'Squeeze green oil from North Sea by squirting CO2 in' - prof
But who'd pay for the salty Perrier? Er, you would
Analysis A top boffin working for major energy companies says that Blighty could enjoy a second North Sea oil bonanza - by squirting surplus CO2 from factory chimneys down into exhausted fields, so forcing more oil up the wells.
In a study funded by European energy megacorp DONG and industry geoscience consultants Ikon Science, Professor Jon Gluyas has determined that at least three billion barrels of extra oil could be squeezed out of the North Sea using carbon emitted from handily-situated northeastern UK industries. He unveiled his plans at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London yesterday.
"My figures are at the low end of expectations but they show that developing this technology could lead to a huge rejuvenation of the North Sea," says Gluyas. "The industrial CO2 output from Aberdeen to Hull is all you need to deliver this enhanced oil recovery."
According to the prof, the new oil would be "just about carbon neutral" as CO2 emissions from burning it would be counterbalanced by the CO2 stuffed down into the oilfields and adjacent saltwater aquifers.
Gluyas based his figures on previous oilfield-squeezing efforts in West Texas, where they have been using carbon dioxide to force more black gold out of the Earth since the 1970s. He considers that use of this method would return the UK to being self-sufficient in oil as it was during the first North Sea boom, and would secure national oil supplies for the next 20 years. It would also, he contends, help to straighten out the parlous finances of the British government - again, just as the first oil boom did.
"The extra three billion barrels of oil that could be produced by enhanced CO2 recovery would make us self sufficient and would add around £60bn in revenue to the Treasury," says the prof.
But there's a catch. Soon, left to themselves, the oil companies will start to decommission their offshore infrastructure of rigs and pipelines as the fields play out. At the moment there's no supply of CO2 to be had out in the North Sea.
"Time is running out to make best use of our precious remaining oil reserves because we're losing vital infrastructure as the oil fields decline and are abandoned. Once the infrastructure is removed, we will never go back and the opportunity will be wasted," says the prof.
"We need to act now to develop the capture and transportation infrastructure to take the CO2 to where it is needed. We must begin to do this as soon as possible before it becomes too expensive to do so."
In essence the prof appears to be suggesting that left to itself the oil industry will not find it worthwhile to pay for carbon-capture machinery and a new specialist pipeline network out to sea. This makes sense, as it will obviously cost more to make oil by ramming captured CO2 down into played-out fields than it would to simply find new ones, certainly in the near future before all the new ones have been found. The government will need to provide money up front to reap its possible £60bn in new oil revenue.
The chances of getting more money out of the Treasury for carbon capture right now are about zero: but there are other ways the government could make the cash appear. Billions have been channelled into the windfarm business over the past eight years by the government without ever moving through Treasury coffers, via the Renewables Obligation Certificates scheme. This means that a kilowatt-hour of electricity generated in a wind farm provides much, much more revenue to the farmers than one generated in a normal power station. In money terms, a windfarm isn't a machine for making electricity: it's a machine for printing lucrative ROCs. The costs of this are passed on to the consumer through the electricity suppliers in the form of higher prices, without ever appearing on government books - or as an entry on people's utility bills either.
This isn't 2002 - people might notice a stealth tax just now
Somehow or other the government got away with the ROC scheme without any large number of people realising they were in effect paying a substantial extra levy on their electricity: or at any rate not caring enough about it to protest much. At least in theory, a similar effort might be instituted with respect to carbon-neutral oil: If you wanted to sell oil products in the UK you might need to show a certain amount of North Sea green carbo-oil ROCs or pay a fine, as sellers in the electricity market already have to. Carbo-capture machinery might become a money-spinning generator of such valuable-by-fiat ROCs. (The chance to hit up the emitting industries for the cash has gone, as there's already an EU emissions-certificate scheme.)
The trouble with this is that unlike electricity, petrol and diesel - the main consumer oil products in the UK - are already subject to huge, crippling direct-to-the-Treasury taxes. Most consumers are already finding motor fuel eyewateringly expensive, and there have already been serious protests - people know that fuel could be a lot, lot cheaper if the government weren't making it so expensive. They might well notice and resent any stealthy attempts to make it even more so, no matter how cunning and invisible the mechanism.
Then, it's far from clear just how much serious large-scale industrial carbon capture and transmission would actually cost in real life. It's easy to believe Professor Gluyas when he says that if the carbon were there such-and-such an amount of oil could be squeezed out. But it isn't at all clear what the cost of bringing the carbon would be. The hapless motorists and hauliers of old Blighty might have to be squeezed so hard here that they would become less productive and the Treasury would lose money overall.
But surely Gluyas' plan has one concrete benefit - a lot of CO2 would not get into the atmosphere, and so global warming might be forestalled somewhat.
Unfortunately even that is far from certain: recent studies indicate that carbon shoved underground is primarily stored in the form of fizzy water, Perrier-style, which "implies the possibility of CO2 transport and eventual leakage to the atmosphere" as Professor Werner Aeschbach-Hertig of Heidelberg University commented last year.
The most solid and definite benefit offered is that the extra three billion barrels - five years' normal UK consumption - could well return us to being a net oil exporter for as much as twenty years as Professor Gluyas says it would. That might mean less (or no) need for oil imports from dodgy overseas regimes: but it would hardly allow the foreign-trade-dependent British economy to pull up its drawbridge and retreat from a troubled world.
"We need to act now," says Professor Gluyas. But his appeal is to the government, rather than the oil business: and government action in this context means ordinary people footing a large bill one way or another.
Maybe if we were all feeling rich that might be OK - but you'd have to say, right now, considering the rather sparse benefits on offer, the professor is probably out of luck. ®