10 april 2010

Popular opposition imperils storage plans in Brandenburg

[4C news report, based largely on an April 7 2010 article Paul Voosen in E&E News. Earlier 4C articles can be found in our news listings for 4-3-, 5-3-, 10-5-, 13-6-, 25-6-, 3-7-, 10-11-, and 16-11-2009 at our site ]

One of the EU’s first big CCS “demonstration” projects, the Schwarze Pumpe coal plant of Sweden’s giant Vattenfall energy company in East Germany, has been pushing its CO2 into the atmosphere rather than underground because of fierce local opposition to CO2 storage.

In a major analysis, E&E News reports that Vattenfall’s plans to pump CO2 into porous rock a kilometer underground have stalled because of fierce opposition from local inhabitants.

"The protests", Paul Voosen writes, "began last year."

Residents are concerned that CO2, which causes suffocation at high concentrations, will leak from rock formations, despite assurances from geologists that escape is practically impossible. And there are other worries -- about stored CO2 turning groundwater acidic and forcing real estate prices to plunge.

Because of the “popular uprising”, E&E says that political authorities have not put in place the regulations needed for the carbon sequestration, and competitors of Vattenfall in the natural gas business have bought up nearby storage formations. Storage space is in any case difficult to find in the area, and residents have a panoply of reasons for opposing Vattenfall’s plans:

…in coal-rich Brandenburg, some locals fear CO2 storage would encourage expanded surface mining, destroying more towns in a region environmentally devastated by communism and economically crippled by capitalism. They have launched demonstrations in churches and created Internet sites splayed with foreboding images of gas masks and bombs, fuses burning, buried in the soil. "No one believes the companies," said Michael Kess, a leader of CO2 Endlager Stoppen, a local opposition group. "The only thing Vattenfall wants is to make a profit. In hearings, we heard only nice things about [storage]. Every problem could be solved by Vattenfall. We don't believe them."

Vattenfall’s problem seems to be common among companies working under the EU CCS subsidy. An operation in West Germany also has had to be cancelled because of popular opposition, while one at Barendrecht in The Netherlands (Royal Dutch Shell) recently received parliamentary approval despite massive local opposition in March 2009 ]. Another proposal, in Dutch Friesland, for a C02 storage near the city of Leeuwarden has recently stumbled against opposition from the provincial fractions of the Christian Democratic and Labour Parties, which at another administrative level had approved it .

Filip Neele, a Dutch government geologist, is cited in the E&E article as saying about C02 storage, "It was amazing how angry and scared people were… It's very difficult, to take away that kind of fear." Neele said there was a widespread belief that CO2 is a danger at any level and people feared its burial near their homes' foundations.

The E&E article poses a number of unanswered questions about CCS:

What happens to underground saltwater displaced by CO2? How much pressure can be added to porous rocks? How does CO2 flow underground? There are larger questions, too: Does funding CCS perpetuate an outdated model of power generation? Can Europe create a CO2 infrastructure similar in size to that of today's oil pipelines? How much gas can these rock reservoirs truly hold? And will the public -- even if properly "educated" -- accept even tiny amounts of additional risk to halt climate change?

Apparently, the cost of CO2 storage is also a major problem. The method used by Vattenfall costs at least €55 per ton, whereas the carbon price has not moved above €20 and is currently at about €13. Only a sharp minimum price on CO2 in the ETS – which does not currently seem probable – would raise the carbon price enough to make CCS pay for itself. The energy giants sponsoring it are not going to build CCS plants to operate at a loss, even if they can find communities prepared to accept the CO2.

Vattenfall’s misfortunes are the result of a bad bet made by its owner, the Swedish government, in the 1990s. Lured by high profits dangled before it by the German government, which wanted more competition in the energy sector, Vattenfall bought up a number of coal-fired plants and strip mines in newly capitalist East Germany. It was nonetheless a controversial move domestically for the Swedish company, since the electorate was environmentally conscious and the government had accordingly taxed carbon since 1991. The newly acquired brown coal plants were among the dirtiest in the world.

In 2001, Vattenfall thought it had found its answer in Oxyfuel, one of the three main CCS technologies. While the €55/ton cost is currently prohibitive, Vattenfall hopes to bring it down to €20. Meanwhile, the 250 megawatt Schwarze Pumpe “demonstration” plant is overshadowed by a nearby 1,200 mw commercial plant that burns 36,000 tons of coal a day.
Vattenfall’s first plan was to bury the CO2 1500 meters under the town of Schweinrich, near Berlin, trapping it in watery sand stone that was, the geologists believed, safely contained by a dense layer of nearly impermeable clay. The Russian natural gas company Gazprom, however, bought the area first, in 2007, as a storage reserve for future shipments to Germany. Vattenfall had been forced to go slow because of the uncertainty about CCS subsidies.

Vattenfall then tried to obtain permission to store its carbon dioxide in an EU experimental storage site at Ketzen in Germany, “CO2 Sink”. But CO2 Sink, which was not abundantly funded by the EU, expected cash from Vattenfall, and the negotiations have petered out.

Then Vattenfall moved on to negotiate for two other geologically “safe” sites similar to the Schweinrich one, under the towns of Beeskow and Neutrebbin. This is when popular resistance flared up and got tangled with German politics. As Voosen writes:

Driven largely by northwest protests, CO2 storage became a national issue last summer during Germany's national elections. Enabled by the Internet and high-profile farmer protests, the movement spread quickly. Politicians balked and delayed passing a CO2 storage law required by the European Union. The law, which legalizes storage and settles many liability and monitoring issues, remains dormant. And when it is revived, it will likely allow regions to ban CO2 storage. For now, Brandenburg's government supports Vattenfall, one of the area's largest employers. Last month, Vattenfall received permission to study Neutrebbin, but its request for Beeskow has been complicated by the town's desire to explore its geothermal potential. Neither town's residents would stand to profit from storage: In Germany, mineral rights are owned by the state, not landowners. Even if they were paid to accept the gas, some would resist, said Kess, the protest spokesman. "I won't support CCS even if I receive financial support," he said. "But if CCS comes, they have to pay a lot of money. It is our land. Not the land of the companies or government."

Vattenfall has one last possibility to store the CO2 it is currently adding to the earth’s greenhouse gases: a nearly empty natural gas field in Germany, the Altmark, which is an existing industrial site that is, according to Voosen, “less likely to engender local protest”. But Vattenfall’s plans to truck CO2 to the Altmark site have been blocked by local officials who insist the shipments must wait for a storage law.

Voosen believes the Altmark cite will work out, and he cites Ralf Littke, a knowledgeable geologist from Aachen University who says that it is one of the German gas fields that have been stable for millions of years and could, when emptied, take a considerable amount of CO2 with a modicum of safety. Nonetheless, there seem to be few other possibilities in Germany and most of them come under towns whose residents are not likely to be more eager to take on CO2 under their homes than the people in the CO2 Endlager Stoppen[ group or those of Barendrecht.

In Voosen’s concluding lines, he indicates why, according to his main source, there is not much hope for CCS in Germany:

"Germany is densely populated," Littke said. "Here in Western Germany we have more than 300 inhabitants per square kilometer. I foresee great problems." Indeed, in Germany's current political climate, the possibility of outfitting most of the country's coal-fired power plants with carbon capture seems dim. And the government must understand there will not be another safety valve like the Altmark, said Heubeck, the Berlin petrogeologist." At the moment, we are very fortunate to have this huge gas field become empty," he said. "It's a coincidence that will never happen again."

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