Carbon Capture Battle Stirs Hopes, Dreams and Grim Realities

At least 10 European power plants were supposed to begin piping their carbon emissions into underground tombs this year, rather than letting them twirl into the sky. None has done so.

Missed deadlines, squandered opportunities, spiralling costs and green protests have plagued the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology since Statoil proposed the concept more than two decades ago.

But in the face of desperate global warming projections the CCS dream still unites Canadian tar sands rollers with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Shell with some environmentalists.

“If you take climate change seriously, it is extremely dangerous not to enable this technology for use in refineries, steel, cement, gas and coal plants,” said Frederic Hauge, the founder of the Bellona Foundation, a key mover in Norway’s CCS project. “When combined with biomass, CCS gives us the option of going carbon negative (reducing more emissions than are created) which we need because we don’t have a Plan B — or Planet B.”

With 2 billion people in the developing world expected to hook up to the world’s dirty energy system by 2050, CCS holds out the tantalising prospect of fossil-led growth that does not fry the planet.

Shell, a major funder of Bellona, has championed it as a way of continuing to extract the oil and gas reserves that it says will likely make up most of the planet’s energy mix by mid-century.

“With CCS in the mix, we can decarbonise in a cost-effective manner and still continue to produce, to some extent, our fossil fuels,” Tim Bertels, Shell’s Glocal CCS portfolio manager told the Guardian. “You don’t need to divest in fossil fuels, you need to decarbonise them.”

The technology has been gifted “a very significant fraction” of the billions of dollars earmarked by Shell for clean energy research, he added. But the firm is also a vocal supporter of public funding for CCS from carbon markets, as are almost all players in the industry.

The International Energy Agency views the technology as the most cost-effective way of delivering around a fifth of the CO2 reductions needed to cap global warming at 2°C, so long as 3,000 carbon-grabbing plants are up and running by 2050.

“If you want to contribute to continued development and bring people out of poverty you need to see ever-increasing energy consumption in the world. Fossil fuels will play a large part in that, so CCS has to play a role too,” said Norway’s energy minister Tord Lien. “It is going to be a lot easier to see that happen through a real price on CO2 emissions.”

Many environmentalists see the idea as a non-starter because it locks high emitting power plants into future energy systems and obstructs funding for the cheaper renewables revolution already underway. “CCS is is completely irrelevant,” said Jeremy Rifkin, a noted author and climate adviser to several governments. “I don’t even think about it. It’s not going to happen. It’s not commercially available and it won’t be commercially viable.”

But the International Energy Agency views the technology as the most cost-effective way of delivering around a fifth of the CO2 reductions needed to cap global warming at 2°C, so long as 3,000 carbon-grabbing plants are up and running by 2050.

The US, Canadian and Australian governments have chased the CCS dream with zeal, often using its compressed CO2 byproduct to prise away tar sands and eke out the dregs of depleted fossil fuel reserves.

Boundary Dam

The Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Storage Project opened in October 2014 in Saskatchewan, Canada, and “is the world’s first and largest post-combustion capture, coal-fired energy generation project of its kind”. The project is a $1.4 billion government-industry partnership between the government of Canada and SaskPower. Photo: SaskPower. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA (cropped).

But only in Norway has CCS brought down one prime minister, been championed by another as a national “moon landing,” and left the country’s highest-emitting power plant as a monument.

Norway depends on hydropower for almost all its energy, but is the world’s third-largest exporter of oil and natural gas. A dissonance between the country’s environmental self-image and its higher per-person emissions rankings than the UK or even Poland triggered the country’s CCS turn in the 1990s. Even today, while the city of Oslo has divested itself of coal holdings, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund has increased its stake in oil and gas firms to £20bn.

The carbon capture idea also sated growing national concerns about over-reliance on hydro as energy shortfalls were projected. And it squared the climate circle.

“The concept of CCS was equated with climate-friendliness in the late ‘90s and those in favour of it became, by default, climate-friendly politicians,” said Truls Gulowsen, Greenpeace Norway’s director.

In Sleipner and Snohvit, Statoil built two gas plants which funnelled high content CO2 into a sub-sea ravine. This enhanced export prospects to Germany, which has more exacting carbon content rules, and helped avoid Norway’s punitive carbon taxes. Today, the plants remain Europe’s only operational CCS projects.

