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Storage proposal for carbon emissions

By Simon Hooper for CNN

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North Sea oil and gas fields could hold millions of tons of Europe's carbon emissions.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Carbon dioxide could be buried underground as a means of combating climate change, scientists have suggested.

The scheme could see millions of tons of the greenhouse gas, which environmental experts say is the main cause of global warming, pumped into exhausted oil and natural gas reservoirs such as those underneath the North Sea.

Professor Stuart Haszeldine, a geologist at Edinburgh University, told CNN that geological storage was an immediate and viable proposition for cutting carbon emissions.

"We need to decarbonize our energy and we can do that by capturing the carbon dioxide and burying it deep in the ground," Haszeldine said.

"It's something we can do now with existing technology. It's not been fully demonstrated on a power station scale but all the elements are there."

Carbon dioxide is a by-product of burning fossil fuels. A storage scheme would involve capturing the gas at power stations and pumping it to nearby oil fields.

Once underground it would spread through the porous rocks that previously held the oil. For oil companies the scheme would have the additional advantage of extending the life of a field by flushing out the last reserves of oil from the rocks.

One carbon storage scheme already exists in the North Sea. Norwegian oil company Statoil has been storing around one million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually in the Sleipner field since 1995. BP also operates a scheme at the In Salah natural gas field in Algeria.

Haszeldine said the BP-owned Miller field off the north coast of Scotland offered a perfect location to test the technology on a larger scale.

Miller is already equipped to deal with carbon dioxide since high levels of the gas occur there naturally, and it is almost exhausted of oil.

In a speech in February, BP chief executive John Browne said the North Sea oil fields could store all carbon dioxide produced in Europe for 60 years.

But Haszeldine said governments needed to offer incentives to oil companies to encourage them to invest in carbon storage technology.

In Norway, which this month appointed a government commission to consider how it could cut the amount of carbon it produced by up to 80 percent by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions have been taxed since 1991.

But the UK's chief scientist Sir David King told The Guardian newspaper in February that the government was considering giving tax concessions to oil companies to encourage development of carbon storage schemes.

BP spokesman David Nicholas told CNN that speculation concerning the Miller field was premature, but said the company had identified the possibility of a project to re-inject carbon dioxide into oil reservoirs as a means of both storing it and enhancing oil production.

"We're certainly looking at that seriously and we're looking at our portfolio of fields to identify possible candidates," said Nicholas. "It's early days yet. We're working towards it."

Greenpeace spokesman Paul Johnston told CNN that geological carbon storage could be possible in the long term. But he warned that more research was needed and said reducing carbon emissions and developing renewable sources of energy were more pressing concerns.

"What we are talking about is engineering solutions on a planetary scale and there are a huge number of uncertainties that need to be resolved before we go that way," said Johnston.

"We are storing up potential problems for future generations. We really need to pursue renewable energy sources and efficiencies in energy usage to the maximum."

But Haszeldine said action was needed immediately to prevent catastrophic global warming in the future: "Every rational projection of energy shows the world will use more fossil fuel in the next 30 years than it has in the past 30 years. Even though lots of industrialized countries are investing in renewables we're still going to end up using more and more fossil fuels.

"Carbon storage could start in a couple of years time, and we could continue it for 30 or 40 years, while continuing to build up renewable energies and work out how we can decarbonize people's lifestyles. It's not an excuse to keep polluting."

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