burying CO2 under the sea, a solution that divides

We call it the “carbon capture and storage” (CCS): CO2 is captured in the chimneys of refineries, cement works, thermal power plants or metal factories, thanks to various chemical processes. Then we compress it until it liquefies, and, at the rate of millions of tons, after having transported it by ships or by pipelines, it is injected, for the rest of the centuries, into underground cavities, for example old oil or gas fields.

Other techniques are tested: the “direct air capture” ​(DAC) uses huge vacuums to extract CO2 from the air itself. A dozen prototypes are in operation around the world, including one, the highly publicized Orca, in Iceland. But the efficiency is still very low.

Finally, there is the “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” (BECSS). It consists of burning plants – which concentrate the carbon that they themselves have sucked into the air – in thermal power stations, the CO2 of which is captured and stored, as for refineries or coal-fired power stations. But, big problem, the rise of the cultivation of plants used as carbon vacuum cleaners is considered problematic because of the quantities of agricultural land and water required.

It is therefore the recovery of fumes from highly polluting factories that remains the main vein among the various CCS technologies.

The North Sea, CO2 sarcophagus

There would be no shortage of natural geological cavities to store the recovered CO2. According to still approximate estimates from the IPCC, the world’s subsoil could store a thousand billion tonnes, which would be more than enough to respect a warming of less than 1.5° by 2100.

In Europe, the North Sea is destined to become a gigantic carbon dioxide sarcophagus. Its entrails are known by heart to the geologists of the “majors” who have been extracting oil and gas from it for fifty years.

A view of the mind? No way. All the major scenarios developed to achieve total neutralization of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, including that of the IPCC, provide for the use of CCS.

This, officially, to neutralize the last sources of CO2 emissions considered incompressible, in particular because of the chemical processes used, in cement works or steel production. But before that, we could delay the switch to electricity for all the polluting installations that are too recent to be replaced quickly. For example, the coal-fired power stations that China has put into service with a vengeance in recent years and which are 13 years old on average.

10% less CO2 according to the International Energy Agency

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that CCS will contribute 10-15% to the decarbonization of human activities in the long term, as humanity’s annual greenhouse gas emissions have exceeded 50 billion tons in 2019.

The stakes are high, especially for power plants burning coal, fuel oil or gas. According to the IEA, equipping all the world’s thermal power stations would make it possible to capture 600 billion tonnes which, otherwise, will be released into the air over the next 50 years. This is the equivalent of 17 years of CO2 emissions from the entire planet.

A technology invented to boost oil wells

CCS technology has been known and used since the 1970s. It was born in Texas… and not for an ecological purpose: we had the idea of ​​recovering the CO2 emitted by a refinery to inject it into an oil field in end of life in order to increase the pressure there, thus the extraction of oil.

This explains why half of the thirty global sites using this technique are located in the United States. It is even tax-exempt there, just like in Canada… in the name of environmental protection! But these thirty sites capture only 45 million tonnes per year worldwide. A derisory level, barely 10% of France’s emissions.

But it should jump. Joe Biden’s recovery plan has just granted the CCS a nice handful of billions in subsidies. In Europe, it is the increase in carbon quotas (rights to pollute), now around €70 per tonne, which now makes this costly practice profitable.

Storage sites not there

The Norwegian firm Rystad, which specializes in energy, estimates thatthere are currently more than 200 CCS projects worldwide. They should remove more than 550 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere in 2030.

This is ten times more than at present. But still little, because the IEA estimates that we must reach 7.6 billion tonnes per year in 2050recalls Florence Delprat-Jannaud, CCS specialist at the French Institute of Petroleum-New Energies. While industrial emitters are beginning to multiply CCS projects, it is the pipelines and storage sites that risk not being there if investments do not accelerate, worry Florence Delprat-Jannaud.

