Paul's Latest Journal column

30 November 2015

There are three trillion trees in the world and they are all perfectly designed to capture and store carbon.  Unfortunately, as a consequence of industrialisation and the associated burning of fossil fuels, even all those trees are not enough to soak up the colossal carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) we humans are responsible for producing.  While halting deforestation and planting more trees will help, we need to do much more, which is why earlier this year I travelled to Norway to visit the country’s Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) test facility at Mongstad, some 70 miles north of Bergen.

The visit was rather like wandering around inside a giant chemistry experiment and I was very impressed with what I saw.  Essentially exhaust gases from a nearby petroleum refinery and from a gas fired power station are allowed to rise up an extremely high chimney.  As the gases rise they percolate through layer upon layer of what could best be described as thin metal poppadoms peppered with holes. Coming in the opposite direction, down the chimney, is a liquid chemical solution that reacts with the gas and strips out the CO2.  This liquid, which now contains the CO2, is captured at the base of the chimney and then can be piped out under the North Sea for safe storage in former gas and oil fields.

My visit coincided with the end of a 6 month test project that had been commissioned by Shell and Scottish and Southern Energy who are developing a CCS project at Peterhead in Scotland, were they will capture up to 15 million tonnes of CO2 and transport it by pipeline offshore for long-term storage deep under the seabed.  From what I was told the tests had gone extremely well.  CCS does work and is one of the key new technologies needed to help address the challenge of climate change.  Not only can CCS be used to capture the CO2 emissions inherent in the burning of fossil fuels but it can also be used to capture the emissions from those industrial processes that use huge amounts of energy, namely the production of bricks, fertilisers, steel, chemicals and cement.

For the North East, still a manufacturing region, CCS is a technology that could both enable existing industrial processes to capture their CO2 emissions and hence not contribute to climate change and, at the same time, create new high quality jobs in developing and installing CCS infrastructure.  In turn CCS technology could become a key export from the region enabling sister EU countries to install CCS and the wider world, especially countries like India where the world’s biggest coal reserves are to be found and where coal will be mined and burnt to fuel the expansion of what will shortly be the most populous country on the face of the earth.

Over the next two weeks in Paris at the UN climate change talks the countries of the world will try and strike a deal.  Without CCS in the mix that deal is going to be harder to achieve hence the decision by the Chancellor in last week’s autumn statement to cut £1 billion of CCS funding is such a short sighted and devastating blow.

My own trade union, the GMB, was particularly scathing. "This is really shocking news.  The Government has again pulled the rug from under the feet of the UK Construction Industry with the crushing news that the £1 billion grant will be dropped leaving the Peterhead project, including its 600 construction jobs, high and dry”. 

A clearly exacerbated spokesperson for Shell said, "We have worked tirelessly over the last two years to progress our plans for this project.  It has the potential to bring huge value to the UK, both in terms of immediate emissions reductions and developing knowledge for the benefit of a wider industry.  Government funding was important to achieving the aim of making the technology commercially viable in the shortest possible time”.

Meanwhile the U.S.A, China, Norway and Canada are all investing in CCS, talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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