The biggest fertilizer company in Europe concluded the first ever cross-border deal with a carbon capture joint venture to store CO2 emissions from its biggest production plant in the Netherlands below the seabed in Norway. It is supposed to “demonstrate that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a climate tool for Europe”. Lisa Tostado explains why capturing CO2 in the Netherlands and shipping it to Norway is not a climate solution.
The fossil fuel giants Equinor, Shell, and Total, with the support of the Norwegian government, launched a joint venture named Northern Lights in 2021. In a first step, the aim of the project is to capture and transport the CO2 emitted by two industrial sites in Norway and permanently store the CO2 in the North Sea, starting in 2024. In a second step, any other European emitter can subscribe to the transport and storage service offered by the project. Yara, an international agrochemical company, headquartered in Norway and owned one-third by the Norwegian government, is now the first commercial partner to do so for its biggest plant located in the Netherlands. When the final contractual details are agreed, this is said to be the first-ever cross-border CO2 transport and storage agreement.
Yara’s plan is to capture 800,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, liquify them and transport them on dedicated CO2 carrier ships to an onshore terminal on the Norwegian west coast, and from there, transport it by pipeline to an offshore subsurface storage location in the North Sea 2,600 metres below the seabed. Operations ought to begin in 2025.
What may sound like a promising solution to make the significant climate impact of agrochemicals production disappear is actually an ecological and economic fallacy that neglects basic justice concerns.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not an effective climate solution. Despite the existence of the technology for decades and significant subsidies to date, deployment of CCS at scale still faces insurmountable challenges of feasibility, effectiveness, safety, and expense. As such, CCS props up the fossil fuel industry and carbon-intensive industrial activities, and distracts from the urgent task of transitioning away from fossil fuels at a time when the world must dramatically accelerate that transition.
Even in its idealized form, CCS only prevents a fraction of emissions from the underlying source. At every stage of their lifecycle, including extraction, refining, transport, use, and disposal, fossil fuels release a wide array of greenhouse gases and pollutants, many of which pose known or suspected hazards to humans and the environment. CCS does nothing to address these hazards. Indeed, by requiring greater use of fossil fuels to power the CCS process itself, CCS may actually exacerbate the climate crisis.
This is particularly true for the plans of Yara and Northern Lights which include liquefying and transporting the CO2 emissions by ship. The IPCC’s also flagged the energy and emissions-intensity of shipping CO2 as compared to piping it (“marine transport induces more associated CO₂ transport emissions than pipelines due to additional energy use for liquefaction and fuel use in ships”) as well as the safety concerns to those on or in vicinity of the vessel, should a CO2 tank rupture. Thus far, liquefied CO2 transportation by ship has been mainly used in the food and brewery industries for small capacities. However, CCS requires much greater capacities and specialized vessels, representing a financial and ecological burden. There are currently no demonstrated projects that use shipping to transport CO2. It is absurd to use a fossil-fuel intensive transport medium — maritime shipping — whose own emissions are hard to reduce, to transport emissions waste from the use of fossil fuels.
The endeavor is also extremely expensive. A lot of public money has been poured into the project: Norway has financed 80% of the initial exploration and infrastructure and Northern Lights has been designated a Project of Common Interest by the EU, making it eligible for expedited permitting and EU funds. However, the ‘Big Oil’ partners, like Shell, are expected to make the business profitable. One may question the idea of handing over assets to polluting companies to help them make more money out of ‘cleaning up their mess’.
At present, carbon capture – even using pipelines, which is cheaper than shipping – is not economically viable without enhanced oil recovery (EOR) or the production of combustible fuels. That is why even though the current Northern Lights plans to inject CO2 into oil reservoirs in the North Sea, there is a risk of the CO2 being used to recover more fossil fuels once the infrastructure investments in capturing technology and CO2 vessels are deployed. Today, EOR projects use about three quarters of the CO2 captured annually. Oil production on the Norwegian Continental Shelf is mature and several fields will be decommissioned over the next few years. A study from 2018 finds that the EOR potential from oil fields in the North Sea by CO2 injection is significant. The average oil recovery rate for the oil fields offshore Norway is currently about 47%, and there is a constant ongoing work to find ways to increase the recovery. No projects for CO2 -EOR have been tested on these oil fields and one of the reasons might certainly be the lack of large amounts of reliable and affordable CO2.
Proponents of industrial CCS routinely ignore that one of the most effective ways to reduce industrial emissions from high-emitting sectors like fertilizers is to promote less input-reliant models of agriculture and a more efficient application of fertilizers in the first place. This also addresses the problem of greenhouse gas emissions not being the only planetary boundary that the industrial agriculture system with fertilizers as an integral part of them is transgressing today. For example, the safe operating space for nitrogen was already surpassed in the 1970s. Of the nine planetary boundaries, five are in the high risk or increasing risk zones, with agriculture the major driver of four of them and a significant driver of the remaining one. It is also a significant driver of many of the planetary boundaries still in the safe zone.
Yara’s deal with Northern Lights is just another example of how the fertilizer and fossil fuel industries are increasingly collaborating to launder fossil fuels — particularly gas — as an ever-expanding source of both “clean” energy and “clean” agrochemicals. It is neither.