A Norwegian prime minister once compared the difficulty of capturing carbon and storing it underground to a “moon landing.” But just as the lunar program transformed the U.S. economy, this technology could do the same for Norway.
Carbon capture and storage projects face long odds, struggling to show the technology can both work and be affordable. But the potential benefits of success could be huge, allowing the world to burn oil, coal and gas without unleashing runaway climate change. Greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels would then be pumped back underground, preventing them from warming the planet.
If it works, Norway could keep selling its vast deposits of oil and gas; otherwise most forecasts predict that the use of fossil fuels would need to be sharply curtailed. And the country could make use of its depleted oil and gas reservoirs under the North Sea to store CO2 emitted by factories and power plants from other parts of Europe — for a fee.
The problem is that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is hugely expensive and technologically difficult. There are also questions as to how safely the gas can be stored underground without eventually leaking back up into the atmosphere.
As a result, carbon capture and storage projects from Poland to Saskatchewan, have been stalled, eliminated or over budget. The U.K. in November binned a £1 billion CCS competition project. There are currently 15 large-scale projects around the world, according to a report by the Global CCS Institute.
Norway has one of the world’s most ambitious CCS research programs, a sign of its enormous importance for the country’s future. The country assessed three emission-capturing pilot projects in a report issued Monday, together with options for shipping and storing the CO2. It found that setting up a full-scale CCS plant in Norway would cost between €780 million and €1.36 billion.
“When it comes to fighting climate change, CCS costs way too much now,” Tord Lien, Norway’s energy minister, told POLITICO. “Costs have to be brought down … but if you are looking at how to handle greenhouse gas emissions without CCS, that is most likely going to cost a lot of more.”
Norway pushes on
Norway’s hope is that a world which committed to limiting global warming to significantly less than 2 degrees Celsius in the Paris climate agreements is one where carbon capture and storage could play a key role.
But the costs are still astronomical, although those in favor of the technology believe it is crucial to reaching Europe’s goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 80 to 95 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.
In order to get CCS “functioning and working,” the carbon price in the EU’s Emissions Trading System would have to be from €70 to €90 per ton, Ian Duncan, a British MEP from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, said at a POLITICO Energy Visions event last month. The current price is around €5 per ton.
Environmental groups are suspicious of carbon storage, and of Norway’s intentions. Their worry is that the money and time devoted to trying to develop the technology takes attention away from proven ways of cutting greenhouse gases, such as shifting economies towards renewable energy sources.
Brook Riley from Friends of the Earth Europe called Norway’s carbon capture and storage plans “a spoke in the wheel of the energy transition.”
“As long as Norway and others claim the technology may deliver one day in the distant future, full-scale EU commitment to energy efficiency and renewables will be delayed,” he said.
The vision of a world powered by windmills and solar panels is one that leaves much of Norway’s oil and gas unsold.
Even with the incentive of showing that CSS can be a viable technology, Norway has had trouble making it work.
In 2013, the country’s former center-left government dropped its ambitious plans for a full-scale CCS project after spending about €1 billion on the scheme over the previous six years. Dogged by delays and ballooning costs, the project turned into a political scandal and had to be abandoned.
“The main challenge is obviously people’s perception of CCS as a really difficult and expensive technology, [with] the last project’s failure … actually linked to really poor project management,” said Sirin Engen, with the Oslo office of the non-profit environmental group Bellona.
While not giving up on the idea, the current center-right government is now pursuing more modest schemes, spending only about €70 million this year.
The previous project involved “a lot of big words, a lot of festivities, a lot of ambitious targets,” Lien said. “We have chosen a completely different approach.”
Instead of one big and expensive project, the country is testing several CO2 sequestration technologies, while also looking separately at storage options under the North Sea.
Just outside of Oslo, a tangle of pipes at the Klemetsrud garbage treatment plant is supposed to test the viability of carbon capture and storage. The pilot project snatches a small proportion of the CO2 emitted by burning trash.
The plant emits over 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, or about 20 percent of the city’s total emissions, and it would need an investment of about €200 million to set up a working system able to capture 90 percent of the CO2, said Johnny Stuen, the plant’s technical director.
The government’s report found CO2 capture is feasible at all three pilot plant locations. It encourages industry to prepare for the next phase in CCS by working on technical requirements and engineering design.
Norway’s original goal was to have a full-scale CCS facility by 2020, but in a sign of the technology’s problems, Lien said the deadline would be delayed by another two years.
If the industrial capture schemes are shown to be both technologically and financially workable, there would be widespread interest beyond Norway. CCS could be used to capture about 10 percent of the CO2 emitted by the EU by 2050, according to reports.
Energy-intensive industries “have very limited options in terms of what they can use — they do require a fossil fuel input,” Marie Donnelly, director general of Commission’s renewable energy division, said at the Energy Visions event. “We want the industry to be in Europe, we want the growth and we want the jobs from it and therefore we will have to find solutions that work for the industry in terms of their emissions.”
Some CCS schemes call for CO2 to be stored close to industrial plants, but there are also ideas for using more distant sites — and that’s where Norway comes into the picture.
Statoil recently completed a feasibility study into the possibility of sequestering large amounts of CO2 under the North Sea in old oil and gas fields. The best option would be to store it in the Troll gas field, about 50 kilometers from the coast, according to the government report.
“This solution has the lowest implementation risk, large storage capacity and it is relatively easy to develop the capacity of the infrastructure,” it reads.
If carbon capturing technology becomes cheaper, EU countries would be able to ship CO2 to Norway and then pay to store it.
“They assume Europe will have a problem,” said Bellona’s Keith Whiriskey. “The steel mills in Rotterdam and the refineries in Germany — that CO2 has to go somewhere and Norway has by far the largest physical capacity to store CO2 in Europe.”
Lien said that from the perspective of global climate change it doesn’t matter if CO2 is stored in Norway or elsewhere, “but if we can contribute and also create a business model, [then] better for us.”
Not everyone is thrilled with making CCS work. Riley worried it would keep Europe hooked on fossil fuel imports.
“That’s probably the whole point of Norway’s plan: keep us dependent on gas and make us dependent on their CO2 storage,” he said.
But Whiriskey saw a upside to Norway’s CCS evangelism.
Norway earned a lot of money selling greenhouse gas-emitting oil and gas, “so maybe they should put some money to help solve the problem,” he said.
Sara Stefanini contribute to this article.
This article has been updated with the government CCS report issued on Monday.