March 2, 2021

Green Column: Obstacles to Capturing Carbon Gas

BRUSSELS — Can the world use fossil fuels and protect the climate too?

That is the goal of carbon capture and sequestration, which is a process for trapping carbon dioxide before it reaches the atmosphere and then pumping it underground, or under the seabed.

The process is already used by oil and natural gas companies like BP and Statoil at sites like In Salah, Algeria. There, the carbon dioxide that exists along with natural gas is captured and stored onshore in a saline aquifer.

Despite a tiny leak from a faulty wellhead valve four years ago, and despite the need to reduce the quantities of carbon dioxide injected because pressure had built up in the saline aquifer faster than expected, BP of Britain and Statoil of Norway said, millions of tons of the greenhouse gas have been prevented from reaching the atmosphere.

Oil and natural gas companies also have trapped large amounts of carbon dioxide in the minute pores and spaces in rocks at similar projects in countries like Norway and Canada.

But efforts to make the process, known as C.C.S., a mainstay of efforts by the power industry to go green are hitting obstacles.

Critics warn that a large leak could harm the climate and local populations. They also say huge amounts of state support would be needed to pay for infrastructure like pipelines, taking money away from renewable energy projects.

Supporters say the technology is essential if the world is ever to meet targets for cutting greenhouse gases and preventing runaway climate change. They say C.C.S. is the most viable way to curb emissions from existing fossil fuel plants and that it should be cost-competitive in the coming years.

They also say that there is large storage capacity in depleted oil and natural gas fields and deep saline aquifers across the world.

Although the separate elements of capture, transportation and storage already have been demonstrated, and although big engineering companies like Siemens of Germany and Alstom of France are helping construct pilot projects, a commercial-scale facility for capturing and burying carbon dioxide from a power plant has not yet been built.

Managing costs is a challenge. That was underlined by a decision last month by American Electric Power, a major U.S. utility, to put on hold plans to build a full-scale carbon-capture plant at Mountaineer, a coal-fired electrical plant in West Virginia, where the company has successfully captured and buried carbon dioxide in a small pilot program.

The company said it had to drop the $668 million project because it did not believe state regulators would let it recover its costs by charging customers, leaving no compelling regulatory or business reason to continue the program.

Another factor clouding prospects for C.C.S. is local acceptance, particularly in Europe.

Residents and environmental groups have raised concerns about the possibilities of contaminating water. There also are concerns about suffocation if large quantities of carbon dioxide should leak out and collect in valleys.

The effect that C.C.S. projects could have on property prices has also stirred unease.

Opposition to carbon dioxide burial has become known as numby, for “not under my backyard” — a variation of the more common “nimby,” or “not in my backyard,” denoting opposition to projects like power plants.

Last year, sustained local opposition led the Dutch government to cancel a project led by Royal Dutch Shell, an oil and natural gas company based in the Netherlands, that would have buried carbon dioxide under Barendrecht, a town near Rotterdam.

Delays and a “complete lack of local support” forced the cancellation, according to Maxime Verhagen, the Dutch minister for economic affairs.

In Germany, where there is a fierce debate over whether to pass a law laying down rules for testing carbon dioxide storage, companies like Vattenfall, a Swedish utility, face a long and uncertain wait for permission to test the suitability of burial sites.

Vattenfall had to abandon plans to bury carbon dioxide in Altmark, in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt, because of protests, and it faces a similar challenge at Beeskow, a site in Brandenburg State.

“We’re doing everything we can to develop C.C.S. but the future of the technology now lies in the hands of national politics,” said Maria Lidzell, a spokeswoman for Vattenfall.

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