Algeria’s gas fields seek to set eco-example

Algeria’s gas fields seek to set eco-example

The Associated Press, International Harald tribune, Tuesday, December 16, 2008 Source

IN SALAH, Algeria: A gas field in the Sahara Desert is seeking to set a global environmental example with a project to bury carbon dioxide instead of spewing it into the atmosphere.

A joint venture of Algerian and international oil firms in In Salah, one of Algeria’s largest natural gas fields, has invested $100 million to capture the greenhouse gas as it’s emitted and inject it deep underground.

The virtues and risks of the technique, called carbon capture and storage, were hotly debated at U.N. climate talks in Poznan, Poland, earlier this month.

« A hundred million dollars is a large sum for anybody, but we had to start somewhere, » said Michael Mossman of the British oil firm BP PLC, who heads the venture with Norway’s Statoil and Algeria’s national oil company, Sonatrach.

« The Algerians were very receptive to the project, » he said Sunday, as journalists toured the site ahead of a conference by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, in the northwestern town of Oran this week.

Algeria doesn’t want to stop with In Salah: The gas-rich nation is now asking all foreign drilling partners to include such so-called carbon sequestration plans in their investment projects, according to Sonatrach.

Underground storage usually involves pumping carbon into empty coal or salt mines and has never been done at an onshore gas drill or on such a scale as at In Salah, BP and Sonatrach say.

Most gas fields, which filter carbon dioxide from the natural gas they extract, release the pollutant into the air. But In Salah pumps the carbon 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) underground.

The joint venture says the gas field buries 800,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year, or the equivalent of 200,000 cars driving 30,000 kilometers (18,640 miles). Carbon dioxide represents 7 percent of the 9 billion cubic meters (318 billion cubic feet) of gas extracted at In Salah’s rig each year.

Some scientists and conservation groups worry that underground carbon storage isn’t safe because the pollutant could leak back into the atmosphere. In Salah’s joint venture says it pumps the carbon back directly into the natural gas and water reservoir.

« If it contained gas for millions of years without leakage, why would it start leaking now? » says Mohamed Keddan, the station manager at this sprawling drilling field that lies in the Sahara’s barren moonscapes 1,200 kilometers (720 miles) south of the capital, Algiers.

Algeria’s natural gas usually holds 4 to 6 percent carbon dioxide but its main customer, the European Union, only accepts 2 percent. That means huge amounts of carbon are filtered and dumped into the atmosphere, said Sahnoun Said, the international partnership manager at Sonatrach. Algeria exports 65 billion cubic meters (2,295 billion cubic feet) each year. In Salah purifies gas to a 0.3 percent carbon level.

Both the Algerians and British Petroleum view their project as a potential source of profit if environmental rules change.

Gas sequestration on drilling fields isn’t currently taken into account by the Kyoto Protocol, which regulates emissions of greenhouse gases and arbitrates how companies can obtain « carbon credits » for limiting pollution. But this could change as world leaders and the United Nations prepare to negotiate a new treaty to succeed the Kyoto pact, which expires in 2012.

« BP is certainly interested in this becoming accepted under a carbon credit agreement, » Mossman told The AP.

He said credits at about $25 per ton of saved carbon could bring millions of dollars of additional income to gas drilling sites like In Salah, and make carbon sequestration economically viable for other drilling firms.

The U.N. environmental body says nations are in heated discussions over whether techniques such as the one used at In Salah should be one of the means to gain carbon credits.

Algerian Energy Minister Chakib Khelil said In Salah was Algeria’s contribution to Kyoto protocol efforts. « I hope it will make us profit from carbon credits one of these days, » he said.