Hiding the Bad Gas

A Norwegian environmental group is defying mainstream environmental thinking by supporting the controversial process known as carbon sequestration as a short-term way of tackling climate change. The theory is that the major global warming gas carbon dioxide (CO2) can be captured on a large scale from sources such as power stations and oil and gas production facilities and stored deep underground.

Carbon sequestration is a way of recapturing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel production facilities like this offshore oil rig.

Although more renewable energy is now coming onstream, 85 percent of the world’s energy needs are still derived from climate-changing fossil fuels and we’re a long way off from kicking the carbon habit.

According to Einar Haandlkken from the Oslo-based environmental group Zero, time is something that we just don’t have. "Reducing the world’s dependency on fossil fuels will take too long," says Haandlkken. "We don’t have enough time to do this because we need to cut greenhouse gases immediately."

Zero is now working with Norway’s oil and power industry to remove millions of tons of CO2 from Norway’s fossil-fuelled power plants and pipe them deep under the North Sea into old and existing oil fields.

Many environmentalists, though, completely reject the technology. "We are totally opposed to carbon sequestration as a means of dealing with climate change," says Anita Goldsmith, climate campaigner with Greenpeace UK. "There is no safe way to store and capture CO2, and the technology has not yet been proven."

Despite these fears, for an increasing number of oil companies carbon sequestration is now a reality. Since 1996, Norway’s Statoil has been using it to remove millions of tons of CO2 from its North Sea Sleipner gas field and entomb it in a saline aquifer six tenths of a mile beneath the chilly waters of the North Sea.

Trude Sundset, chief corporate researcher at Statoil, has no doubts about both the safety and viability of the technology. "Our research has shown that CO2 storage under the North Sea will be safely locked away until at least the next Ice Age." And early this year both Statoil and the British oil giant BP were involved in a joint project to pump millions of tons of CO2 three miles underground from a gas field in Algeria.

Speaking from Great Britain, Simon Shackley of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research agrees with Zero that carbon sequestration has a valid role to play. "Certainly the technology works and it could take vast amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere as practically renewables can’t take the place of fossil fuels overnight," he says. "Carbon sequestration needs to be looked at carefully as part of a portfolio of solutions to global warming along with renewable energy and energy efficiency."