Forty years ago oil giant Shell discovered that injecting carbon dioxide into Texan oilfields could boost oil recovery by up to 50%.
Known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) this process has now been used successfully in dozens of locations worldwide. Elsewhere, including the North Sea, CO2 is being captured and stored in saline aquifers.
There are now more than 100 global examples of carbon dioxide being safely sequestrated in either of these ways, explains Prof Jon Gluyas, Dong/Ikon chair in Geoenergy Carbon Capture & Storage at Durham University.
Dr Gluyas is a leading expert on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and is actively involved in developing projects in the UK.
Earlier this year a Teesside project on which he advised was put on the reserve list in a Government competition to support the development of a UK CCS industry.
Teesside Low Carbon CCS wants to generate 330MW of low-carbon electricity from a coal gasification plant and transport the emitted CO2 by pipeline to the North Sea where it would be stored.
Dr Gluyas said: “We have the technology to capture carbon dioxide, we know how to transport it and we know how to store it.
“But the bottleneck for its deployment in the power generating sector is the cost.”
It is estimated that CCS technology will more than double the existing build cost of a new fossil fuel power station.
But Gluyas believes one major beneficiary from a working UK CCS programme will be the oil industry.
Oil firm BP has installed a 20 inch pipeline to transport natural gas from the Schiehallion field, west of Shetland, to Sullom Voe, on the Shetlands. It is then transported via a second pipeline back out to sea, where it has successfully helped boost oil production in the Magnus field.
Carbon dioxide acts as a solvent which is able to displace hard to shift oil entrenched in a field.
Prof Gluyas added: “The work to date in America and elsewhere has shown that carbon dioxide can be a major boost to oil recovery.
“It has the potential to significantly improve productivity in the North Sea and signals the potential for carbon dioxide to be treated as a commodity rather than waste.
“If that becomes the case then there should be greater investment in sourcing carbon dioxide. Effectively EOR could be a major factor in getting CCS systems up and running in the UK.”
Despite CCS technology being touted as a magic bullet in the fight against global warming there is not one full-scale plant in operation anywhere in the world.
Last week the Norwegian government in the guise of state-owned oil company Statoil pulled the plug on the only full-scale CCS trial currently taking place in Europe.
The plans for a CCS plant at Mongstad had been beset by delays and cost overruns related to the technical complexities of incorporating the technology into a fossil fuel power station.
The Norwegian Government had likened the task to that of putting a man on the moon.
In Canada earlier this year the Alberta government cancelled its £200m funding for a carbon capture project tied to a proposed gas plant, as lower-than-expected North American gas prices, brought on by the shale gas revolution, made it uneconomic.
The Swan Hill scheme in Canada was designed to capture and sequestrate over 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 each year from its 300MW power station.
Six years ago, the EU likewise announced bold plans to support CCS technologies, but it too, has made little progress.
The EU report that the focus on developing and improving renewable technologies has been to the detriment of CCS, and has hampered the development of technologies and the creation of a CCS skills base.
At this stage in the game the UK is the main global player with the Government considering projects in Yorkshire and Scotland for funding support and a demonstration trial underway at Ferrybridge.
The Government says it will support one of the two identified CCS projects with an investment of £1bn. A gas plant in North Morecambe run by Centrica has been able to strip and capture the carbon dioxide from one of its gasfields, but the real costs come in applying this CO2 capturing technology to fossil fuel electricity plants.
This process is said to be very complicated and involves separating a variety of gases including; sulphur dioxide, oxygen, nitrous and carbon dioxide thereby making it far more expensive.
Prof Gluyas said: “The capture bit is the really difficult bit.”
But he believes that as the technology is developed then the cost will come down highlighting how fuel efficiency has more than doubled in family saloon cars in the last 30 years.
He continued: “The technology has been available for some time and although it’s expensive now, it won’t stay there as it is developed.
“It will cost people more than they may be prepared to pay on their bills and some in the green lobby think it’s just a way for big businesses to make more money.
“But in this world you don’t get out for nowt. CCS is like the invisible dustman and there is a major role for industrial-scale projects to take CO2 out of the atmosphere.”
Gluyas believes that with a favourable wind CCS could be achievable within five years, but adds that it needs visionaries to drive it forward.
“We would not have had North Sea oil if we hadn’t had big thinkers.
“When the idea of recovering North Sea oil was first discussed there were those who argued it would be far too expensive.
“But BP, partly owned by the Government at the time, had the visionaries to drive it forward and the costs fell sharply in time. The same could happen with CCS. We are not technology limited. We are ready to go and we have got to get on with it.”
UK takes the lead in CCS
Teesside has long been touted as the prime location for CCS adoption in the UK.
Earlier this year the Teesside Low Carbon CCS project bid to win support from the UK Government and was placed on the reserve list behind the White Rose project in Yorkshire and the Peterhead scheme in Scotland.
It wants to take CO2 from a 330MW coal gasification plant and transport it by pipeline for storage in the North Sea.
If it were to go ahead, it would provide infrastructure to be used by the existing chemical industry and could dramatically help reduce their emissions and ensure the chemical industry’s long-term future.
Tees Valley Unlimited, the Local Enterprise Partnership for Tees Valley said: “The (chemical) industry could become exposed to increased costs under Phase 3 of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme with costs increasing progressively year on year. Carbon capture and storage provides a means by which industrial emissions may be cost-effectively reduced and long-term, sustainable, low-emission operations secured.”
Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), Doosan Babcock and Vattenfall are currently involved in the UK’s only CCS demonstration project at Ferrybridge Station, West Yorkshire.
This pilot uses an amine compound to strip 100 tonnes of CO2 per day from a flue gas slipstream – which is the equivalent to 5MW of electric power
They expect to start work on a £350m retrofit of the existing 500MW power plant in 2015.
The White Rose project involves capturing carbon dioxide produced by a number of nearby power stations, and transporting it via a buried pipeline to a point south of Bridlington and then out to the North Sea, to be permanently stored within natural porous rock formations beneath the seabed.
A scheme put forward by Shell and SSE aims to capture CO2 from the Peterhead gas-fired power.
Earlier this week Shell Global Solutions subsidiary company Shell Cansolv announced a deal with French contract giant Technip to collaborate on the roll out of future carbon capture projects.
WCCS: The magic bullet for a climate-challenged planet?
A recent report from the US Department of Energy says the fuels we will be using in 25 years will be the same ones we are using now.
Anticipating global energy use in 2040 it says coal, gas and oil will be the mainstays with renewables still playing a minor part.
In fact the department’s International Energy Outlook says coal will still supply more US energy than renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined.
This report comes out at the same time as America’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled new emission target proposals for fossil fuel power plants. Dubbed by some as “Obama’s war on coal” it sets targets that can only be achieved with widespread adoption of carbon capture and storage technology. The EPA hopes a number of projects due to come on line as soon as next year will demonstrate that CCS can be used widely.
Cheap natural gas and the lack of regulatory or financial incentives, such as a mandatory price on carbon emissions, has deterred investment in the technology in recent years but US government loan guarantees and grants, as well as using carbon for oil recovery, has kept the research alive.
These developments come as this week’s IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report highlights the effects of burning fossil fuels on the climate.
The main global policy tool to achieve global emissions reductions have been to renewable subsidies, but this is causing bills to rise and exposes nations to energy security issues.
As yet no renewable technology has come with an adequate storage mechanism and many now think CCS will provide the solution for a climate-challenged planet.