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The next 'moon landing?' Norway plans deep-sea CO2 storage.

The oil-rich nation believes a half-mile thick rock formation could store the next 600 years, or so, of CO2 emissions from Europe. Some say the science is not so clear.

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"The reservoir quality underneath Sleipner is very good for CO2 storage and has a potential to hold large amounts," says Øistein Johannessen, Statoil's new energy spokesman. "But Utsira is characterized by sand with different origins and qualities, many with no connection between them. To estimate how large volumes Utsira may store, we need to do more studies of the reservoir."

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A major factor leading to Statoil's decision to begin storing CO2 from Sleipner under the seabed was pure economics: It currently costs them around $30 per ton of CO2 to put the emissions underground, roughly the same price as Norway's CO2 tax.

Clean, green Norway?

Norway is the world's third largest exporter of gas and fifth largest oil exporter. Environmentalists have criticized the country for putting more money into carbon capture so that it can continue to pollute rather than investing in more renewable energy.

"The future of the planet is being gambled on a technological solution that could turn out to be an end of the pipe dream," says Emily Rochon, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace International. "Governments need to invest in proven solutions like wind, solar, and the smarter use of power."

Greenpeace released a critical report on the Utsira formation during the recent Bergen conference that questioned the safety of storing CO2 underneath the seabed. The group claims most storage estimates are overly optimistic and based on methodologies that are "insufficiently robust."

The report cites the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, which concluded that it was uncertain whether Utsira was suitable for large-scale storage of Europe's carbon emissions. In addition, the report points to problems last year with a with a crater on the seabed floor leaking oil at the Tordis field, where Statoil was injecting water into the Utsira formation to increase gas recovery.

"It's not possible to prove that all injected CO2 is still there," says Peter Haugan, leader of the Institute of Geophysics at the University of Bergen and an author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on carbon capture and storage. "There's no way of measuring the amount of CO2with sufficient accuracy using seismic mapping."

Statoil says the Sleipner and Tordis fields are located 200 miles apart and have no connection. Moreover, seismic monitoring from a year ago shows that storage at Sleipner is proceeding as planned.

Full-scale project delayed

Meantime, the country is still grappling with delays at its onshore carbon capture plant at Kårstø, in western Norway. This was supposed to be the site of the world's first full-scale carbon capture at a gas-fired power plant, starting in 2012, with the Utsira formation as a possible subsea storage site.

But the Norwegian government put the brakes on the procurement process last month because the new gas-fired power plant has been operating in fits and starts, producing scant CO2 emissions to date. The Norwegian oil ministry has declined to give a new date for the start-up of the carbon capture plant at Kårstø, though one environmental group believes start-up will be delayed by at least a year.

Meanwhile, the country is proceeding with plans to have a full-scale carbon capture plant for the new gas-fired power plant at Mongstad in western Norway possibly ready by 2014.