BP has ditched plans to build the world's first carbon capture and storage (CCS) power plant in Peterhead, Scotland.
The pull-out came as the UK government announced a competition to build an integrated CCS plant would be launched in November 2007 - too late for the Scotland project.
The £500 million Peterhead proposal was one of the most advanced on the table, said geoscientist Stuart Haszeldine, from Edinburgh University. It would transform natural gas piped from the Miller oilfield, 150 miles northeast of Aberdeen, into carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The hydrogen would be burned as fuel, but the carbon dioxide would be captured and piped back to the oilfield, avoiding 90 per cent of the carbon emissions normally created by fossil fuels.
BP spokesperson David Nicholas said the proposal had a huge advantage over other carbon capture projects. As the Miller oilfield was coming to the end of its life, it already had empty pipelines through which carbon dioxide might be pumped offshore.
But there was a limited window of opportunity to keep the oilfield alive before the project became too technically and economically challenging, said Nicholas. Though BP had twice postponed the oilfield's closure in the hope of receiving government support for its CCS project, it was now clear the government's timescale was too slow to help.
Nicholas said BP appreciated that the government had to go through a steady and open competition process to choose the best CCS proposal. 'This is not a matter for recrimination,' he said, pointing out that the $50 million already invested in the Peterhead project had taught BP valuable lessons for similar schemes in California, US and Perth, Western Australia.
But BP's pullout was Britain's loss, said Haszeldine. 'The government says it wants to lead a carbon capture and storage project. Well, it had a lead. Now it has a lead in hot air,' he told Chemistry World. Projects in Saskatchewan, Canada, or Queensland, Eastern Australia, were now favourites to be completed first, perhaps by 2012, Haszeldine thought.
There are still at least seven other companies in the running for the UK's CCS competition, including E.ON UK, Conoco Philips, RWE nPower, and a partnership between Progressive Energy and Centrica. A spokesperson for the Department of Trade and Industry said the government were disappointed that BP had decided to withdraw, but that timetables had always been very clear.
Slow progress was perhaps inevitable, given the tricky regulatory hurdles that have to be overcome to establish a full-scale CCS plant. It was only this year that the UN maritime organisation allowed greenhouse gases to be buried under the seabed in oceans across the world, under amendments to the London Convention on dumping waste at sea.
Outstanding regulatory issues, said Haszeldine, were deciding who owned the carbon dioxide after it had been stored underground, so a private company was clear how long it remained liable for the gas. Another was deciding the price of electricity from a more expensive carbon capture plant.
But Haszeldine said if the UK government had really wanted to encourage BP's proposal, it could have imposed interim regulations specifically for the research project. And he pointed out that the government could move fast when it wanted to - on deciding to back new nuclear power stations, for example.
Richard Van Noorden