By Tip Meckel
Many nations recognize that immense potential for geologic storage of carbon dioxide exists in subsea sites on the continental shelf. Indeed, every continent in the world is bordered by passive marine margins suitable for storage. The geology does not stop at the shoreline, and the deep subsurface of those offshore margins is highly suitable for storage. An added attraction of offshore storage is co-location of carbon sources and sinks, as most large industrial emissions sources occur in coastal regions. Compared to onshore sites, which are owned by private entities, offshore territories are controlled by government gencies, thus simplifying regulation and permitting. In addition, potential risks to shallow sources of drinking water and human health and safety are reduced in offshore settings. Such benefits have the potential to resonate with many nations, in particular, industrialized countries that must participate in climate change mitigation for any meaningful impact to occur.
But, working in an offshore environment presents challenges. Costs of siting, development, and monitoring are not insignificant, and regulation of risk and liability may not be well established in all nations.
Therefore, a nation with inadequate onshore geologic carbon storage has a difficult choice: Is it preferable to work onshore where the rock quality may be poor and public acceptance may be limited, or is it more desirable to work in offshore environments despite financial and technological barriers?
All of the obstacles to storing carbon in a subsea deep geologic environment can be lowered through the development of an international program for offshore carbon dioxide storage. Such collaboration would consist of the cooperative efforts of academic, industrial, and governmental partners around the world. Participating nations would share in the costs, risks–and rewards–of evolving research and development.
Precedents for such large-scale international collaboration have a proven record of success. The International Space Station and the Ocean Drilling Project both bridged a critical gap between vision and application. These collaborations operated for decades, spinning off new discoveries and solutions, and they both continue to generate abundant scientific and technological information today.
Test facilities for geologic carbon storage do exist. Statoil-Hydro operates Sleipner storage facility in the North Sea, and has a second recently initiated at Snohvit. Feasibility studies and testing are underway by other nations including Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States. However, none of these projects currently engages the broad international community or takes advantage of the harmonics that would emerge from a large-scale collaborative effort.
The first steps would be to put together a working group of nations interested in being involved in a collaborative initiative. The working group would seek broad participation, and would solicit input from researchers, industry, and NGOs of diverse nations. Each nation comes to the table with issues specific to subsea storage on its own borders. By comparing these concerns, common problems would emerge. Such problems would be addressed jointly at a shared experimental storage facility. Solutions would inform all nations.
We have spoken to a number of stakeholders, including US Department of Energy, about the possibility of starting a movement toward an international subsea storage facility. Enthusiasm for the idea is growing. Spread the word.