April 12, 2024

A plan to hide pollution under the sea could save money and jobs

The city of Ravenna and its surroundings along Italy’s Adriatic coast, known for its ancient churches and the tomb of Dante, the 14th-century poet, are also home to ancient industries such as steel and fertilizer. The factories are of little interest to the many tourists who help support the area’s economy, but these sites employ tens of thousands of people.

The question is: for how long? The factories, like others in Europe, are facing increasing pressure from regulators to reduce the climate-changing gases their operations produce. The concern is that rising costs due to regulations will force them to close.

“We are very afraid for the future of our industries,” said Michele De Pascale, mayor of Ravenna. “We must achieve this goal to reduce CO2 emissions, but we want to do this without destroying our industries,” he said.

Italian energy giant Eni, which has a major presence in Ravenna, is pushing for a plan that the mayor says could help preserve the region’s heavy industries: creating an industrial pollution collector.

The company is proposing to build a network of pipelines to suck carbon dioxide from the sites and store it in old natural gas reservoirs. It sees this process, known as carbon capture and storage, as a promising new industry that would help the transition to cleaner operations.

Eni is working on similar plans elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Britain, where many mature oil and gas fields offer large amounts of storage potential. There are other carbon capture projects around the world, including in the United States, often aimed at reducing emissions from oil and natural gas production.

The company is looking to diversify away from the oil and gas sales that have long been the mainstay of the business, but it faces an uncertain future due to concerns about climate change. Eni executives calculate that they will have an advantage because they can use the company’s existing infrastructure, such as wells and pipelines, and redeploy workers.

“It is very easy to retrain or move people,” says Claudio Descalzi, CEO of Eni.

Mr Descalzi plans to turn carbon capture into a “satellite business” that could attract other investors looking for profits that he expects could be around 10 percent a year.

The transition to cleaner energy will only succeed if it produces sustainable businesses, Mr Descalzi said. “Otherwise it will fail,” he added. “Because resources are limited and you can’t burn money.”

Eni has about 50 operational oil platforms in the Adriatic Sea near Ravenna, beyond lagoons dotted with flamingos. With production falling, Eni plans to pump carbon dioxide into the depleted gas reservoirs, which will act as giant sponges for the waste gas.

The company is spending about 100 million euros on retrofits designed to remove about half of the carbon dioxide released from a gas processing plant in nearby Casalborsetti. The work is largely complete and Eni plans to soon start sending the carbon dioxide through a new well to a gas field about 19 kilometers offshore and 3,000 meters below the seabed.

If this first phase goes smoothly, Eni will move on to a much larger plan, initially costing as much as 1.5 billion euros, that will connect factories and other major polluters in Italy and perhaps even France, ultimately creating as many as 16 million tons to be extracted. of carbon dioxide per year for burial.

Just as oil experts use powerful computers to crunch data into three-dimensional images to figure out how to efficiently extract gas from the ground, they are now using similar techniques to model how to safely inject carbon dioxide into porous rock.

However, launching carbon capture projects is proving to be difficult – an indication of how challenging the energy transition can be as countries move from some of the easier-to-clean areas, such as electricity, to more difficult sectors such as cement and steel.

According to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization, carbon capture must account for 8 percent of cumulative emissions reductions if the world is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. To stay on track, the amount of carbon dioxide stored will need to increase 20-fold by 2030, to one billion tons per year – “a very ambitious undertaking,” said Carl Greenfield, an analyst at the agency.

Polluters are struggling to assess whether it is worth spending tens or even hundreds of millions to modernize their plants. “They don’t even have the expertise to understand what the best technology is,” says Guido Brusco, Eni’s Chief Operating Officer of Natural Resources.

But customer pressure and carbon taxes are pushing companies to look seriously at carbon capture projects. Some analysts predict that the European Union’s carbon tax will rise well above €100 per tonne in the coming years, and are putting forward proposals such as Eni’s, which Mr Brusco says will cost less than €80 per tonne on average, making sales easier.

Andrea Ramonda, CEO of Herambiente, which burns municipal waste to produce energy, weighs the pros and cons. He thinks building what he calls a “washing machine of gases” at the plant could roughly double the $110 per tonne it now costs customers to burn their waste.

“We have to be very careful” in managing citizens’ money, he said.

High costs and other obstacles mean that these proposals usually require government support, at least in the initial stages.

“Ultimately you need some form of government support,” said Bassam Fattouh, director of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, a research organization. “Otherwise many of these projects will not be realized.”

The British government has been supporting Eni’s work for years, including a plan to clean up emissions around Liverpool and Manchester in north-west England. As part of the project, known as HyNet North West, Eni would build and operate a 40-mile pipeline to collect carbon dioxide from factories and other polluters in the area and pump the gas into wells beneath Liverpool Bay. Eni says it has reached a preliminary agreement with the British government to receive guaranteed profits.

“We are backing this industry with £20 billion,” Martin Callanan, the UK minister for energy efficiency and green finance, said in an emailed statement.

Negotiations with the Italian government are less advanced, although Eni executives hope Italy will copy the British approach. Vannia Gava, Italy’s Deputy Energy Minister, recently visited the Ravenna project and said afterwards: “This is a huge opportunity for Italy.”

Eni and other carbon capture system operators are targeting big emitters such as cement and fertilizer plants that analysts say have no options to clean up their operations.

For example, Heidelberg Materials operates a large cement factory at Padeswood in Wales, which it wants to connect to the Hynet pipeline. Simon Willis, CEO of the company’s UK operations, said around 60 percent of the plant’s significant emissions come from a chemical reaction during the cement production process.

“There’s nothing we can do about it other than collect it and store it,” he said.

Even some environmental groups are inclined to allow carbon capture to proceed at least tepidly, as long as it is not a means to prolong fossil fuel use.

“If the release of CO2 into the atmosphere is otherwise unavoidable from an industrial facility, then it is better to capture it,” said Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK.

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