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Carbon Sequestration Stalls in Germany

Plans by Germany utility RWE to store captured CO2 under the North Sea coastline are running into political backlash and popular opposition

Anyone who plans to travel to the North Sea resort island of Sylt in early July can expect to get stuck in long traffic jams. Just in time for the Saturday changeover in vacation condos, environmental activists plan to block a highway that leads to the train station where vacationers' cars are loaded onto a train that travels across a causeway to Sylt. But their goal is not that of keeping vehicles off the island.

Instead, the activists want to draw the public's attention to the plans of electric utility RWE (RWEG.DE), which intends to ship carbon dioxide (CO2) from a power plant near Cologne through a pipeline to the North Sea coast, where it will compress the greenhouse gas into sequestration sites hundreds of meters below the surface. The gas will be stored there for thousands of years, preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere. The way RWE sees things, the protests are counter to the lofty goals of climate protection.

Many citizens, on the other hand, are worried about the effects of the project. "If a CO2 storage site is built here, the tourists will stay away," says Werner Asmus. He is the unsalaried mayor of the community of Wallsbüll and the spokesman for a citizens' initiative that already claims to have recruited 2,500 supporters. Local politicians are calling it a "real grassroots movement." In addition to Green Party members, conservative Christian Democratic mayors of local towns are calling upon their citizens to refuse to allow the employees of electric utilities to set foot on their property. In the Weser River region, entire counties have blocked RWE's exploration activities.

A Furious Chancellor

Many fear that the storage sites will not be leak-proof. Besides, they are seen as a green fig leaf, the sole purpose of which is to extend the operating life of coal-fired power plants, thereby delaying the development of renewable energy sources.

Politicians in Berlin have been extremely nervous in responding to the protests. Last Friday, the German parliament, the Bundestag, was supposed to have passed a law that would have established the legal framework for CO2 sequestration sites. But the bill failed in the face of conservative politicians' concerns.

Particularly members of parliament from northern Germany, as well as the parliamentary leaders of the Christian Social Union (CSU), Peter Ramsauer, and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Volker Kauder, expressed their concerns about the RWE plan. Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), who considers CO2 compression to be safe, was furious. An eleventh-hour effort to push through the law failed on Wednesday, leaving the center-left Social Democrats and Merkel's conservatives blaming each other for the failure. Given that the two political camps are internally divided on the issue, it is unclear if the draft legislation will be revisited immediately following autumn elections. An end-of-the-year deadline, set to enable energy companies to cash in on European Union incentives for carbon sequestration pilot projects, now appears to be in danger.

An Approaching Power Gap?

The large electric utilities are warning that Germany is "on the brink with its energy policy," says Fritz Vahrenholt, the head of RWE's environmental division, Innogy. Without the option of CO2 disposal, new, more environmentally friendly coal power plants would be unlikely to gain regulatory approval. But the German electricity supply could not cope with a phase-out of both coal and nuclear power, warns Vahrenholt. "To avoid a power gap, the only option would be to extend the lives of nuclear power plants," he says. Germany currently plans to take the last nuclear power plant from the grid in the early 2020s.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the SPD's candidate for the chancellorship in the September election, agrees with this assessment and wants to prevent such a scenario. Steinmeier believes that coal will remain indispensable in the long term so that electricity can remain affordable. But without CO2 sequestration, the days of cheap, coal-based power could be numbered. Under the European Union's emissions trading program, companies pay fees for each ton of CO2 that ends up in the atmosphere. The E.on Group (EONGN.DE) expects the total annual cost of these emissions fees, currently at €1 billion ($1.4 billion), to rise to €20 billion ($28 billion) by 2020. Pipelines and storage sites would also be expensive, but they would permanently relieve companies of the burden of emissions trading. Environmentalists argue that the money should go into renewable energy instead.

The problems in Germany have prompted RWE to boost its activities in Great Britain and Poland. "We are forced to go abroad to guarantee Europe's electricity supply," says Vahrenholt.

Energy companies can probably not expect the support of many politicians. Hermann Scheer, the SPD's environmental guru, sent an unusual map of Germany to all of his fellow members of the Bundestag last Monday. The outlines of election districts are carefully detailed on the map, as are the potential CO2 sequestration sites. The message was clear: Anyone who intended to turn off voters shortly before the parliamentary election should feel free to support the law.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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