Saudi Arabia plans to capture carbon dioxide and inject it into the world's largest oilfield by 2013 as part of efforts to boost output and reduce the country's carbon footprint. The strategy mirrors similar efforts in Abu Dhabi and comes as climate change negotiators in Copenhagen weigh a proposal backed by oil-producing countries and others to steer funding to projects that re-route emissions from the smokestack to permanent underground storage.
The carbon capture project at the giant Ghawar oilfield was a key part of Saudi Arabia's "initiatives on green", Ali al Naimi, the minister of petroleum and mineral resources, said yesterday. His government has been sceptical of a global agreement to cut carbon emissions by reducing consumption of fossil fuels, provoking criticism from a number of global leaders and experts. "We're going to have a pilot demonstration, I hope by 2013," he told a meeting in Dubai of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association.
In Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, the use of carbon capture would satisfy three objectives: reducing emissions, increasing oil output and providing a substitute for scarce natural gas that is currently left in oil wells to maintain pressure. Carbon dioxide has been injected into a number of fields in the US to squeeze out more oil and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company is testing the technique in the carbonate geology common to the region.
The Ghawar field is the world's largest single source of crude - producing about 5 million barrels per day last year before Saudi Arabia scaled back output to comply with OPEC cuts - but after 58 years in operation, engineers say it probably needs gas injections and other enhanced recovery methods to maintain output. Saudi Arabia first disclosed plans for the carbon injection project in October, but Mr al Naimi detailed a longer-term strategy yesterday, noting that the eventual goal was to tie carbon capture with the kingdom's interest in producing biofuels from algae.
"We are looking at capturing carbon dioxide, injecting it in sea water, creating algae and hopefully producing two things: ethanol - you might be surprised by our interest in ethanol - and food products," he said. Producing fuel from algae has become a priority of researchers across the world, including major oil companies such as ExxonMobil. But experts say scientists still need to induce each unit of algae to absorb more carbon dioxide and produce more oils to make algae a commercially viable source of energy.
Backers of carbon capture projects are closely following an ongoing debate at the Copenhagen climate summit on whether to include carbon capture in a UN-administered funding programme called the Clean Development Mechanism. The rule change would allow owners of carbon capture projects in developing countries to sell credits on the open market for every tonne of carbon they keep out of the atmosphere, giving the projects a major financial boost.
Analysts, however, expect the proposal to be blocked this week. Saudi Arabia has taken an active interest in the proposal. In a submission to the UN Convention on Climate Change last year, the country's negotiators wrote: "Many developing countries that have great opportunities to contribute in this area will have no incentives in implementing such actions if this technology is not eligible under the CDM."