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A revolution in reverse

May 11, 2012

IN the cool, salty air of the Norwegian coast, a revolution in reverse is being attempted. Here, amid a mare’s nest of gleaming steel pipes and flaming yellow gas flares, engineers are aiming to put back into the ground what many nations have exerted all their might for the last century to get out: carbon.

If all goes to plan, the oil refinery and gas power plant at Mongstad will have millions of tonnes of its climate-warming carbon dioxide funnelled under the North Sea. And there are plans aplenty around the world for carbon capture and storage (CCS). They promise to even suck greenhouse gases out of the air one day, and are laced with the delicious irony of having been kickstarted by climate sceptic US president George W Bush, who wanted to “do something for coal”.

But the optimism that fuelled hopes of CCS driving deep carbon cuts has stalled. The infant industry was knocked off course by the world economic crisis, which dragged urgency about global warming down with it, and made money hard to come by. This matters, says the International Energy Agency, which thinks 20 per cent of all the carbon cuts needed to tackle global warming could come from trapping the exhausts of power stations and putting them out of harm’s way.

“If CCS is out, we need to find other ways to get those carbon cuts and that will be very, very difficult: we have to do it,” said Maria van der Hoeven, the IEA executive director, adding that almost three-quarters of all energy between now and 2050 will come from burning fossil fuels. The IEA, which recently warned that current trends would lead to a catastrophic 6C of warming, says 3,000 large CCS plants will be needed by 2050, three dozen within a decade.

Norway’s prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, who opened the Mongstad plant, said: “With nine billion people expected on the planet in 2050, there is no way we can choose between increased energy production and reduced CO2 — we have to achieve both. Without CCS, we cannot do it.”

The country clearly in the lead is the US. Of the 15 major CCS projects currently running or being built that aren’t attached to power stations, it has eight. The $3bn for CCS in the US stimulus bill in 2009 turbocharged the several billion the nation had already ploughed in. “The former [Bush] administration wanted to do something for coal,” said Jay Braitsch, senior CCS adviser at the US department of energy (DoE). He said Bush had dropped out of international climate negotiations and wanted another way to address energy concerns. “That meant giving it a whole lot of money,” Braitsch said.

But another factor has put the US in pole position: the need for copious carbon dioxide to pump out the last dregs of oil from drained reservoirs, so-called enhanced oil recovery.

Canada and Australia — which also have a history of sceptical climate policies — are next furthest advanced in CCS. Norway, which has put $1bn of state money into the world’s largest CCS test centre at Mongstad and has been burying CO2 since 1996, is also a leader, but for different reasons.

But the status of China, the world’s biggest polluter, divides opinion. Brad Page, chief executive of the Global CCS Institute, said: “The fastest mover in the last 12 months has been China.” A large plant opened in 2011 near Shanghai was built very rapidly. But Howard Herzog, a CCS expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: “China’s goal is not to be the innovator, but to be the low-cost supplier.” The Shanghai plant, which will pump its CO2 into fizzy drinks, was built using 20-year-old technology, he said.

Europe has 21 of the 60 or so CCS plants currently in planning. But Herzog said the plan to fund development by selling off 300 million carbon pollution permits would raise far less than expected due to the floundering carbon price, which throws a double whammy as the plants’ future earnings from burying CO2 have also tanked, he said. — The Guardian, London