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Going underground

July 2, 2012

After lengthy negotiations, Germany agreed last week to allow the underground storage of carbon captured from fossil-fuel-burning plants. The experimental practice continues to be criticized.

CO2 storage tanks
Image: picture alliance/dpa

Germany's upper house of parliament passed a law Friday allowing carbon capture and storage (CCS) on an experimental basis. Expected to be signed by the President Joachim Gauck, the law allows 1.3 million tons of carbon dioxide to be captured and stored underground.

Plans were initially to allow storage of 3 million tons. The ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats carried the measure through parliament Thursday, although the Greens and Left party opposed it, while the Social Democrats abstained.

The current administration sees the practice of storing carbon as an important step toward climate protection - although it remains controversial.

Lingering concerns

The law includes a clause allowing individual states to prevent such storage. Gerald Neubauer, a Greenpeace energy expert, hopes the states will use this clause.

Greenpeace protest against coal power in Berlin
Greenpeace has long opposed coal energy, as in this 2008 protestImage: AP

"We hope CCS can be out-leveraged in this way," Neubauer told DW. The northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has already banned the practice, and the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein is considering such a ban.

Opponents across Europe are citing high costs, citizen opposition and technical complexity in denying pilot projects, Naubaer said. The technology doesn't have much of a future in Europe, he thinks.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel-burning power plants, then injecting them into underground geological formations such as depleted oil and gas reservoirs.

Doubts about the technology include the possibility that the emissions could escape from containment, and contaminate aquifers or be released above ground. If the latter were to happen, it could cause people or animals to suffocate.

Others think its benefits outweigh potential risks in the battle against climate change.

Stopgap measure

Geologist Johannes Peter Gerling is one such proponent. Head of the "underground utilization" department under the economics ministry, he sees CCS as an important tool for reaching Germany's goal of an 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions.

"If we're going to take climate protection seriously, then we can't abandon CCS," Gerling said. In his estimation, although it's important to quickly develop the renewable energy sector, energy production from coal burning will be required to cover demand until then.

Gerling added that CCS technology will still have to be developed before being put into practice. Site-specific experience is still needed - but today rather than tomorrow: "Every day we wait is lost time and harms the climate," Gerling said.'Irresponsible'

A graph showing CO2 concentration since the 1960s
CO2 concentration is at a historic high

Neubauer, however, called the underground storage of captured carbon irresponsible. "It hasn't been proved that CO2 storage is reliable. If there are leaks, it could endanger the population," he said.

Aside from this, the technology has come too late to protect the climate, he said. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are at a historic high, making climate protective measures all the more urgent, he said.

Plus, there's a built-in paradox: power plants employing CCS use 30 percent more energy, Neubauer said.

Rather than CCS, Germany needs a binding plan for phasing out fossil fuel energy - "without nuclear," Neubauer said. The goal by 2050 is for a fully renewable energy supply.

Untapped potential

Developers and operators of CCS technology, along with the government bodies that regulate them, should be trusted to assure their safety, Gerling said.

Emissions from Germany's largest coal-burning plant
Germany remains heavily dependent on fossil fuelsImage: AP

"They're all striving to not make any mistakes - although that can't be ruled out," Gerling said, also pointing to Germany's 50 years of natural gas research as an advantage in understanding the geological formations.

Despite Germany being a small, densely populated and highly industrialized country, it has the capacity to store 2.75 billion tons in depleted natural gas fields.

In other rock layers, it's estimated that an additional capacity of 6 to 13 billion tons of captured carbon is possible.

Despite lingering doubts, one thing remains clear: CO2 storage will be intensively researched in the coming years. It's still unknown whether companies will support the technology through pilot projects.

For Neubauer, something else is also clear: States where storage areas are being considered will be likely to reject the technology, while states with the most coal-fired power plants may promote it.

Author: Günther Birkenstock / sad
Editor: Simon Bone