But building other CCS installations onshore proved complicated and costly. In March 2000, the Christian Democrat prime minister Kjell Bondevik resigned after his coalition partners tried to force the construction of five gas power plants without CCS.

Six years later, Statoil was given permission to erect the country’s largest gas-fired power plant in Mongstad — with CCS fitted. The then-prime minister and current Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg compared it to a national “moon landing” that would put Norway’s name on the global clean energy map.

Over £1 billion of public subsidies was lavished on the project — a “political subsidy for fossil fuels,” according to Rasmus Hansson, the parliamentary leader of Norway’s Green party.

“In reality it was a deliberate political move, designed to relieve the Norwegian oil and gas industry of climate-related criticism and it worked,” he told the Guardian. “Statoil’s plan to build a gas fired power plant had been extremely controversial and parliament only allowed it because of the promise that it would be fitted with CCS.”

Statoil was never enthusiastic about the project and after technology costs quintupled in a matter of years, sources say that they demanded exorbitant prices from the government for use of steam that their installations were freely venting.

The result, according to Hansson was the construction of a white elephant gas plant that emits 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 pollution annually. In recent years, “Norway is the only country in western Europe that has actually increased its emissions,” Rasmusson said. “This did not happen by accident.”

In Brevik, two hours from Oslo, the CCS dice are being rolled again with an €11.7 million (£8.5) CCS test being run by Aker solutions at the Norcem cement plant, Norway’s most polluting factory, which is responsible for 800,000 tonnes of CO2 output annually.

The factory was also the scene of one of Norway’s worst pollution accidents in 2001 when at least 750 tonnes of toxic sludge spilled into a local harbour and fjord waters. Local environmentalists are concerned about the potential for any repeat.


Norcem cement plant in Brevik. Photo: Eldart. Creative Commons/GNU Free Documentation Licenses.

“A minor CO2 capture seems to be just one partial reason for the new development,” said Øystein Dalland, an environmental professor who lives close to the plant. “This is also about achieving an increased bottom line by the synergy of handling fly ash in the cement production process. But even the idea of CO2 capture and waste handling must be subordinate to basic human rights.”

The cement industry is responsible for around 5% of global carbon emissions — more than aviation. As with steel or aluminium, it is unlikely to be dislodged from industrial processes any time soon, so some form of carbon mitigation is essential.

One argument against this being CCS is that the technology requires roughly 40% more energy to capture about 85% of the CO2 a plant produces. When costs and emissions from plant and transport infrastructure, builds, emissions and leakages are factored in, that can easily make it a budget-breaker in financial and carbon terms.

But in Brevik, unlike Mongstad, “we can utilise waste heat from cement factory so we don’t have to add additional heat,” said Oscar Graff, the chief technology officer for Aker Solutions Clean Carbon. “We get it almost for free.”

Local people fear that adding a CO2 tag to solid waste could give ‘green’ cover for its burial in a local limestone mine which suffered a collapse in 1976.

Testing at the plant has focused on four technologies — amine, membrane, solid and calcium cycle. So far, amine technology is “the only one which is applicable at the moment,” according to Per Brevik, the CO2 project manager at the plant. A post-combustion technique pumps amine gas into an absorber tower pre-heated to 120 degrees C so that it scrubs carbon dioxide from the flue gas as it descends. The flue gas is then ‘washed’ again before being vented.

If all goes to plan, up to 400,000 tonnes of trapped CO2 will be trapped this way. Another 50,000 tonnes would be blended with sulphuric acid and fly ash in a solid waste capable of being stored under the southern fjord.

Norcem’s testing is focused on catching carbon, not keeping it. But local people fear that adding a CO2 tag to solid waste could give ‘green’ cover for its burial in a local limestone mine which suffered a collapse in 1976.

“The local authorities have just refused Norcem use of that local harbour and mine site for the disposal of dangerous waste, because it is situated less than 1,000m away from a population of 2,500 people,” Dalland said.

According to Lien, “the only likely places to store CO2 in Norway would be on the continental shelf where reservoirs have already been identified that have the quality needed.”

