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A town's lonely struggle shows CO2 fears here to stay

BARENDRECHT, the Netherlands -- Kees Pieters has had enough. When the Dutch computer consultant abandoned city life to settle here 30 years ago, Barendrecht was a true village with 15,000 people. Weeping willows lined the canals and, in nearby fields, farmers grew sprouts and potatoes.

But mere miles away, Rotterdam, one of the world's largest ports, would not stop growing. Barendrecht's population swelled and, to accommodate the city's demands, industrial project after project intruded. Highways expanded. Natural gas drilling started. The railway doubled in size. Then came the high-speed train to Paris, with no local stop, and a heavy freight line to Germany.

"There's hardly any room left anymore," said Pieters, as he sat in a dimly lit cafe in the old city center. "It's all built up. In fact, it's just a suburb of Rotterdam."

Government resentment was running high. And that was before the plans for carbon dioxide storage came to town.

For the past two years, Barendrecht, now a city of nearly 50,000, has been one of the world's most outspoken opponents of carbon dioxide storage, fighting a proposal from the Dutch government and the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell PLC to store 10 million tons of CO2 in empty natural gas reservoirs more than a mile beneath the town. The storage effort is a keystone of the country's aim to cut greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.

But instead of a smooth success, the Barendrecht project, still alive but delayed by three years or more thanks to protests and early national elections, has become a watchword for how not to approach carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects. As Shell and Holland have found, CO2 storage, with the suffocation fears that attend it, is a hard sell. There are no positive associations to CO2 -- to residents, it is simply waste.

The storage unrest at Barendrecht, as Shell and the government tell it, has been a failure of outreach. Shell blundered in leading the way, they say, and mistakes in presentation were made down to the scale used in posters, which made it seem like the gas would sit in shallow rock just below homes, said Wim van de Wiel, Shell's press officer for the project.

"People thought that if they dug in their garden, they'd reach CO2 storage," he said.

Pieters, who leads a local storage protest group, rejects this view.

"Communicating a bad plan ahead of time doesn't make it a good plan," he said.

Barendrecht is not alone in its protests. Similar spats have arisen in Germany and already killed one storage project and could potentially derail CCS entirely, the European Union's energy chief, Guenther Oettinger, recently said. And in the United States, protests have complicated or killed storage projects in Greenville, Ohio, and Jamestown, N.Y., though several other projects, particularly in coal-friendly regions, continue to receive strong local support.

The causes of CO2 protest are rarely identical, as individual as the reservoirs buried beneath each town. But behind the variety is a simple truth: These communities are being asked to tackle an added risk, however minor, with no direct benefit, said Sarah Forbes, the CCS project manager for the nonprofit World Resources Institute, which is close to publishing a manual on storage outreach.

"It's a local risk for a global benefit," she said. "That's always a difficult decision for any one community to make."

Some towns worry about housing prices. Barendrecht is already known as Holland's "CO2 town," residents say. Others want no part in prolonging the lifespan of coal, however practical and necessary such efforts seem. And still others, resenting the loss of a small town long gone, are angry at the government for forcing in another industrial project to serve the city's power demands.

And for some, of course, it is all about the CO2.

Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, some Barendrecht residents are terrified that CO2 -- which is heavier than air and, at high concentrations, fatal within minutes -- could erupt from injection wells during still winds and spread like a blanket over the densely populated town. Others hold exaggerated fears that CO2 is wholly toxic, or even explosive.

They trade stories among themselves, in meetings and online. There is the 1980s CO2 eruption in Cameroon, where gas sprang out of a volcanic lake's waters and crawled down into a valley, killing 1,700 people. More recently, there was the CO2 spill from a German factory that sent 20 people to the emergency room. If helicopters had not dispersed the choking cloud, several people could have died.

However, despite the best efforts of the town council -- Barendrecht's opposition has largely been led by politicians -- the city has not been able to put a hole in the project's risk assessment, van de Wiel said.

"Safety shouldn't be an issue anymore," he said. "The municipality thinks otherwise. But they can't prove it. They tried to, but they can't prove it."

Fracturing trust

Several years ago, Barendrecht seemed the perfect demonstration site. Since the 1990s, Shell had been extracting natural gas from beneath the town, to little protest. Ten miles away, the company's refinery was already releasing streams of pure CO2 to the atmosphere -- 3,000 tons vented a day -- and piping some of the gas to greenhouses, boosting tulip production. Some 400,000 tons a year would be available for CO2 storage.

The natural gas reservoirs underneath Barendrecht were set to run dry in 2010 and 2014, making them excellent storage candidates. (Long-depleted gas fields are expensive to reopen and carry greater leakage uncertainty.) Pipelines linked the areas. The government was eager to showcase onshore CO2 storage. Shell easily won the €30 million tender.

