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.

Read the Full Story

1076 videostill 1269 full

This video is no longer available to watch. Please read its transcript instead.

Read Read Transcript Email Browse Videos Browse Videos

Related Videos

About This Report

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has long been held as the salvation of coal-rich nations eager to guarantee energy security and limit climate change. But far from a homogeneous system, CCS is an intricate technology that is sparking intense competition, political divisions and public fear. In this seven-part report, E&E reporter Paul Voosen examines CCS in Germany and the Netherlands, leaders in researching and investing in CCS technologies.

Reporting for this trip was partially funded by the American Council on Germany.


Previous Stories in the Report


The big question: How much CO2 can the Earth hold?

UTRECHT, the Netherlands -- The Dutch used to discover new worlds across unexplored seas. Now, they are beginning to trace the edges of a new undiscovered country, and it is right beneath their shores.

The Netherlands, a country that chose to build many of its cities below sea level, is famous for its pragmatic, long-term planning. So it should be no surprise that, when it comes to efforts to store carbon dioxide underground for a millennium or more, Holland has been leading the way, planning for years to turn declining natural gas fields off their shores into storage sites.

Initial estimates of the fields were promising. It seemed 40 years of emissions from eight large coal-fired power plants could be stored. Then scientists looked closer, probing each site's geology, to disturbing results.

Some fields were too small or perforated by drills to store CO2, they found. Others were stubborn, their rocks likely to resist the injection of the gas.

Soon enough, the Dutch had to cut their storage estimate in half.

It is a disappointing result that should be kept in mind as estimates of CO2 storage potential, which mostly exist on countrywide or regional levels, are refined and localized, said Filip Neele, a research geologist here at the geosciences branch of TNO, the Dutch national lab of applied sciences.

Read the Full Story


Future of CO2 storage may be etched in German sandstone

BERLIN -- The Stuttgart Formation may just be the most important hunk of rock in the world.

Buried some 2,000 feet down 25 miles west of here, the saltwater-flush sandstone has seen its eons-old life disturbed recently by clanging seismic probes, electrical currents and drills as geologists examine its every pore and flaw.

It's so much attention for such a small amount of carbon dioxide.

For the past 22 months, an international team of scientists has injected CO2 into the formation, wedged beneath the hamlet of Ketzin. Though commercial projects have injected more CO2 under the ocean, Ketzin is Europe's first and most rigorous onshore storage experiment. Ton by ton of injected gas, the project wants to begin answering the many questions that cloud the future potential of underground CO2 storage.

The stakes couldn't be larger. CO2 sequestration is the linchpin of carbon capture and storage (CCS). Politicians and the coal industry have placed their hopes -- and their "clean coal" rhetoric -- on the notion that CO2, the gas driving climate change, can be contained underground and far from the atmosphere for a thousand years. If storage proves a failure, or carries so much uncertainty that the public rejects it, CCS crumbles.

And for CO2 emissions to be stored underground at any large scale, the CO2 will have to be injected into porous rocks like the Stuttgart Formation.

Read the Full Story


Researchers explore 'coal without mining' in bid to slash CO2-storage price tag

AACHEN, Germany -- Scientists here in the academic heart of Germany's coal-mining region are readying what they say is a disruptive model for the electric utility industry.

Leave the coal deep underground, they say, and forget the death and expense that come with mining. Instead, put a drilling hat on.

By baking coal buried thousands of feet underground using controlled fires and gravity's pressure, they say, previously inaccessible seams can be shifted into easily extracted gas. The gas, pumped up, will fuel turbines. And when most of the coal is gone, inject carbon dioxide to fill the void.

It is a simple concept that could reduce construction costs and eliminate the need to build the extensive pipelines required for CO2 storage at any large scale, said Tomas Fernandez-Steeger, an assistant professor at Aachen University's Department of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology. "We make space," he said, "before we put something in the space."

The model combines an environmentally problematic but proven technology, underground coal gasification, with recent experiments finding coal seams greedy to trap CO2 but lacking in storage. By filling the hollows created by underground burning with waste CO2, companies could potentially create coal-fired power plants for the same price as current carbon-spewing power stations.

Read the Full Story


Utility gambles that technology will keep coal plants in business

NIEDERAUSSEM, Germany -- Europe's biggest carbon dioxide emitter has no plans to stop burning coal.

Johannes Heithoff, the research chief for the German utility RWE, said his company's goal is to burn through its 3.4 billion metric tons of brown coal reserves, a supply that could last for decades.

But there's a complication: Europe's CO2 limits will tighten soon, making the operation of the smoke-stained, decades-old Niederaussem power station here prohibitively expensive. And when the boilers go cold as scheduled in the next few years, Heithoff vows he will replace them and reduce RWE's overall carbon footprint -- by building more coal-burning plants.


"By replacing these older units with state-of-the-art power stations, we can reduce CO2 emissions by 30 percent, roughly, based on the same amount of electricity produced," Heithoff said in a recent interview.

Read the Full Story


Recession chills zeal for highly touted CO2-capture technology

FREIBERG, Germany -- Climate regulations pushed electricity generators and chemical manufacturers into each other's arms.

As oil and carbon prices soared in Europe a few years ago, these two behemoths found themselves in a flush of mutual discovery. Coal-dependent utilities knew they would have to capture their carbon dioxide emissions to survive. And their only technical fix involved a chemical system called gasification that would turn coal into easily separable gases.

Utilities saw a savior, chemical engineers a customer. Gasification fever was on.

Then the economy crashed. The recession deflated oil and carbon prices, just as engineers began discovering that the always-on demands of the electricity business would cause exorbitant plant costs. The courtship cooled.

Read the Full Story


Frightened, furious neighbors undermine CO2-trapping power project

BRANDENBURG, Germany -- Vattenfall wants someone to take its CO2. Please.

The first electric utility in the world to launch a coal-fired power plant designed from the ground up to capture its carbon dioxide emissions, Vattenfall has found that building the complicated €70 million pilot plant may have been the easy part. Finding a home for its captured gas? Now that's hard.

For more than a year, the plant has been doing its job, capturing 90 percent of its CO2, the heat-trapping gas that drives global warming. Nestled in strip-mining country in eastern Germany, the plant could provide the prototype for the next generation of relatively affordable "clean" coal plants. But until Vattenfall finds a place to stash its CO2, those dreams will be as intangible as the CO2 it collects and vents every few days back into the atmosphere.

Read the Full Story

Related Stories