Japan Plans Biggest Test of Carbon Capture North of Quake Site

  • Cost and safety questions surround carbon capture globally
  • Mitsubishi Heavy among companies exporting the technology

Japan is preparing to test its biggest project yet for capturing and storing greenhouse gas pollution under the seabed despite concerns about cost and the safety of pursuing the technology in a region prone to earthquakes.

Engineers plan to inject carbon dioxide into deep saline aquifers off the coast of Hokkaido at the northern tip of the nation starting in April. The gas will be siphoned away from a refinery operated by Idemitsu Kosan Co. under the government-backed project.

Five years after an earthquake and tidal wave triggered an atomic meltdown in Fukushima, Japan is grappling for ways to generate power while meeting global goals for reducing fossil-fuel emissions. Carbon capture and storage, tested in many nations but working at a commercial scale almost nowhere, holds the promise of limiting the most damaging fumes from thermal power plants and giving Japanese companies a vast new market.

“Individual technologies have already been established” for the project, Tetsuo Kasukawa, a spokesman for Japan CCS Co., the Tokyo-based research company which has built and prepared the site for the carbon injection, said in an interview in Tokyo. “We want to prove CCS is also possible in Japan.”

Some Japanese companies are already lending their expertise to and investing in CCS projects overseas. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. designed and built a project in Alabama with Southern Co. Tokyo Gas Co., Osaka Gas Co. and Chubu Electric Power Co. are part of the alliance building the world’s largest CCS project on Barrow Island off the coast of Western Australia.

Cost Concerns

The technology has its doubters, given that it can cost billions of dollars for a single plant and none have a long operational record at an industrial scale.

“It is our view that CCS is unlikely to play a significant role in mitigating emissions from coal-fired power stations,” authors including Ben Caldecott, director of the sustainable finance program at the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, wrote in a report in January. “Deployment of CCS has already been too slow to match” scenarios presented by the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Another concern is whether stored CO2 will leak, releasing the greenhouse gas back into the atmosphere in high concentrations. 

“There is no guarantee that carbon dioxide can be stored in a stable way in Japan where there are many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions,” said Kimiko Hirata, a researcher of coal-power projects for Kiko Network, a Kyoto-based environmental group.

CCS needs long-term monitoring, she added.

Earthquake Question

Since most CCS projects are still at the experimental stage, little data is available to calculate the risk of earthquakes caused by CCS. Japan CCS is confident the geology of the area is sound.

“Carbon dioxide will be injected in such a way that there won’t be any impact on geological formation,” Kasukawa said. The carbon dioxide will be injected “little by little,” he said, contrasting it with hydraulic fracking, or fracking, where oil and gas drillers pump fluid under pressure into formations to release trapped deposits.

The project off the Hokkaido coast is the first in Japan to involve the three stages of the CCS process -- capture, transfer and underground injection of CO2 for storage -- according to Kasukawa. An earlier demonstration project conducted by the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth injected a total of 10,400 tons of carbon dioxide at a test site in Niigata prefecture.

Beginning in April, between 100,000 tons to 200,000 tons of CO2 will be injected annually into two separate reservoirs 1,000 meters and 3,000 meters respectively in depth under the seabed off the port of Tomakomai in Hokkaido, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which is sponsoring the pilot project.

About 34 billion yen ($300 million) has been set aside for the project from the ministry for the four years through the end of March 2016 to build the project site. Cost estimates for the entire project haven’t been made available by the trade ministry, though the government’s target is for CCS to be viable by 2020.

“It is difficult at this point to estimate how much CO2 emissions will be cut in Japan and how much of that should be achieved through CCS in the future,” said Takeshi Nagasawa, director of the global environment partnership office at Japan’s trade ministry. “But it is still important to build technologies so that we will be ready when it is needed.”

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