But asked about future storage plans for the CO2, a Norcem source told the Guardian that “in future it could be stored in an underground mine like in Brevik. We have a huge underground area in Brevik, but it could also be stored onshore — outside of water [on an island] — or in a hole in the ground.” The source said that the CO2 would be stable, well-controlled, and continuously monitored, but that the onus for doing so would not fall on Norcem.

Aker CCS

A carbon capture and storage (CCS) project, run by Aker Clean Carbon, at Norcem cement plant in Brevik, Norway. Photo: © Arthur Neslen for the Guardian.

“We can’t take responsibility for transport and storage,” said Brevik. “It is not our core business. Storage is definitely a national task because you have to guarantee that it won’t leak and I don’t think that Norcem would like to have that responsibility.”

Because of the timescales and potential consequences involved, public liability for CCS leakages raises the same issues as nuclear waste disposal, in Rifkin’s view. “There’s no way to ensure that there will not one day be a release of CO2 from a deep geological deposit,” he said. “Those plates are moving all the time.”

A nearly two-mile fracture has already been found close to the Sleipner sub-sea ravine.

Shell argues that its own storage reservoirs are unlikely to ever leak more than 1% of the carbon they house. “Even when there was an earthquake in Japan during an injection test, the chance of any CO2 leaking [having taken place] was minimal,” Bertels said.

Greenpeace counters that even a one percent leakage rate could invalidate the raison d’etre for CCS, and that carbon escapes can have disastrous consequences in the short term. Some 1,700 people died in 1986, when a Cameroonian volcano erupted, releasing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of CO2 that had accumulated at the bottom of Lake Nyos, over a 16-mile range.

“CCS is basically about catching a problem and stuffing it away under the carpet,” Rasmusson said. “We will then live with the statistical risk of some gigantic underground burp. The problem is the same as with the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Things that absolutely cannot happen have a tendency of finally happening.”

The storage issue opens a pandora’s box for environmentalists. Many argue that it will reduce CO2 emissions by too little, and too late. Gulowsen describes CCS as a “painful” issue that “absolutely divided the environmental movement” in Norway.

Renewables and energy efficiency “can’t do the job for many industrial sectors because these are process emissions that you can’t replace with green electricity,” argues one CCS research associate.

Hauge, a flamboyant celebrity in Norway who has been arrested more than 30 times for daring environmental actions, compares the green schism to university rows among Marxist-Leninists in the 1980s.

“There is no black and white in the environmental discussion anymore,” he said. To fight climate change, “we need to go with whatever we can and I can’t manage to do that without CCS, even if it means that our former enemies start to become our best allies.”

Rifkin poses an alternative vision in which energy, transport and communications technologies are symbiotically — and digitally — merging in a third industrial revolution that will render today’s energy firms obsolete. In this analysis, CCS is their last hurrah. “Why would we want to pin our hopes on a matured technology that is costly and nailing us to climate change, when on one Sunday in Germany last May, we had so much solar and wind coming through that we had negative prices all day?” he asked. Renewables accounted for 75% of all electricity produced in Germany that day — at operating costs near to zero.

But while storage technologies such as hydrogen batteries, fly wheel storage and smart grids with two-way power-charging may eliminate the need for baseline fossil fuel capacity at some point this century, their current roll-out is happening too slowly, critics argue.

Renewables and energy efficiency “can’t do the job for many industrial sectors because these are process emissions that you can’t replace with green electricity,” said Chris Littlecott, a CCS research associate with E3G. “Over the next 30-50 years, we may have breakthrough technologies that close the loop by recycling steel or using very different cement types but for now, we have to deal with the technologies we have.”

In many ways, the debate over carbon capture and storage is a struggle between two competing visions of the societal transformation needed to avert climate disaster. One vision represents the enlightened self-interest of a contributor to the problem. The other cannot succeed without eliminating its highly entrenched opponent. The battle is keenly fought by technological optimists on both sides. But if Norway’s fractious CCS experience is any indicator, it will be decided on the ground by the grimmest of realities.

Copyright The Guardian. All rights reserved.


Arthur Neslen is the Europe Environment Correspondent at the Guardian. He has previously worked for the BBC, the Economist, Al Jazeera, and EurActiv, where his journalism won environmental awards. He has written two books about Israeli and Palestinian identity.