Norway Buries Its CO2 Under the Sea

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In Norway, a 10-year-old tax on carbon dioxide has pushed industry to find new and potentially profitable ways to get rid of it. Companies have been burying the carbon under the seafloor. It's called "sequestration," and many climate experts say it could be a major solution to climate change.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Time now for Climate Connections, our yearlong series about climate change with National Geographic. Today, we travel to Norway to hear how business found what may be a profitable solution to curbing carbon emissions. Norwegians sometimes call themselves the oil sheikhs of Scandinavia because of all the oil and gas they pump out of the North Sea.

BLOCK: And they know that when people burn that oil and gas, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, warming the planet. So Norway has learned how to capture CO2 and sequester it, that is, bury it. It's a technology that many climate experts say is essential to curbing global warming.

NPR's Christopher Joyce visited Norway to see how it's done.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: You have to jump through a few hoops to get offshore to a Norwegian oil and gas platform.

Dr. PAUL NORHEIM(ph): Take off your shoes and socks and trousers.

JOYCE: The things you have to do to do a story.


JOYCE: It's the examining room of Dr. Paul Norheim(ph) in the coastal city of Stavanger.

Dr. NORHEIM: Let me start with the blood pressure.

JOYCE: To work on or even visit a Norwegian oil and gas platform in the North Sea, you need a physical. That's because the North Sea gets rough. And in an emergency, Norwegian authorities want workers or visitors to be fit enough to get off the platform fast. You have to fly for an hour to get to the oil and gas stations. At the heliport, a young man sizes you up and then hands you a big orange jumpsuit.

So what's the purpose of this suit?

Unidentified Man: This is a survival suit. So if you're going to stay in the water long, you don't freeze.

JOYCE: Good idea.

Ten workers and I head off to Sleipner, a platform run by the Norwegian national oil company, Statoil. The workers are asleep in minutes. It's just a routine commute for them. But the Sleipner platform is anything but routine. The oil and gas that it sucks up out of the seabed gets stripped of all its carbon dioxide before being piped ashore. That CO2 is reburied right here, offshore. Sleipner was first to do this over 10 years ago.

The copter makes a bull's eye on the landing pad and we file out and down. It's 10 stories, a hospital, a gym, a cafeteria. It's like a square block of Manhattan stuck in the middle of the North Sea.

Platform manager Egil Elde leads the way down through a maze of girders, down to a big, vertical pipe that disappears through the floor and into the sea.

Mr. EGIL ELDE (Platform Manager, Sleipner): So this is CO2 coming from the compressor going down in a reservoir. It looks like liquid.

JOYCE: And then from here, it goes down into the seabed?

Mr. ELDE: Seven hundred meters of sand and clay and shoal.

JOYCE: Engineers here treat the CO2 so that it ends up liquefied, like champagne. The tricky part is finding some place to put it where it won't leak out. In Norway, they're lucky. They have a place deep underneath the bed of the North Sea.

In a conference room, Elde shows diagrams of the Utsira Formation.

Mr. ELDE: That's the storage formation for CO2. This little water, sandstone layer can receive CO2 for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

JOYCE: The immense pressure of the overlying ocean and seabed compresses the CO2 and, theoretically, keeps it from escaping. There are lots of old oil and gas wells in this part of the seabed, potential avenues for leakage. But Statoil engineers monitor the formation and say, so far, they've found no leaks. All this is expensive, of course, but Statoil was pushed into it at least in part because Norway passed a stiff tax on carbon dioxide in 1993. The tax applies to offshore oil companies who have to pay about $55 for every ton of CO2 that comes from their oil and gas.

Tor Fjaeran, Statoil's top environment executive, says the tax helped turn carbon from an afterthought to a commodity.

Mr. TOR FJAERAN (Senior Vice President, Statoil): I think that you can change CO2 from being a kind of problem to being a commercial product. And as soon as you start putting a price tag on it, you start making creativity in people's head and things start happening.

JOYCE: Like sequestration. The company now buries a million tons of C02 in the seabed every year, CO2 the company won't have to pay taxes on. The burial also helps Norway meet its commitment under the Kyoto climate treaty. Eventually, says Fjaeran, sequestration might even make money. The Utsira underground formation could become an undersea vault for carbon dioxide.

Mr. FJAERAN: You can store all emissions from Europe's power stations up to 600 years. It is huge and it's - it can be a business opportunity for Norway.

JOYCE: Environmentalists have been skeptical of sequestration, wondering whether it will just distract attention from efforts to get away, once and for all, from all fossil fuels. But others say there's not enough time for that.

Frederic Hauge, director of the environmental group Bellona, says solar power and wind turbines and energy efficiency are all worthwhile, but they won't replace fossil fuels anytime soon.

Mr. FREDERIC HAUGE (Director, Bellona): As long as the global energy supply is 80 percent fossil fuel, there is no way around this. Absolutely, we will never be able to combat climate change without carbon capture.

JOYCE: The U.S. government is investing heavily in its own plans to sequester carbon. Engineers are looking to Norway as a pioneer in the field. It already has three new power plants on the books that will strip and bury CO2 from natural gas. And Norway plans to become totally carbon-neutral by 2050.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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