expertise is something that the UK Chancellor, Gordon Brown, recognised in his prebudget speech last December.

In the speech he announced a new partnership with the Norwegian government saying that “together we will consider the right level of incentives to speed up the adoption of this new technology.”

It is for this reason that I am working with Bellona which has its headquarters in Oslo and which has shown a great deal of interest in CCS for some time now.

My own region in the North East of England may have a role to play in terms of storage both inland and off the coast in the North Sea which is why I am following developments closely.

Aside from setting the scene, there are two important issues which the hearing this week intends to address. The first is cost.

To what extent are we willing to use public money or is this essentially a commercial function?

Capture costs are high at the moment and although ongoing research will reduce some of these, it puts the issue of cost into context when one considers the biggest project underway is the $1bn Future Gen project which is looking to combine near zero emission coal fuelled power with hydrogen production and CO2 capture and storage.

Of course we should not overlook the bonus of offsetting the real costs in avoided CO2 emissions.

As a former chair of a publicly owned waste company, I have a certain sense of unease about burying unwanted substances in the ground.

This raises the second issue, one of safety. What are the risks of carbon capture and storage? Certainly this is something we have set aside some time in the hearing to discuss.

By way of an answer, in the US, natural gas is stored underground in 470 sites. There have been only nine known significant leakage incidents from these sites, all of which were quickly contained.

Storing CO2 rather than natural gas should pose even fewer problems, as there would be none of the cyclical changes in the pressure and stress on the surrounding rock that occur when natural gas is pumped in for storage and then removed for consumption.

Some in the environmental lobby are concerned that CCS will prove such an attractive proposition that governments may go down this route to the exclusion of reducing carbon emission and fossil fuel usage.

To some extent I share that view. However, we have choices to make in our carbon burning lifestyle now and even then some commentators would have us believe that is too late.

In my opinion capturing and storing carbon dioxide is something that can be done now as part of a range of measures both to reduce our CO2 emissions and in securing our effective energy supply over the longer term.


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