Shell began pushing the project before it received environmental approval from the government, running several sessions in Barendrecht in early 2008. At those meetings and later on, the company was set on selling CO2 storage and not listening to the concerns of what were then scattered attendants, said Corrie Righolt-Dam, who sits on the town council and leads the local branch of the center-right CDA party.

"They didn't listen to questions from Barendrecht," Righolt-Dam said. "They thought they could make a wonderful PowerPoint presentation and have wonderful pictures, and they would convince us CO2 was good for Barendrecht."

Still, storage remained a backwater until last year, when the government approved Shell's environmental assessment. The approval came at the same time as a new law that would allow the Dutch government to overrule local opposition to projects like wind farms -- or CO2 storage.

It seemed Barendrecht was losing its voice. And that likely fueled local politicians to question the project's safety, according to a report by Suzanne Brunsting, a public opinion expert at the Energy Research Center of the Netherlands.

"The government has the last word," said Righolt-Dam, who identifies herself as a climate change skeptic. "They can overrule us. But we will struggle to the last vote."

Opponents like Righolt-Dam seized on and built up slight arguments against the project. They cited, for example, a set of CO2 storage guidelines that recommend trapping rock at least 100 meters thick. (Shell's caprock is 90 meters thick.) And Shell, meanwhile, argued that CO2 storage was a "proven" technology -- an argument undermined by hopes of better understanding several technical uncertainties detailed in its own reports.

In particular, the storage project has fueled resentment of Rotterdam. The city wants to position itself as a global leader in CCS through its Rotterdam Climate Initiative, which is fostering the development of carbon capture and renewable power at the energy-intensive port. The project envisions the region sporting a necklace of CCS projects, importing CO2 for storage and exporting technology.

One of the four partners leading the initiative is the DCMR, the government environmental agency that approved Shell's Barendrecht risk assessment. It is a clear conflict of interest and megalomaniacal to think the Dutch will export CCS technology, Pieters said.

"We're trying to make clear what Rotterdam is doing," he added.

All of Barendrecht's political leadership opposes the storage and voted against the project last spring in a plebiscite that gained worldwide notice. Emotions were running hot, said Rene Leyds, who runs a CO2 storage information point built by the government in Barendrecht's shopping center.

"In the first three or four months, people were very emotional -- angry, if you want -- or sad, I would say," Leyds said. "I think it was a sort of fear of the unknown. The variety of people is enormous. There's people showing up telling me, 'You must be from Shell. You're disguised as a citizen.' They were angry at me. They thought I was lying."

And most of all, the residents -- who had by then all heard CO2 could pose some sort of risk -- were confused about what carbon dioxide could do, Leyds added.

"People were very much convinced that it would explode," he said.

Spewing disaster

Not all of Barendrecht's residents are confused. Pieters and Righolt-Dam both have experience reading technical reports, with Righolt-Dam citing her experience as a chemist and familiarity with the dose-response curve. In their opposition, instead, the protest leaders have fixated on two CO2-related disasters to support their case.

The first is Mönchengladbach, a German town just across the border. In 2008, there was CO2 leak from a factory's fire-suppressant system. The dense gas poured into town, pushing out air and causing several residents to pass out. Emergency vehicles rushed the scene, drove into the cloud and skidded dead -- the CO2 had displaced oxygen needed by their engines. The cloud was finally dispersed by helicopters. Twenty people went to the hospital.

"If the helicopters weren't there, people would have died," Pieters said.

More spectacularly, in 1986 a cloud of CO2 erupted from Lake Nyos, a volcanic crater lake tucked high above the rift valleys of northwest Cameroon. In several hours, a few million tons of magma-derived CO2 rushed up 200 meters from the lake's deep interior, where it had slowly accumulated, and rolled down into a valley. The highly concentrated gas suffocated 1,700 people and countless animals.

"It was a fantastic event for making people afraid" of CO2, and completely irrelevant when it comes to storage at Barendrecht, said Henk Pagnier, the head of CO2 storage at TNO, the Dutch science institute that has collaborated with Shell on studying storage at Barendrecht.

Put simply, at Nyos massive amounts of CO2 rushed up through the water in hours, like a popped bottle of soda. For comparison, if the gas escapes at Barendrecht it has to slowly percolate through unending rock layers, Pagnier said.

Lake Nyos was also deeply stratified, its shallow and deep waters never mixing, unlike most lakes, which regularly circulate and allow gases to escape. Instead, the CO2 built up until something -- possibly an earthquake or landslide -- disturbed the lake's balance, allowing drops of CO2 to reach the surface. Those drops cleared the way for a gas chimney, which erupted 260 feet into the air.

