The United Kingdom is funding a pilot project that will capture carbon dioxide from power plants and send it to be stored at the bottom of the North Sea. Carbon sequestration is one of a number of technologies the British government is exploring in its efforts to curb global warming. BBC environment correspondent Richard Black tells host Steve Curwood that both industry and environmental groups see potential in this plan to capture carbon.
CURWOOD: Much of the same techniques used to extract oil and gas from under the ocean floor can also be used to store carbon dioxide, the global warming gas, and Britain has announced a multi-million dollar plan to take advantage of the technology.
Coal-burning power plants are the source of one quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, and with British government’s pledge to cut emissions by 60%, keeping the CO2 out of the atmosphere is a high priority. The plan is to bury the carbon beneath the North Sea. Environment correspondent Richard Black has been following this story for the BBC. Hi there, Richard.
BLACK: Hello Steve.
CURWOOD: Now let’s start first with the basics. How does this carbon sequestration or carbon capturing work?
BLACK: In essence it’s very, very simple. All you have to do is to catch hold of the carbon dioxide as it comes out of, let’s say a power station chimney. And then you take it in a pipe and you put it down somewhere deep underground, so this might be under the land or under the bed of the sea. And if you’re lucky it should stay there. And while it’s there and not in the atmosphere it’s not contributing to climate change.
CURWOOD: Now why store it in the North Sea?
BLACK: For the last 30 or so years Britain has been extracting oil and natural gas from the fields under the North Sea bed. Many of those wells are now dried up or they are drying up, so we know that the rock above the sort of reservoir must be solid otherwise it wouldn’t have kept the oil and gas in place for all those millennia. And so in essence, instead of pumping gas and oil outwards, you’d be pumping carbon dioxide back.
CURWOOD: I understand that that might help in fact enhance the recovery of the remaining oil and gas. Is that accurate?
BLACK: That is a possibility, yeah. And I think that’s obviously something which is in it for the industry. There are already projects that are going on in other parts of the world that are looking at that.
CURWOOD: So how effective would this plan be in reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants?
BLACK: Well, at the moment we’re not entirely sure. Certainly it has a lot of potential. Almost two thirds of Britain’s electricity now is generated by burning coal and gas and so even though there’s lots of talk about reducing that dependence, switching to other types of fuel such as wind and so on and so forth. Obviously, if you could do anything about the emissions from coal and gas-fired power stations in the short-term that would be something that’s very worthwhile. And this was something the energy minister Malcolm Wicks was pointing out when he launched this $72 million dollar project he said because the current situation is certainly going to continue.
WICKS: The British economy is going to be heavily dependent on oil and gas and still quite a lot of coal for still decades to come. Now given the carbon emissions from those fossil fuels it’s worth investigating very seriously any technology that can prevent those emissions damaging the atmosphere. And the idea of carbon capture and possibly storing the carbon dioxide in the oil and gas field, say under the North Sea, is something that we as a government are very interested in.
BLACK: And it’s worth pointing out that many other governments are in the same position, including the United States. Just over 50 percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal and another 15 percent from natural gas, so it may be interesting there as well.
CURWOOD: Indeed. Now what do environmental activists say about this plan for capturing carbon?
BLACK: It’s a bit of a mixed bag to be honest Steve. It’s not the ideal solution from the environmentalist’s point of view. What they would like to see generally is a change in the way that we live our lives and a reduction in our reliance on fossil fuels to start with. But with all the scientific evidence that’s been coming out over the last few years about, you know, suggesting that we may really have a decade or couple of decades in order to tackle this problem. Obviously it’s something that pragmatically they’re coming round to. One of the climate change campaigners for Friends of the Earth in the UK is Brianne Worthington and responding to Mr. Malcolm Wicks’ announcement, she said it’s a significant development to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short-term, but she thinks the government doesn’t actually go far enough.
WORTHINGTON: This announcement does however, feel a little bit timid. They’re moving towards deployment of capture-ready power stations, but they’re not really investing enough to thoroughly test the concept. That’s what we need. We need a good thorough test of whether this is going to work or not so that we can consider it for the future.
CURWOOD: So Richard, tell me, how far advanced is this technology that this woman from the Friends of the Earth is talking about?
BLACK: Well, in Britain it’s really in its infancy. In other countries including the U.S., there are pilot projects going on, but there is one project which actually started nine years ago in the North Sea which is going rather successfully. It’s run by the Norwegian oil company Statoil, and what they’re doing, one of their fields, the gas that comes up is rather rich in carbon dioxide which obviously they don’t want. And so what they do, they extract it at the top of the gas well and then they simply pump it down into a formation, a sandstone formation called “wootsira” which is under the North Sea and as I said, they’ve been doing that for nine years. So certainly the storage part of it is fairly well-developed. The capture part of it is slightly more difficult; there are various techniques depending on where you’re going to capture it from. And certainly in the case of power stations it can reduce their efficiency a little bit so there’s definitely work to be done on that end.
CURWOOD: How soon could this carbon capture and storage technology come online?
BLACK: The government would like to have a demonstration project up and running in about five or ten years time and that’s something that the industrialists who have been working with the governments on this believe is eminently feasible. The infrastructure is largely already there. And the one criticism that’s come from some corners is well, actually why do you need to do a demonstration project at all? If you’re serious about this why not just simply take on board the fact that the Norwegians demonstrated it nine years ago and go for something a little more ambitious?
CURWOOD: Richard Black is an environment correspondent for the BBC. Thanks for taking this time with me Richard.
BLACK: My pleasure Steve.
CURWOOD: Coming up, the red tide. What it is and why it comes. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth