The Rotterdam industry wants to store emitted CO2 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?
CO2 emissions lead to global warming. The Port of Rotterdam Authority therefore wants to capture part of the CO2 released from refineries and factories and store it 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 would environmentalists want to block the reduction of CO2 emissions?
The CO2 would be supplied by four Rotterdam companies, including Shell and Exxon. The Port of Rotterdam Authority wants to transport that CO2 via a pipeline to an oil rig in the North Sea and pump it into empty gas fields under the seabed. However, nitrogen is emitted during the construction of that pipeline and associated installations. The advantage of less CO2 is therefore offset by 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 isolate and store the CO2 coming from factory chimneys. 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 proponents of CO2 storage mainly look at what CO2 is released in the factory itself 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 capture the CO2 themselves also consume fuel and therefore emit extra CO2. 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 gas, partly through leaking natural gas, which is eighty times as strong a greenhouse gas as CO2. The capture and storage of the CO2 in the power plant therefore only reduces the total greenhouse gas emissions to a limited extent, calculated from the extraction of the natural gas from the ground up to and including its combustion for electricity production.
This regarding Shell and Exxon; i assumed their CO2 comes from factories similar to power plants. In such factories, CO2 storage yields little. The two other participating industries, Air Liquide and Air Products, produce hydrogen from natural gas. This releases a relatively large amount of CO2. Most of it can be captured and buried underground, but the rest goes into the air. Natural gas itself is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 and when it is pumped up and transported, a few percent leaks into the air. If you count the entire process from the gas field to the hydrogen plant, the production of hydrogen from natural gas still leads to considerable greenhouse gas emissions, despite the CO2 storage.
Talk to NRC
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The climate experts of the United Nations consider underground CO2 storage indispensable to limit global warming. However, this seems to me to be 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 CO2 storage is capable of. 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 industry in Rotterdam 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? In any case, internal emails from Shell and BP show that they mainly see CO2 storage as a way to continue to run on oil and gas, instead of making a difficult and expensive transition to CO2-free energy sources.
CO2 storage 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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