Carbon capture fights its corner

Supporters say carbon capture is needed to prevent the worst effects of climate change. But first they have to overcome a public-acceptance battle.

A model of carbon-dioxide capture by Statoil. Ravindranath K / The National
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Just as the nuclear industry has had to battle its many critics, efforts to reduce global warming have been denounced by environmentalists and residents where the technology is sited. Nonetheless the Norwegians are pressing ahead. April Yee reports from Mongstad, Norway

The protesters displayed their signs at the Mongstad plant's entrance, knowing the Norwegian prime minister and foreign oil executives would soon drive past to get to the opening ceremony.

The plant launching that day was a small-scale test site for carbon capture, an experimental technology that buries greenhouse-gas emissions underground.

The Norwegian government, Statoil, Shell and South Africa's Sasol have spent 5.8 billion Norwegian krone (Dh3.6bn) to build the Technology Centre Mongstad in what they see as their share in the fight against global warming.

Local residents were unimpressed. "To build this plant, you solve something, but you also create pollution," said Roger Gjerstad, 60, an artist who lives on the nearby island of Radøy. "You need it, but we don't need it."

Carbon capture is today at a crossroads.

As recently as 20 years ago the subject was a theoretical matter discussed inside oil companies as something that might be needed should global warming fears turn out to be true.

While carbon capture has won the backing of industry and institutions from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to the Abu Dhabi Government, it has yet to persuade a number of environmentalists and "not in my backyard" locals.

The International Energy Agency says more than 3,000 carbon capture sites are needed by 2050 to combat global warming, and the UN climate change body classifies carbon capture alongside planting trees and installing solar panels as techniques developing nations can use to cut down on emissions.

But last year funding for CCS, as carbon capture and storage is called, remained stagnant at US$23.5 billion (Dh86.3bn), the same as in 2010, according to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organisation. Also last year, three out of 75 projects were scrapped, says the Global CCS Institute, an Australian non-governmental organisation.

"Every technology has public acceptance battles," says Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative. "It's not just nuclear. Wind has a lot of public acceptance battles and CCS has the same."

In many ways the arguments for and against CCS match the debates over nuclear energy.

Proponents say the technologies are needed to rein in emissions while continuing to produce energy. Detractors say they pose risks in the case of seismic events and could increase the risk of cancer for people living near to carbon-capture plants.

The multibillion-dollar budgets would be better spent on solar panels and wind farms, critics say.

The carbon-dioxide equivalent to Japan's Fukushima meltdown last year is the 1986 tragedy when a natural carbon-dioxide reservoir at Cameroon's Lake Nyos burst open and asphyxiated 1,700 people. Experts point out that CCS would not pose the same risks, since the carbon dioxide would be pumped in liquid form into deep geological formations where it would eventually bind to the rock.

The amines used in some types of CCS can also form compounds that, under certain conditions, degrade into carcinogens.

Studies about the health risks helped to delay Mongstad's plan to build a full-scale, carbon-capture plant from 2014, when it was slated to be completed, to 2016, when the government will make a decision whether to build one at all.

"Amines are used in the food chain, they're used in various other industries today, and those amines are being managed and being processed so they know what's going on," says Bjørn-Erik Haugan, the chief executive of Gassnova, a government-backed company that financed more than three quarters of the plant's cost. "The concentrations are at a level … well within the comfort zone."

Over time, fears of carbon capture can be overcome just as concerns about atomic power eventually abated, says Ola Borten Moe, the Norwegian energy minister.

"We don't have the freedom to choose between windmills and CCS," he told officials from ExxonMobil, Opec and the US energy department at the Mongstad opening.

"It's no more than 30 years since most Norwegians were worried about nuclear Armageddon in Norway. This is now a fairy tale."

If any country can boost support for carbon capture, it should be Norway, home to two of the world's eight projects that bury carbon underground. But the public still needs to be educated, says Mr Haugan. "The general public - they're not scientists," he says.

"They think C02 can explode, it's poisonous, its radioactive, it ruins the ozone layer. These are complicated matters. So in explaining the simple facts of life to them, I think we're doing a completely lousy job, because we're making it too complex and confusing people."

One option is to follow the example of the nuclear industry, which in many countries has garnered support by pumping money into local communities. In South Korea, communities that support the construction of a plant receive higher subsidies.

"Where we see some people getting benefit from the storage, they're much more willing than if the benefit is for mankind," says Mr Herzog.