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The North Sea will provide Britain with a natural resource worth as much as £10 billion a year if the Government exploits it as a store for carbon dioxide (CO2 ) captured from power stations, scientists have said.

Britain has more storage space for waste CO2 than all other northern European countries combined, with the exception of Norway, according to research that suggests carbon capture and storage (CCS) could be one of the boom industries of the next 20 years.

The extent of suitable rock formations beneath British territorial waters, principally in the North Sea, mean Britain could make as much as £5 billion a year from selling licences to store CO2 to countries such as Germany, Denmark and Poland, the British Science Festival in Guildford was told.

The market for storage technology could be worth another £3 billion to £5 billion, and the industry could support up to 240,000 jobs — almost as many as currently employed in the North Sea oil and gas industries. Urgent government investment is needed, however, to ensure this opportunity is not lost, said Stuart Haszeldine, a geologist from the University of Edinburgh.

Other countries, such as the US and Australia, are currently investing more in the field. While technology for removing CO2 from fossil fuel-fired power stations already exists, it is currently expensive, adding about a third to electricity bills. The cost, however, is forecast to plummet over the next two decades, creating a new market for storing this waste CO2 safely that Britain is ideally placed to exploit.

Saltwater aquifers and spent oil and gasfields under British territorial waters are capable of storing huge amounts of the greenhouse gas Dr Haszeldine said. “It’s a huge asset to sell and provide for Europe.” Dr Haszeldine’s research has indicated that Britain controls sandstone rock formations beneath the sea bed capable of holding up to 150 billion tonnes of CO2 .

“These are massive storage capacities the UK has got, the equivalent of hundreds of years of UK power stations,” he said. “The estimates from the initial study by the UK Government suggest we will have 60,000 people employed in this by 2030. I think this is an underestimate, a very cautious estimate. My estimate is it could be four times that, but that depends on the actions we take now, because the UK is in a very competitive situation internationally.

“The estimate for revenue would be something like £3 billion or £5 billion a year by 2030, but again that’s a cautious underestimate. If we sell our storage capacity, that on its own could produce about £5 billion a year.” Mike Stephenson, of the British Geological Survey, said Britain needed to match American investment. “In the US they’re thinking a little ahead of us,” he said. “Already in Texas, the Gulf Coast is advertising itself as the CO2 sink for the US.

It’s saying, ‘if you want to get rid of your CO2 , we’ll bury it for you and charge you for it’. “There’s a similarity between the Gulf Coast and the North Sea. We could use this storage space to bury CO2 for Europe, and to charge for it.

It’s a big opportunity for the United Kingdom.” The key to ensuring Britain reaps the benefits of this natural resource is for the Government to have at least four, and preferably five, demonstration projects in place by 2016, Dr Haszeldine said.

At present, the Department for Energy and Climate Change is committed to one such project, and is considering another three. “We need to capitalise on our technical ability and this huge storage asset, and do not just one demonstration project - which the Government has talked about being ready by 2014, but to go for those four demonstrations, and probably to five, by 2016,” Dr Haszeldine said. “The projects must test different types of storage. “These are demonstrations, mark-one pieces of equipment.

We need to learn from these, and have mark-two equipment, this has to be standard practice to compete in the world by 2020.” CCS involves chemical processes that remove CO2 either from flue gases produced from burning coal or natural gas, or from the fuels themselves before they are burned.

The CO2 is then collected, pressurised, and then pumped through pipelines into deep geological formations, usually beneath the sea bed. A demonstration project at the Sleipner oil field in the North Sea has been operated by the Norwegian oil company Statoil since 1996, taking a million tonnes of CO2 each year. “It’s like an oil field in reverse,” Dr Haszeldine said. “Instead of having boreholes and sucking oil out of them, you feed CO2 in through a pipe.”


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