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Deep-Sixing CO2 Emissions

A Norwegian oil firm injects gas below the seabed to cut its taxes, a practice that could spread as nations fight global warming.

September 03, 2006|Robert Lee Hotz | Times Staff Writer

SLEIPNER PLATFORM, North Sea — Buffeted by crosswinds, the lone helicopter flew on for an hour across the shale-gray waves of the North Sea with no destination in sight.

A relief crew huddled unsteadily inside, sweating in their 20-pound immersion suits, festooned with safety whistles, buddy lines, emergency lights and inflatable life vests. Even in summer, survival in the choppy 40-degree water is measured in minutes.

Finally -- far off the coast of Norway -- the superstructure of the Sleipner platform came into view, towering 500 feet above the swell at this watery crossroads of 3,000 miles of undersea petroleum pipelines that carry natural gas for 50 million European customers.

Only one pipe led from the platform back into the seafloor. It carried industrial carbon dioxide deep into the earth from which it came.

Here, on the remote Sleipner refinery complex, the business of global warming is taking shape.

Since 1996, Norway's largest petroleum company -- Statoil -- has been injecting 1 million tons of carbon dioxide every year from the Sleipner complex into undersea sediments to keep the potent greenhouse gas from venting into the atmosphere.

Statoil's engineers aren't doing it to save the environment, but to save money. The Sleipner injection facility, which cost about $80 million to build, saves Statoil $53 million every year in Norwegian taxes on carbon dioxide emissions.

In areas such as California -- where lawmakers passed a bill last week to curb industrial carbon dioxide emissions 25% by 2020 -- the Sleipner platform is a harbinger of the future of fossil fuels, in which energy companies and power utilities retool for new greenhouse gas standards.

Though business executives generally oppose such controls, energy company planners here believe there may be opportunities in the financial balance sheet of global warming.

Even before all the scientific, safety and legal questions are settled, energy companies from Scotland to Southern California are gambling billions of dollars on the hope that they can meet growing demands for electricity with oil, gas and coal, and avoid the increasing financial penalties by burying the greenhouse gases they generate.

The work can be as dangerous and grueling as extracting oil.

Standing on a blue walkway inside the Sleipner platform, Tor Fjaeran, Statoil's senior vice president for the environment, braced himself against the trunk of Control Valve A-16, where a ring of 12 bolts -- each the size of a fist -- secured it to a vertical pipe channeling pressurized carbon dioxide almost half a mile underground.

Far below, 70-seat lifeboats hang nose-down in harnesses 60 feet above the water like bullets in a bandolier. In an emergency, they free-fall into the sea. Fjaeran has ridden the boats down twice during training.

"Those 2 1/2 seconds in the air ... are very long," he said.

The Sleipner platform, about 140 miles from the city of Stavanger on the Norwegian coast, is a 34,000-ton Rubik's cube of color-coded conduits, control valves and compressors.

The 240 men and women here are engaged in what the United Nations' International Labor Organization has ranked as the world's most hazardous employment.

The threat of a gas explosion is omnipresent.

Flash photography is banned, lest automatic sensors interpret the burst of light as a fire and instantly shut down production, at a cost of millions.

In the most severe weather, winds top 130 mph and 70-foot waves slap against the platform's concrete pilings.

The complex comprises three platforms linked by catwalks -- each a pad for the intricate network of turbines and pressure chambers required to pump and refine so much fossil fuel.

Raw natural gas comes into the platform containing as much as 9% carbon dioxide. To reduce the CO2 to acceptable levels, the natural gas is chemically treated in an 11-story carbon-capture unit.

Almost all energy companies vent excess gas into the air. On the Sleipner platform, however, four turbines compress the trapped carbon dioxide to 80 times the normal atmospheric pressure and inject it into a subterranean plateau of porous sandstone 2,600 feet below the seabed. This vast natural storage tank is sealed by a cap of impermeable shale 2,000 feet thick, the same oil dome that trapped the reservoir of North Sea petroleum in place for eons.

By 2050, experts estimate, carbon-capture and storage operations such as those at the Sleipner platform could account for half the reduction in CO2 needed to stabilize rising emissions in the atmosphere.

To avoid rising temperatures, climate experts say carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels -- which have added 152 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere since the mid-1970s -- must be cut in half by the end of the century.

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