While Obama Moves to Curb Carbon Emissions, Svalbard Prepares to Capture Them

The key goal of the UNIS CO2 Lab is to "use the favorable conditions in and around Longyearbyen to develop, test and demonstrate technologies for carbon capture and storage." (Photo: Christi Turner)

LONGYEARBYEN. A strong focus on cutting carbon pollution links energy policy in the U.S. with energy innovation in the High Arctic.


President Obama announced his sweeping Climate Action Plan on Tuesday, stressing his commitment to use his presidential powers to require U.S. power plants to reduce their CO2 emissions.  Meanwhile, in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, a former Arctic mining town is preparing to test a cutting-edge underground “rock reservoir” to capture and store CO2.

Ole Arve Misund, director of the University Centre of Svalbard (UNIS), said that while the wheels were set in motion for the project years ago, shifting energy policies in the U.S. certainly have had an influence on the development of the UNIS project, known as the CO2 Lab.  Misund cited the U.S. shift away from coal as a particular impetus for the project.

“Coal prices are way down, due to the fact that in the U.S. they have discovered shale gas,” Misund said.  “Now the U.S. doesn’t need all of its coal, so they export it to Europe for relatively cheap. Salaries here are so high that the mining company here has had to reduce staff and activity over time.”

With cooperation from the local mining company and partnership with some of the major players on the global energy market - like ConocoPhillips, Total, Norway’s Statoil and Sweden’s Lundin - the CO2 Lab project is designing the technique and technology to capture CO2 emissions and store them underground.  More specifically, the lab plans to capture and sequester all of the carbon emissions from Longyearbyen’s coal-fired power plant, making the town a zero emissions “green showcase.”  The plant burns between 25,000 and 30,000 tonnes of coal every year to heat and power the city of roughly 2,000 inhabitants.

Scientists with the CO2 lab have already identified the site of the underground CO2 reservoir, and have drilled five exploratory bore holes on site.  By analyzing bore hole samples, they have determined that roughly 700 meters below the surface lies a thick layer of sandstone rock ideal for absorbing captured C02 that is pumped down. Above this sandstone “reservoir”, a thick “ceiling” of shale will prevent sequestered carbon from escaping.

Or at least, that is the plan.  Scientists have not yet tested the rock reservoir, although they expect to move into the sequestration phase within the year, hopefully on the sooner side.

Misund said that Longyearbyen is an ideal test site for the technology, and UNIS is already producing graduates trained to develop the C02 “value chain,” including carbon sequestration and storage.

“There are many such sites around the world where this is possible, but one of the easiest places to do the research is here, actually,” Misund said.  “We have the site so close to our research center and other infrastructure, not like possible sites in the North Sea where it is very expensive to do any drilling.” 

Misund said that officials are discussing the possibility of replacing the 1970s-era coal plant with a state-of-the-art facility that can capture carbon directly at the source, and prepare it for pumping into the rock reservoir at the CO2 Lab.

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan also entails federal funding to help protect communities from the severe weather events brought on by climate change, as well as funding to develop renewable energy technology.  This would include a proposed $8 billion for investments in innovative technologies that focus on “the avoidance, reduction, or sequestration of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.”