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Burying Bad Gas (November 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

We haven't got much time to halt global warming. But if there are encouraging signs, they can be found in Scotland.


"En-vir-on-ment" is a long word: too many syllables for Sun or Daily Record journalists. The Germans use Umwelt - "world-around" - which any primary school kid can understand. Though "ecology" was invented by two Victorian Scots, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, and broadcast worldwide by two others: John Muir and Patrick Geddes, we're not very good at it.

The threat of environmental deterioration unfolding before us can terrify. Sir Nicholas Stern told us how much coping with it would cost, but wasn't encouraged by the Treasury and went back to academic life. We haven't got much time to rectify matters. But if there are encouraging signs, they are here and in Scotland.

A Scottish Parliamentary Economics Committee visit to Inverness showed me - in a sort of CP Snow moment - how wave power worked. At a wave tank on an industrial estate we saw how waves surging into a water-chamber are used to compress air, which is far more steerable and storable than water. The air drives turbines. A prototype - four megawatts on a breakwater at Siartar on Lewis - is slated for 2010, and with Voith-Siemens involved, it will get built. Once you grasp this, and the illimitable swells of the Atlantic, you realise that the potential is as great as North Sea oil - and permanent.

But Scotland also stands well in coping with greenhouse gases, since we now know that the capacity of the sea to absorb CO2 is less than assumed. So the need for carbon capture - burying C02 and using it to force out more oil and gas - increases. This was being mooted back in 1992 (I mentioned it in my Fool's Gold Penguin in 1994) but it has so far only being carried out experimentally by the Norwegians to bury a million tons of CO2 from their Sleipner field production-platforms. So the sooner the large-scale Peterhead-Miller field scheme (which BP baled out from in April) is up and running, to give an idea of the costs and benefits, the better. About 15 million tons of C02 is produced annually by the Scottish carbon-burning power stations, but UK oil and gas extraction has run at about 1.5 billion tons a decade since 1977. A big hole to fill and, if we charge Europe for doing so, a lot of money to be made.

To aid this, the Scottish government must have an accurate audit of the pipelines and equipment in the North Sea, and of possible costs. CO2 traffic would mainly be pumped from power stations in Europe and England (think of the complex around the Humber estuary) to be sunk in the Dutch and East Anglian gas fields as well as the former oil-and-gas bearing strata in Scottish and Norwegian waters.

We need to know what is the cost of separating CO2 from other power station discharges; what the building of junction- or new pipelines costs; the adaptibility of existing oil and gas pipelines (coping with age, previous use, level of corrosion, etc). Some existing paths for oil and gas might have to be diverted to enable this, new connections might be needed to create south to north routes. There could be hidden factors which put the project in question, or advantages not hitherto considered. How will pumps be provided? How much extra oil will the "sequestered" CO2 force into the system?

There's also the equipment currently installed in the oil and gas fields. Can further use be found for power generators on production platforms? Can offshore gas turbines and generators, intact or as sources for recovered parts, be used in combined-cycle generators in onshore district heat-and-power schemes? These are now common in Germany because they are up to 90% efficient.

In Scotland we need - urgently - a North Sea offshore, energy and environment policy. We need partnership investment on behalf of the Scottish people: a renewables equivalent of Norway's Statoil. We need specialised manufacturing and training provision.

It's too easy to be a natural pessimist, of the Private Fraser - "We're aa doomed, ah tell ye!" - sort. Count the cash that Alistair Darling ("Scotland the Sleekit") has been throwing at Northern Rock (currently £23bn) and you tend to go that way. Is the Treasury any longer fit for purpose? But since that wet Tuesday in Inverness, seeing this generating and recycling hardware and thinking about the impending schemes, and what Holyrood can do to further them, I've become optimistic. At least I feel like Louis MacNeice, who knew his Western Isles:

There will be time
To audit the accounts later.
There will be sunlight later,
And the equation will come out at last.

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