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Column | CO2 storage slows down the energy transition

The Rotterdam industry wants emitted CO2 store underground. This releases a little nitrogen; that is why the Council of State is blocking this plan. Is the climate here a victim of the nitrogen rules?

CO2emissions lead to global warming. The Port of Rotterdam Authority therefore wants part of the CO2 capturing releases from refineries and factories and storing them underground; then those factories would no longer cause warming. However, a recent ruling by the Council of State makes the construction of the necessary installations impossible. That statement was provoked by environmental activists. Why should environmentalists reduce CO emissions2 want to block?

The CO2 would be supplied by four Rotterdam companies, including Shell and Exxon. The Port of Rotterdam Authority wants that CO2 through a pipeline transporting it to an oil rig in the North Sea and pumping it into depleted gas fields under the seabed. However, nitrogen is emitted during the construction of that pipeline and associated installations. Against the advantage of less CO2 there is therefore the disadvantage of temporarily higher nitrogen emissions. Johan Vollenbroek and his action group Mobilization for the Environment have filed a complaint about this, which has been granted by the Council of State. As a result, the construction of the pipeline has come to a standstill. How bad is that?

More difficult than expected

Attempts have been made in a number of places worldwide to reduce CO2 that comes out of factory smokestacks and store it. Usually that failed. Technically it turned out to be much more difficult than expected and the costs spiraled out of control. Even if the Rotterdammers succeed where so many others failed, the problem remains that advocates of CO2storage, especially look at what CO2 is stored in the factory itself2 released and ignore the stages that precede it. Take, for example, a power station. Before the coal or gas on which the power station runs enters the combustion boilers, a lot of greenhouse gas has already been released. The CO2 that is released in the power station itself can be largely captured. Not complete, 10 to 15 percent still escapes from the chimney, and the installations that receive the CO2 capture themselves also consume fuel and therefore emit extra CO2 from. But all in all, the capture and storage seems to be a nice reduction in greenhouse gas production at the plant. However, the story changes when we include the preceding steps.

The natural gas must first be pumped up and transported. This releases greenhouse gases, including through leaking natural gas, which is an eighty times more potent greenhouse gas as CO2. The capture and storage of the CO2 the total reduction of greenhouse gas emissions at the plant is therefore only limited, calculated from the pumping of the natural gas from the ground up to and including the burning it for power production.

Significant emissions

This regarding Shell and Exxon; i assumed their CO2 comes from factories similar to power plants. At such factories, CO2storage low. The two other participating industries, Air Liquide and Air Products, produce hydrogen from natural gas. A relatively large amount of CO is added to this2 free. Most of that can be captured and buried underground the rest goes into the air. Natural gas itself is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 and when inflating and transporting it, a few percent leaks into the air. If you count the entire process from gas field to hydrogen plant, the production of hydrogen from natural gas therefore leads, despite the CO2storage still lead to significant greenhouse gas emissions.

United Nations climate experts find underground CO2storage is essential to limit global warming. However, this seems to me more motivated by desperation about the unwillingness of rulers and voters to really do something about the climate, than by a realistic assessment of what that CO2storage capability. It is an unproven, expensive technique and a stopgap solution that yields too little. The money spent on it could be better used for something else. The only thing that really works is to leave coal, oil and gas in the ground and get our energy from CO2-free sources: nuclear power plants, wind and sun.

I don’t think the current Rotterdam industry will do that. In fifty years’ time, would ‘Shell’ and ‘Exxon’ be names from the past, of companies that could not make the transition to a fossil-free world? Like film producers such as Kodak and Agfa, who were made obsolete by the smartphone? From internal emails from Shell and BP In any case, it turns out that they CO2see storage mainly as a way to continue to run on oil and gas, instead of making a difficult and expensive transition to CO2-free energy sources.

CO2storage delays the transition to CO2-free energy. Environmental activists such as Vollenbroek are well aware of this. The verdict they elicited from the Council of State therefore not only reduces nitrogen emissions, but is also better for the climate in the long run.

Martin Catan is a biochemist and emeritus professor of nutrition at VU University Amsterdam. For figures, sources and interests see mkatan.nl.

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