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North Sea is Europe’s best hope for carbon storage

CCS UnderseaRock formations below the North Sea are Europe’s best hope for storing away tonnes of carbon dioxide and averting the worst of climate change, says a geologist at Ediburgh University.

“There is no known alternative to storing carbon under the seabed or below ground if the EU is to achieve its goal of containing global warming to 2 degrees C ,” says Stuart Haszeldine. “Deep beneath the UK North Sea can provide a natural resource to store Europe’s carbon from its power stations, possibly worth as much as £10 billion a year.”

Many experts believe it’s crucial to develop and implement commercial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) as quickly as possible to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other sources. While the technology is not yet “ready for prime time,” CCS could potential help meet about 19 per cent of our emissions reduction goals, according to the International Energy Agency.

Below-sea carbon storage offers the best potential for Europe, Haszeldine believes. He says coalmines are too fractured, raising the risk of carbon dioxide escaping back into the atmosphere, while onshore rock formations present potential water problems.

“By contrast the North Sea is amongst the best understood geological rock volumes in the world,” he says. “The abundant data available makes defensible evaluations of storage capacity possible, and development for storage could benefit from using adaptations of the well-proven hydrocarbon technologies developed in the North Sea.”

Haszeldine’s own research shows that the sandstone rock formations beneath the seabed could hold up to 150 billion tonnes of CO2.

“These are massive storage capacities, probably the equivalent of hundreds of years of carbon from power stations,” he says, adding that the North Sea option is also more likely to be palatable to the public. “The public’s concerns are likely to be much less than for onshore storage where an extended programme of information and dialogue would be needed, so secure sub-sea storage could be provided more quickly.”

While there are already 213 active or planned CCS projects under way around the globe — 101 of those being commercial-scale plants — more research is still needed to make the technology viable and affordable. That’s especially true on the storage end, Haszeldine says.

“While work on capture is underway in many places around the world including at Edinburgh, storage has been under-researched,” he says. “Research needs to continue since the first projects will inevitably reveal technical challenges and skilled people will be needed to solve them. The results will show how we can make processes cheaper and more effective in future. It needs ‘many millions’ of funding a year and it is vital that this be sustained for 10 years or more.”

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