Norway has given a cautious approval to Europe’s largest carbon-capture project

Among all European countries, Norway is the only one making any serious progress on a technology crucial to helping the world reach its climate goals: carbon capture and storage.

The concept is simple. Ideally we stop burning fossil fuels and otherwise emitting carbon dioxide immediately. But in many cases that’s not possible. For those situations, we now have the technology to capture the CO2 emissions and bury them underground, to act as a bridge to a time when we can be fossil-fuel free. Norway built the first large scale carbon-capture project at the Sleipner gas field in 1996, and since has been storing nearly 1 million metric tons of CO2 each year.

Now, Norway appears ready to take carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to the next level. On May 15, the country’s government tentatively approved a project that would capture emissions from a cement plant and a waste-to-energy power plant in Oslo, then ship them to the North Sea, where they will be buried underground. The Norwegian government also approved €29 million ($34 million) in funding for the project.

The approval, however, comes with caveats. For one, the government moved its deadline to make a final decision on going ahead with construction to 2021, two years later than previously planned. The new plan also drops previously proposed support for capturing emissions from a third industrial emitter, a chemical plant producing ammonia.

Proponents of the project aren’t happy with the slow progress. “It is vital that government starts to step-up and turn its strong words on CCS into firm commitments,” said Olav Øye, CCS adviser at the environmental nonprofit the Bellona Foundation, in a statement. “If it doesn’t, it’s not just Norwegians that will suffer, it will be the whole world.”

The decision to drop the ammonia plant, owned by Oslo-based chemical company Yara International, is also controversial. In theory, because the Yara plant produces a near pure stream of carbon dioxide, it would cost less to institute a CCS project there than it would at the other two sites. (That’s because the other sites will require specific technology to separate CO2 from other byproducts.)

Industry insiders say Yara had lost interest in the project. The company already sells some of the carbon dioxide it produces for industrial use (for use in carbonated beverages, for example), and a Yara spokesperson says any additional capture would be “complicated” and may not provide any returns on investment.

Norway was one of the first countries to instate a price on carbon, and that helped it to incentivize the use of CCS in sectors such as oil and gas exploration. But, as a member of the European Union’s single market, the country cannot put that price on industrial producers of the greenhouse gases. That means carbon-emitting industries have little financial incentive to reduce those emissions. Yara’s spokesperson said the company is focused on cutting emissions because it’s the right thing for the world. (It’s worth noting that the Norwegian government owns one third of Yara and is the company’s largest shareholder, just as it is a majority stakeholder in Equinor, formerly Statoil, which runs the Sleipner CCS project.)

Even without Yara, if the project reaches the construction phase, it will be a major step for CCS technology. For one thing, the cement plant, owned by Heidelberg Cement, would be the world’s first to capture carbon dioxide at large scale. Currently, the cement industry has no other way of reducing the carbon emissions that come from its raw materials, and its contribution to global emissions are more than 5% (more, for example, than all emissions from the aviation industry). There are startups are working hard on developing greener cement, but they are yet to reach a scale where they can make a sizable impact in reducing the whole industry’s emissions.

The Norwegian government is working with three oil giants—Equinor, Shell, and Total—who will be responsible for transporting carbon dioxide and injecting it underground. If the project succeeds, Norway could open itself up to accepting carbon emissions from other countries. For example, a power plant in Germany could capture its emissions, and, instead of burying it, will ship it to the Norwegian North Sea where these three oil companies will bury it. It could potentially open up CCS to countries where there is a public backlash against burying emissions onshore.

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