Even through Barendrecht's injection well, the primary possible leakage point, "it is technically impossible to release a few million tons of CO2 in an hour" like Nyos, Pagnier said. "The CO2 has to migrate through pores. There is a natural resistance to rock. It has a maximum flow rate. It is completely not comparable."

An eruption from Shell's injection well that would duplicate volumes seen in these disasters is Pieters' primary fear. He argues that risk assessments have not properly accounted for the dikes that wall the injection site in on several sides. Like much of Holland, Barendrecht is below sea level. Those dikes, Pieters said, could funnel leaked CO2 toward the town.

These fears are unwarranted, Shell's van de Wiel said, because a dangerous volume of CO2 could only escape under high pressure, which would result in a jet of gas shooting up into the air. The high exit speed would create turbulence in the air, mixing and diluting the CO2.

"You can't reach high concentrations outside of a very limited distance from the point of escape," van de Wiel said. "But that doesn't satisfy people."

The turbulence theory is well-accepted in the scientific world. It has formed the basis for risk assessments of storage projects attached to the long-delayed FutureGen CCS plant in the United States, for example, and its physics have been extensively modeled, most recently by scientists at the Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Using computer models to validate projects is a common practice, even if it can leave the most physics-minded soul a bit queasy. But for storage, there are few real-world examples to use, and most of those are drawn from natural phenomena like the Crystal Geyser in Utah, a "cold geyser" driven only by escaping CO2.

"People travel to these wells and stand close by. And nothing happens," said Michael Kühn, the scientist leading CO2Sink, a German project testing CO2 storage outside Berlin. "Why should it be different at storage sites?"

Still, there will be questions to answer about failed wells and leak size, Kühn added.

"How much CO2 is able to get out from the reservoir through such a well?" he said. "This is a significant leakage pathway that needs to get further attention, I think."

At the Barendrecht fields, there will be added geological security because the rock's pressure is already so low, Pagnier said. The reservoir would be filled up back to 10 percent below its natural pressure at its depth, meaning the CO2 would have to flow toward a higher pressure to escape -- a physical impossibility.

"That never happens," he said. "That's a physically proven law."

Not all CO2 storage sites will have physics so strongly on their side, and issues like small induced earthquakes will have to be carefully tracked. But still, Kühn would happily live above a storage site, he said, though he would recommend towns like Barendrecht install CO2 monitors in the cellars of nearby homes, to take extra care against leaks, however unlikely.

"I think it will be a waste of money," he added. "Nevertheless you should do it."

Afghan reprieve

There remains a vast rift between the government and Barendrecht.

The worst point may have been this past December. Holland's executive branch had looked at alternatives to Barendrecht and, finding them lacking, approved the project. Two Cabinet officials then met with 600 town residents in a packed theater and faced heckling, boos and whistles. The audience called the government tyrannical, and their cries were met with vigorous applause.

The relationship had become "completely polarized, lacking any mutual understanding, trust or respect," Brunsting wrote. There was almost no hope left of "any type of effective dialogue."

Despite the theater ruckus, there remains a question of how many residents actually oppose the project. It is far from the unanimous block portrayed by the media. Leyds, who runs the storage information point, said about half his visitors now favor the project. And Brunsting found that no one "involved actually knows how many residents ... are either in favor, against or indifferent to the project."

Whatever their numbers, many of the questions raised by Barendrecht residents opposed to storage are exactly what residents should be asking, said WRI's Forbes. "The risks of CCS are unlikely but they are there, and communities need to ask these questions," she said.

The town's residents have received a reprieve from the project's final approval thanks to the fall of the Dutch government this February over an unrelated argument about the deeply unpopular war in Afghanistan. Elections will be held in June, and it will take several months after that to form a government. Until then, no final decision on Barendrecht will be made.

Storage opponents have raised the possibility that only the smaller of the two gas fields could be filled, taking in some 800,000 tons, an option that will likely pop up once the new government convenes. Shell vigorously opposes that option, van de Wiel said.

"If we can only store 800,000 tons, it is a money-losing investment," he said.

In fact, even with the large field, Shell would lose money on the storage, though it would certainly face possible strategic gains. And even with continued government support for the project, CO2 injection could not begin until 2013, van de Wiel said, three years later than first envisioned.

Pieters is not hopeful that the elections will bring a shift in policy. Several influential center-left and center-right parties support the project, while more ideologically extreme parties on both sides of the aisle oppose CCS. And in pragmatic Holland, the extremes rarely lead. "It will be a close call," he said.

Given that carbon dioxide could be stored under Barendrecht for millennia, this is a decision worth taking some time to mull over, Pieters added. "The CO2 will be there forever," he said. "So maybe your children or grandchildren will be presented with what happens."

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