The technology could be up and running within the next ten years and would see greenhouse gases from power plants captured and stored in depleted North Sea oil and gas fields.

Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks announced the plans as part of the Carbon Abatement Technology Strategy, a £40 million package for emerging low-carbon technologies, £25 million of which is intended for carbon abatement technologies such as capture and storage.

Capture and storage, or sequestration, could be used on a variety of power generation plants, but is particularly being focused on coal burning plants.

“Reaching our ambitious targets of cutting carbon emissions by 60% by 2050 means action now to support emerging technologies that will enable us to burn coal and gas more cleanly,” Minister Wicks said. “At the same time, with major expansion of coal fired power generation expected in China and India, we want to put the UK at the forefront of what could be a valuable new export opportunity.”

He reassured people that this did not mean any let-up in the push towards renewable energy or energy efficiency, but that cleaning up the use of fossil fuels was a vital long-term objective.

“We’ve consulted the industry closely and it’s clear that the long term benefits of capture and storage, which could reduce emissions from power plant by up to 85%, merit significant investment now,” the Minister added.

Carbon capture and storage is best applied to large stationary sources, such as power stations, as greenhouse gases can be separated from flue gas emissions and pumped underground.

Norway’s Statoil has been burying carbon dioxide under the North Sea since 1996 and the UK government began researching its potential in 2002 (see related story).

However, the idea has not met with favourable reaction from the UK Offshore Operators Association (UKOOA), the industry body representing oil and gas producers in the North Sea. The group say that a number of its members have studied the feasibility of carbon sequestration and found considerable technical, regulatory and cost barriers still to be addressed.

UKOOA say that it would require significant investment in new infrastructure both on and offshore, including substantial retrofitting of the offshore installations which have weight and space limitations.

In addition, carbon dioxide is currently considered a “waste” product, and, as such, not allowed to be transferred from one location to another for dispersal offshore. This illegality is now being re-examined by the authorities.

The idea has also met with mixed reaction elsewhere. Norman Baker MP, Shadow Environment Secretary, warned that it should not be used as an excuse to avoid making real reductions in carbon output.

“This system is yet to be proven to work and the Government needs to remain focused on improving energy efficiency and increasing the pitiful share of energy generated by renewables to reduce emissions in the first place,” he said.

Bryony Worthington, climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth told edie news that the strategy was like “putting a sticking plaster over a wound.” She warned that the amount of money being made available was not enough to really tackle the problem, but merely acted as a token gesture.

Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said the technologies involved could be useful for Scottish industries, but warned that they should not be used as an alternative to investment in renewable energy.

“Globally carbon capture and storage may well have a role to play in helping minimise emissions in the critical coming decades – especially as poor countries like China try to catch up with industrial development,” he said. “However, it is no magic wand to allow the US or any other country to indulge in wasteful consumption and gas-guzzling. That is why we will continue to press G8 countries and others to commit to real and sustained cuts in climate emissions.”

By David Hopkins

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