Qatar’s carbon capture development opportunity

by  — 11 November 2013

The world needs leadership on carbon capture and storage after Europe’s flagship project was abandoned last month. Qatar could take the helm, writes Jamie Stewart

Once touted as a viable means to provide emission-free solutions to the world’s energy needs, carbon capture and storage (CSS) has proven commercially ineffective due to unsustainable costs, prompting the closure of a facility in Norway recently that was supposed to lead the way in the technology. (Image Corbis)

A few simple truths 1: Qatar, with gross domestic product per person of QR306,000, is the richest nation per capita on the planet. 2: Qatar has made its fortune through the sale of liquid natural gas (LNG) and other gas derivatives. 3: The world’s appetite for gas has not waned as its fear of the climactic impact or hazards of emitting carbon from other fossil fuels such as coal or nuclear power has grown. 4: The world still requires fuel for its power plants, its heaters and transport. 5: If the world could burn massive amounts of gas, without emitting carbon, it would do so, on a massive scale. And commercial scale carbon capture and storage (CCS), (a process of capturing a storing large-scale CO2 waste) would allow it to do just that.

These facts are all that is required to bolster this argument: Qatar should be making CCS work at commercial scale, and it should be doing so regardless of the upfront investment and initial estimates of long-term costs. If it can do so, it guarantees the existence of a global market for its most ample commodity, natural gas, for years to come.

For every riyal Doha was to spend on making CCS happen, it could get back tenfold, or more, and the technology itself would also hold immense export potential.

But the unfortunate fact is the world is struggling to make the dream of carbon emission-free, fossil-fuel combustion a reality. Last month, Norway, a sparsely populated, natural gas-rich nation in Northern Europe, scrapped Europe’s first full-scale CCS project at the Mongstad oil refinery.

The country’s government, which had referred to the scheme as ‘Norway’s Moon Landing’ project, had begun to see it as unsustainable, and consequently instructed state-run energy giant Statoil to end the project before the technology could be transposed to a gas-fired power plant, which was to be the project’s next phase.

Like Qatar, Norway sells oil and gas to the world, and would have much to gain if CCS could be made to work, but nowhere near as much as Doha would gain, sitting abreast gas reserves 12 times greater than Norway’s.

For every riyal Doha was to spend on making CCS feasible, and proving to the world that it can happen at scale, it could get back tenfold, or more. And the returns would not just lie in the value of gas sold, because CCS technology itself would also hold immense export potential.

Qatar has been clear about its grand plans to build a knowledge-based economy. Indeed the first pillar of its 2030 national plan – the policy-guiding document so often referred to by big business and government departments alike – is human development, and it states: “Future economic success will increasingly depend on the ability of the Qatari people to deal with a new international order that is knowledge-based and extremely competitive.”

This term ‘knowledge-based’ is difficult to imagine in concrete, material terms but in the field of CCS, Qatar could create a palpable version of the reality that it strives for throughout its 2030 vision: the knowledge to create, and the ability to export what that knowledge has produced.

The recently defunct Mongstad oil refinery in Norway was home to Europe’s most advanced CCS project. Qatar is now in a strong position to pick up the mantle as world leader in carbon capture, if it chooses to do so, says the author. (Image Statoil)

The world needs a new leader in the field of CCS, and the industry itself needs one even faster. Hours after the cessation of the Mongstad project was announced, the need to retain what had been learnt was being portrayed: The project’s executive vice president Eldar Sætre said it was important “that all we have learnt will be of benefit to the industry in its continuing work on CCS.” 

Time is surely of the essence if the industry’s collective knowledge is to one day pay off. Qatar may be a tiny, desert nation, as far removed from the icy plains of Norway as can be, but if any nation has the financial resources – and the potential reward – to make CCS work, it is arguably this country.

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