Pumping Gas Underground: Greenpeace Blasts Berlin for Secrecy on Carbon Storage

Carbon capture and sequestration technology sounds great. But where would the CO2 be stored? Greenpeace has accused the German government of keeping potential sites secret and says the public has been misled.

The site of a carbon capture and sequestration test site in Ketzin, Germany. Zoom
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The site of a carbon capture and sequestration test site in Ketzin, Germany.

Greenpeace has accused the German government of hiding the truth over plans to store greenhouse gases deep underground. The environmental organization said Berlin had "gone behind the backs" of its citizens in pushing for the introduction of carbon capture and storage (CCS). The government, Greenpeace claims, has been classifying information about potential sites like a "state secret" and earlier this week moved to release its own map of 408 possible storage areas based on data provided through freedom of information requests.

CCS technology, which proponents say may be necessary in order for Europe to meet its carbon emissions reductions targets in a society still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, is used to store carbon produced by coal-fired power plants and other major polluters in order to prevent it from soiling the atmosphere.

The sites identified as suitable for the storage of vast quantities of CO2 had been kept under wraps by the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) in Hanover. They include depleted gas and oil fields as well as deep saline aquifers. The gas would be forced into porous, saline water-bearing rock at a depth of around 800-1,000 meters (3,280 feet).

"To ensure an impact on climate and to keep the stored CO2 safely away from the biosphere, it must remain underground for at least 10,000 years," a website maintained by the BGR claims.

But the issue is a highly emotive one. "The technology is risky and it won't bring us forward in terms of climate protection," said Greenpeace climate expert Karsten Smid. "We can't just always pump our problem materials beneath the earth and leave behind dangerous waste and possible disasters for our children."

Resistance Builds in Northern Germany

Anti-CCS sentiment seems to run strongest in northern Germany, where most of the sites are located. Many are clustered in East Frisia, a coastal region in the state of Lower Saxony, and under the coastal mudflats of Schleswig-Holstein's Wadden Sea. Suitable rock can also be found near the town of Königs Wusterhausen near Berlin, in Billstedt in Hamburg and east of Munich.

However, massive protests have already brought a halt to a CCS project in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. Residents have also formed opposition in Brandenburg, where energy firm Vattenfall wants to pump CO2 underground. Critics of the technology fear that the gas could find its way towards the surface and poison the groundwater.

According to the BGR website, groundwater is not affected at all by CCS due to the depth of the saline aquifers into which the gas is pumped. They are, the website says, "separated from the fresh water aquifers higher up by several massive impermeable rock layers that keep both the saline waters and the CO2 separate from the groundwater near the surface."

But a 2005 report from the United Nations climate change body, the IPCC, warned: "Leakage of CO2 could potentially degrade the quality of groundwater, damage some hydrocarbon or mineral resources, and have lethal effects on plants and sub-soil animals.... Avoiding or mitigating these impacts will require careful site selection, effective regulatory oversight, an appropriate monitoring programme that provides early warning that the storage site is not functioning as anticipated and implementation of remediation methods to stop or control CO2 releases."

Proposed federal CCS legislation fell through at the end of 2010 amid opposition in Schleswig-Holstein. But the government in Berlin must act nonetheless: European Union rules stipulate that all member countries must approve laws enabling the testing of carbon capture and storage by June.

'Guarded Like a State Secret'

Greenpeace, which says the proposed legislation ignores concerns of long-term safety, was finally able to obtain the list of potential storage sites under the Environmental Information Act (UIG) after six months of trying. "Information concerning the sites is guarded like a state secret. The true extent of the CO2 storage is concealed," Smid added.

Depleted gas fields are the most promising possibility for storage sites. Their geological make-up means they have the ability to keep gases contained for thousands of years. Oil fields have similar benefits but are too small in Germany to make a significant contribution to CO2 storage. Deep saline aquifers have the highest potential storage capacity, but are still largely unexplored.

But Greenpeace argues the technology behind CCS is still in its infancy. It also points out that even experts agree it will not be viable in power plants for 15 to 20 years -- too late to protect the climate.

dsk/SPIEGEL

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