Zeeland fertilizer factory wants to hide CO2 under the Norwegian seabed. Does that work?

People who live in Zeeland are undoubtedly familiar with them: the white plumes that come out of Yara’s fertilizer factory every day. Yara is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the Netherlands. It makes ammonia, the basic raw material for fertilizer, and that chemical process creates pure CO2 as a by-product. A large part of that pure CO2 is currently going up into the air – that is in the white plumes of smoke that Zeeland sees – which contributes to dangerous global warming.

Yara now has other plans with that CO2. From 2025, the fertilizer factory wants 800,000 tons of CO2 per year – a quarter of the total emissions of Yara Netherlands – shipped in liquid form to the Norwegian North Sea coast, and stored there permanently under the seabed, was announced this week. It is the first time that a company has reduced its CO2 in this way to another country for storage. “The white plumes of smoke will therefore decrease,” says Gijsbrecht Gunter of Yara.

“A great first”, describes Earl Goetheer, professor at TU Delft and CO2storage specialist at knowledge institute TNO, this announcement. He is particularly impressed with the Norwegian Northern Light project, owned by Shell, Total Energies and the Norwegian oil company Equinor, and which received more than a billion euros in subsidy from the Norwegian government.

‘Come here’

“Norway says very actively to Europe in its policy: come here with your CO2we’ll store it. That is really something new on the world stage.” According to Northern Light director Børre Jacobsen, several companies in the Netherlands are showing interest in their CO2 in Norway, but the Norwegian keeps his mouth shut about which companies these are.


Statue Thijs van Dalen

Environmental organizations, meanwhile, are critical of CCS projects, which stands for ‘carbon capture and storage.’ Greenpeace believes that major polluters such as Yara should invest in actually greening their production, such as switching from gas to green hydrogen, instead of continuing the old way and paying a lot of money to hide CO2.

Stichting Natuur & Milieu thinks that the climate crisis is so serious that CO2storage is ‘a necessary evil’ for the rapid reduction of emissions in the coming years, but also believes that this ‘must absolutely not delay real change’.

Dangerous?

It will raise eyebrows for the layman: CO2 capture it, convert it into liquid, take it to Norway on huge ships, and pump it more than two kilometers deep under the Norwegian seabed. Is that in itself not polluting, let alone dangerous?

The Northern Lights location on the Norwegian coast.  Liquid CO2 goes from here to the sea via a pipeline.  Image Northern Lights.

The Northern Lights location on the Norwegian coast. Liquid CO2 goes from here to the sea via a pipeline.Image Northern Lights.

According to Goetheer of TNO, it is no coincidence that Shell, Total and Equinor are running this project. “Oil and gas companies have traditionally explored the North Sea area extensively in search of oil and gas. Thanks to that geological knowledge, they also know where CO2storage is possible.”

In the case of the Northern Light project, this is in a so-called aquifer: a layer of porous sand rock under the seabed, where salt water is currently contained in small cavities, and where CO is under pressure.2 can be injected, which pushes the water away. “Think of it as reverse gas extraction.” It is also financially lucrative: where the oil giants first only earn from drilling the seabed empty, they now see the benefits of pumping it full.

Already experienced with it

The Norwegians have experience with this: Equinor has been running a project for over twenty years in which one million tons of CO2 under the Norwegian seabed. Northern Light wants 1.5 million tons of CO . annually2 injection, from two Norwegian companies and from the Yara factory in Zeeland. In time there should be room for five to seven million tons of CO2 per year.

The underground storage of CO2 according to Goetheer is not dangerous and indeed almost permanent: according to him it will remain there for thousands of years, and the CO2 turns into a kind of rock over time. “It’s not a big bubble that can suddenly float to the top.”

Also, the emissions of the ships carrying the CO2 transport small compared to the climate gain. Northern Light calculates this at about 2 percent cost of the amount of CO2 that they put away, Goetheer finds this plausible. Capture of CO2 from smoke clouds at companies is very energy-intensive, so that, according to him, the net climate gain for most polluters amounts to about 80 percent of the stored CO2. “That’s significant.”

The biggest stumbling block of projects like Northern Light is price. “At the moment it is cheaper for companies to emit than to store it under the seabed”, director Jacobsen admits. But this could change. Companies like Yara have to pay through the European Emissions Trading System (ETS) for every tonne of CO2 they emit, and that price keeps getting higher and higher. Goetheer explains that the rising ETS price means that the storage of CO2 under the soil is slowly becoming more attractive.

At the same time, Yara is in a unique position, which will apply to few other Dutch companies. Because of the chemical process to make ammonia, Yara already has pure CO2, which can partly be used for the production of fertilizer or sold to, for example, soft drink manufacturers, but which partly has to ‘throw it away’ into the air. Converting to liquid and shipping to Norway is relatively easy for them.

More difficult for others

the CO2storage also ensures that they can charge a higher price for more sustainable ammonia, for example as a shipping fuel. “We expect the business case to be conclusive for us,” says Gunter van Yara. Storage is becoming more difficult for other Dutch companies, as they have to purchase expensive installations that contain CO .2 from their plumes of smoke.

null Image ANP / Branko de Lang

Image ANP / Branko de Lang

Nevertheless, a few large companies in the Netherlands are taking steps. The RWE coal-fired power station in Groningen is investigating whether the CO2 can capture from smoke plumes and store in empty gas fields in the North Sea. Waste incinerator AVR also wants CO2 stop under the seabed. The Dutch Porthos project should come into effect from 2024, whereby four companies at the port of Rotterdam CO2 want to stop in an empty North Sea gas field, although the final investment decision has already been postponed several times.

According to Natuur & Milieu, this is all going far too slowly. “The advantage of CO2 storage is that you directly reduce emissions. If companies take their time, it makes little sense. Then they have to invest in truly sustainable technologies that are future-proof.”

Yara also says that she uses CO2storage as a ‘temporary solution’, until the moment when they indeed switch to green hydrogen and much less CO2 will emit. “We think that we will only be able to replace large-scale gas with green hydrogen after 2030.” Tata Steel makes a radically different choice. Last year, the company finally decided not to invest any money in CCS projects, and to focus fully on the faster transition to green hydrogen.

BOX: Yara Sluiskil

Yara is a major producer of fertilizers. The company, originally from Norway, has a large factory in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. The location has three ammonia plants, four CO2plants, two nitric acid plants, two urea plants and two nitrate granulation plants. A lot of natural gas is burned to produce ammonia, a main ingredient in fertilizers. This makes Yara one of the largest polluters in the Netherlands: in 2018, 3.6 million tons of CO were emitted in Sluiskil.2 in the air.

Also read:
CO2 to the seabed for good: solution or climate fable?

Shell has been working on the Norwegian project since 2017. Many previous CCS projects failed – also in the Netherlands.

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