Climate Change: Carbon storage emerges from underground

Yum yum. Coal burning power station in Wisconsin, USA. (James Jordan)
Yum yum. Coal burning power station in Wisconsin, USA. (James Jordan)
Trouw (Amsterdam)

Numerous companies and organizations, including Shell, have proposed capturing CO2 for storage underground; and scientists who were sceptical about the technique are now rallying to the cause. However, in view of the economic interests at stake, it is hard to tell the independent experts from the lobbyists.

In early September, a 32-man line-up of big hitters including the CEOs of major industrial players such as Shell, Siemens, DSM (mines and chemicals), Nuon and Gasunie (power companies) and former prime minister Ruud Lubbers wrote to the Dutch parliament announcing that they were in favour of "Carbon capture and storage as an essential weapon in the fight against climate change." The open letter, which was published in the daily NRC Handelsblad, was also backed by a plethora of researchers and teachers from independent research centre TNO, and the universities of Delft, Groningen, Utrecht and Wageningen. With so many powerful and informed advocates onboard, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was one technical development that could not fail to make an impact, but it almost vanished without a trace in the Netherlands where authorities and inhabitants in the town of Barendrecht were none too happy about the creation of a CO2 storage facility underneath their homes [an experiment conducted by Shell and approved by the Friesian local government].

With the provision of grants both from the Dutch government and the European Union, CO2 storage may soon become a high stakes business—a potential that has not escaped the attention of Shell, which has abandoned wind and solar power to focus on CO2 capture and alternative fuels similar to oil. If these new technologies are accepted, electricity producers can once again turn to coal burning power stations designed to capture on-site CO2 emissions. In the meantime, universities and technical institutes are mining a new vein in research topics. Gas producer Gasunie believes the technology can be used to fill exhausted gas fields and unused pipelines, and public authorities are enthusiastic about pioneering a new technique to counter global warming, which will enable them to attain sustainability without annoying major industries.

Greenpeace against carbon storage

In short, it has become very difficult to oppose the development of CO2 storage, which is increasingly viewed as a credible resource in the battle against climate change—and Dutch parliamentary representatives have now bowed to pressure and granted an unenthusiastic green light to the Barendrecht project. Until a few years ago, experts dismissed underground CO2 storage as a costly procedure that would be more expensive than purchasing CO2 offsets on the carbon credits market. Even now, the techniques for gas capture during the different phases of production are still in their infancy, so it will take at least one if not two decades for CO2 to be stocked in large-scale commercially viable projects—which means that there is no possibility of a positive impact on climate in the near future. And let's not forget the principle objection, which is that the burial of CO2 can never be more than a provisional solution that requires additional energy. So it is not surprising that oil exploration and coal burning companies are interested, but it is not a miracle cure for global warming. That is why Greenpeace—unlike the Natuur & Milieu foundation, which is more pragmatic—remains fiercely opposed to CO2 storage.

However, as Krijn de Jong, a professor of inorganic chemistry in the University of Utrecht, points out, we are now witnessing a major shift in expert opinion. De Jong is quite surprised by the number of colleagues that were critical of the technique, who have now changed sides in the debate. “Right now, everyone is announcing that risk-free storage is possible,” explains De Jong, who still has doubts. He further asserts that there are many doubters in the ranks at Shell, where he used to work: “Virtually none of the people I talked to really believes it is a good idea," he says: "they are convinced that if CO2 injection turns out to be a mistake, everyone will blame Shell.’’ De Jong believes that in future we will have major regrets about the adoption of the technique: "There will be a lot of parliamentary inquiries about this issue."

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