Bridport & West Dorset News, Views, Videos & Curiosities

Underground carbon storage proposed for Dorset: money-spinner or death trap?

Note: This article was first published in October. It’s been slightly revised and is being republished now because of the Government’s anouncement, in the Queen’s Speech today, that it’s going to legislate for four carbon capture and storage schemes. Sites are needed…  

MILLIONS of tons of carbon dioxide could be stored deep underground Dorset to help combat climate change.

Only a few parts of Britain have the geology suitable for implementing such a radical plan and Dorset is one of them, says Dr Nick Riley, head of science policy at the British Geological Survey, who advises the Government on carbon storage.

The idea of carbon storage is that carbon should be captured as it’s emitted from major sources like coal-fired power stations, then stopped from getting into the atmosphere by being pumped into the ground – and kept there.

The Government is aiming to set up four demonstration projects. Former gas and oil fields in the North Sea look the places most likely to be used, but onshore schemes do have some advantages.

Dr Riley told a briefing at the Department for Energy and Climate Change in London: “Onshore storage can be much cheaper because you don’t have the transport costs or the problem of building long pipelines, but then you have to persuade people it is safe.”

Schemes in Germany and Holland are currently being opposed by local residents.

“The worst-case scenario would be a situation where people were unaware there had been a leak,” said Dr Riley. “In particular weather conditions or in confined spaces, those people could suffer asphyxiation.”

The Government accepts that British schemes would, for safety’s sake, need monitoring and alarm systems.

Is this an area in which Dorset could lead the way and make money?

Portland Gas, remember, is already spending £450 million on an underground gas storage scheme. A new pipeline is to run from the national gas transmission system near Mappowder in Dorset to 14 huge caverns due to be hollowed-out inside a thick layer of rock salt, deep below the old Higher Osprey site inside Portland Port.

So Portland Gas has got what’s probably the best site for underground gas storage in the western half of Dorset. There are even thicker layers of suitable geology underneath the middle of Weymouth but getting consent to undertake a scheme in such an urban area might prove complicated.

But then if Dorset is one of the few areas that’s suitable, could it perhaps be a case of needs must? Dr Riley again: “You cannot have local communities saying ‘why can’t you put it somewhere else’ if there is no geology where it can be put. I understand the concerns people have about storage but, speaking as a scientist, I can say they are not necessarily valid concerns.”

Dorset has led the way before with new energy schemes. Leaving aside for a moment the rights and wrongs of nuclear power (and the costs of construction and clean-up), it’s often forgotten that the reactors built at Winfrith in the late 1950s and 1960s generated lessons for scientists across the world.

Scientists now want the Government to get on with carbon storage. Stuart Hazeldine, professor of geology at Edinburgh University, was recently quoted in The Guardian as saying: “”We’re doing the usual British thing of being faint-hearted when it comes to making a business out of something. It was the same with nuclear and wind power. We are in a world-beating position and must not lose the plot.” Prof Hazeldine’s focus is on the North Sea, where he believes selling storage space to other European countries could bring in £5 billion a year by 2030, but the Committee on Climate Change report Meeting Carbon Budgets – The need for a step change, published on 12 October, 2009, calls on the Government to develop a more general carbon capture and storage infrastructure. 

At the moment, Prof Hazeldine believes, only Scottish Power has the will and the ability to meet the Government’s target date for demonstration schemes of 2014. 

But beyond that? In the eastern half of Dorset, BP’s Wytch Farm oil field could be a prime contender for the future. In the western half, it will be interesting to see whether any opportunities are pursued by big businesses, and local and regional authorities, or whether local people are put off by talk of possible asphyxiation.