Florence Delprat-Jannaud is a specialist in CO2 capture and storage at the French Institute of Petroleum-New Energies. | DR

However, it is clear that the CCS is never mentioned in France and hardly more so at European level. While this is a solution that features prominently in all the official scenarios of a carbon-free planet, Europe and France, nowhere are we discussing the billions of investments needed to capture, transport and the injection of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s crust.

The little biggest project in Europe

In Europe, the only storage project open to foreign industrialists is Northern Lights, in Norway, which will notably enable the export by ship of CO2 recovered from a fertilizer manufacturer in the Netherlands. Northern Lights ( ” Aurora borealis “ ​in English), of which TotalEnergies is a shareholder, should come into service in 2025. It could be of interest, in particular, to the ArcelorMittal steelworks in Dunkirk, which is participating in one of the few CCS projects in France.

The maximum capacity of Northern Lights will be 5 million tons per year. TotalEnergies certainly invests in a number of other projects. It aims for an annual storage capacity of 10 million tonnes in 2030 and 50 to 100 million tonnes in 2050.

However, with regard to the world’s fifth-largest hydrocarbon company, we note once again that the quantities envisaged seem low compared to the ambitions of the IPCC or the IEA, or even compared to the greenhouse gas emissions of the European Union (including the United Kingdom), which reached 4 billion tonnes in 2019.

“Do not neglect any lever”

The fact remains that, for the agronomist specializing in climate change Sylvain Pellerin, it will be so difficult to achieve zero carbon in 2050 that no lever should be overlooked. If, he recalls, the first lever is, for France, to divide our greenhouse gas emissions by six, it is estimated that there will remain, in 2050, 80 million tonnes of incompressible emissions​.

To neutralize them in carbon sink, there will only be three solutions: increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, increase forests and CCS, even if it is more expensive than the processes using nature.

The game is not won because the increase in carbon storage in agricultural soils if he’s on track, he’s not going fast enough. However, for France alone, we expect an additional storage of 30 million tonnes of carbon per year, the remaining 50 to be obtained via an extension of the forests.

A false “technosolution” denounced by environmentalists

Green MEP Marie Toussaint considers CO2 capture and storage to be a dangerous false solution. | EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT

Yet the CCS is not unanimous. Firstly because of its cost. Rystad estimates that by 2020, the CCS market will reach $55 billion per year. ExxonMobil has, on its own, put on the table, in 2021, a 100 billion dollar project to collect by pipeline all the CO2 from the 200 petrochemical plants in Texas and Louisiana and inject it into the subsoil of the Gulf of Mexico, itself vast oil and gas fields.

These funds, we better spend them on renewable energy​, says Anna-Lena Rebaud, Friends of the Earth, and for which the CCS is nothing but a business offered by the oil and gas industry to maintain the status quo and keep its customers.

For the ecologist MEP Marie Toussaint, the CCS has everything to displease. It describes a technology immature and inefficientwith a CO2 recovery rate that does not exceed 70%, which is mainly used the greenwashing of highly polluting companies, in particular oil and gas companies​. The priority must be, according to this elected official, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, get out of fossil fuels and develop renewable energies​.

Read also: Carbon capture and burial, a false solution according to ecologist Marie Toussaint

She fears that CCS infrastructures will first become stranded assets, which, once created lock us into production processes based on fossil fuels that are not in line with our climate objectives”. Then with the rise of renewables, which are more and more competitive, these infrastructures are no longer interesting after 10 years, well before their real lifespan. They would then become stranded assets, that is to say another waste of public money”.

A risk of a “carbon bomb” for the oceans

We are no less severe at Greenpeace. A project such as Northern Lights is 5 million tons of CO2 captured per year, relativizes François Chartier, Ocean and Oil campaign manager, while TotalEnergies itself indicates that it emits 400 and we estimate that it emits 1,600.

The activist worries, even if some experts guarantee the contrary, the lack of long-term security on underground storage facilities which, if they leaked would become carbon bombs for the oceans. He believes that the CCS falls like carbon offsetting and nuclear power, these fake techno-solutions thanks to which they want us to believe that we can’t change our way of life.

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