1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Clean coal controversy

July 30, 2012

Carbon dioxide capture and storage is considered one of the key technologies to combat climate change. Germany’s recent decision to approve it has raised new concerns, while its future may depend more on EU-wide factors.

Workers inspecting a power plant in Brandenburg, Germany.
Image: picture alliance/dpa

Just days after the German government enacted a controversial law regulating carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier seemed to renounce it.

A plan to store carbon dioxide (CO2) shouldn't be enforced against the will of the general public, said Altmaier. He didn't see one single German state with the necessary political support for a power plant using CCS technology.

The carbon dioxide Altmaier was referring to would be from power plants that emit fossil fuels. In an effort to offset these emissions, CCS gives these facilities an alternative way to dispose of CO2 by pumping underground.

Before Altmaier's comments, German states had already demanded that the government allow them to opt out of the law. The new CCS legislation contains an exit clause that allows states to ban CO2 storage within their borders.

While some German states have already embraced the new technology, other states will likely use the exit clause to prevent CCS in their own territories. Meanwhile, economic and European Union interests may override those of the states.

Pipelines get around the law

In June, EU energy commissioner Günter Oettinger advocated the construction of storage facilities beneath the North Sea. Offshore storage would be an option for all of Germany, according to Oettinger. But this alternative would require laying pipelines across state lines.

Northern German state Schleswig-Holstein, which lies on the shore of the North Sea, will likely ban CO2 storage in their territories, in light of popular protest. However, Schleswig-Holstein would have to live with pipelines onshore that would transport CO2 to offshore storage in the North Sea.

The CO2 pipelines themselves are even controversial among the public. Mike Kesse of the citizens' initiative “Stop CO2 storage” explained that underground storage of CO2 carries risks that the storage of other gases does not.

“If another gas escapes, then you can notice it. But if a CO2 pipeline breaks down, then the gas - which has no smell or taste - would spread unnoticed,” said Kesse. High concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air can be fatal.

And states would not be able to prohibit pipelines because they would be lain through a so-called regional planning procedure.

CO2 graphic
CCS involves depleted coal seams

Trailblazer Brandenburg

Germany's eastern state Brandenburg has welcomed the introduction of CCS technology, despite public protest.

Brandenburg's Governor Matthias Paltzeck spoke out publicly against the storage facilities under the pressure of its many opponents, but then rejected a legal ordinance banning it, calling such a step “too much trouble.”

Brandenburg would benefit from the new law. The energy sector, which relies heavily on brown, or soft coal, is the state's largest employer and tax revenue source.

It's important that the industrial state of Brandenburg play a role in CCS research so it can stay in the game, said Paltzeck. He said Brandenburg doesn't want to rule out any options.

CCS is being sold to the public, however, in terms less helpful the region, but more as part of Germany's “energy transition.”

Kesse sees the situation in a similar light. He said the state's governor has an obligation to support CCS because of political promises.

Two Greenpeace activitists protesting CO2 storage
CO2 storage continues to face public oppositionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

“Brandenburg's state government is in the position of having to promote CCS because it promised not to build any new power plants without CCS technology,” said Kesse.

A second try

CCS research will advance in Brandenburg, said the state's finance minister Ralf Christoffers. Regardless of the end result, he doesn't want a second chance to go to waste, he said. Brandenburg recently lost a potential investor because of protests against CO2 storage.

The Swedish company Vattelfall had intended to build a CCS pilot plant in Brandenburg for 1.5 billion euros. Massive public protests derailed Vattelfall's plans. In December 2011, the Swedish company said goodbye to its planned reconstruction of the power plant because the political fight messed up the company's timeline, it said.

Vattelfall returned the180 million euros of already granted aid money to Brussels.

After the German government's recent CCS agreement, Vattenfall expressed interest in returning to the negotiating table.

Vattelfall's German director, Tuomo Hatakka, said the new law was a “positive signal for further research of the climate protection technology.” Although the agreement for Vattelfall's original project unfortunately came too late, he said, it opened the door for later uses as a setting a standard for power plants and a European transport infrastructure.

European master plan

Regardless of whatever fight about CCS among the government, the states, and citizens' initiatives in Germany, the primary driving force behind the implementation of CCS is the European Union. The current German CCS law came about as a result of an EU guideline, and reflects what the EU hopes will become a Europe-wide technological network.

Brandenburg Finance Minister Ralf Christoffers and Governor Matthias Platzeck
Brandenburg leaders are supporting CCS despite popular protestImage: picture-alliance/dpa

A consortium of companies under Dutch leadership described possible applications of CCS in a study called “CO2Europipe,”  which included participation by German firms Siemens and RWE.

According to CO2Europipe, CCS technology will be available on a large scale between 2020 and 2050. The trans-European network will require about 22,000 km of pipeline that would transport some 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year to storage tanks.  The study projects a total cost of about 50 billion euros.

The study refers to the time period up to 2020 as the demonstration phase, after which CCS is to be used commercially. The study recommends a price increase for CO2 certificates in order to attract investors, together with long-term political protection and public promotion of the technology in order to minimize private investment risks.

Germany is named as a primary actor in the development of the European CCS network.

Whether the CCS issue will make it that far is not clear. The German government said in a statement regarding the new CCS law that it was aware of plans for the pipeline network.

Autor: Kay-Alexander Scholz / kms

Editor: Sonya Diehn