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magazine / oct08

October 2008 issue


The carbon cleansers
For the past 16 years, Norway has been creating an economy less dependent on oil. What prompted all the forward thinking? A carbon tax.
By Chris Turner


Norway’s continental shelf is a broad expanse of Cretaceous chalk and Jurassic sandstone submerged in the North Sea. One hundred million years ago, dead plankton accumulated on the floor of the shelf and depleted the site of oxygen before being sealed in clay. On Christmas Eve 1969, a borehole drilled into the sea floor by Phillips Petroleum Company Norway tapped into the energy-dense liquid the ancient plankton had become, and the economy of Norway was changed forever.


Today, after roughly a third of the oil and natural gas buried in the shelf has been extracted and burned, it’s estimated that about 80 billion barrels of oil equivalent remain — enough to meet all of Europe’s oil demand (at current levels) for the next 15 years. From this prehistoric bounty, Norway has transformed itself into the world’s tenth largest oil producer and third largest exporter of oil and gas. The production, refining and sale of fossil fuels now comprise far and away Norway’s largest single industry, generating export revenues of more than $100 billion per year and accounting for 26 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Which is why the Sleipner T drilling platform, as spectacular a feat of engineering as it is, remains a commonplace sight in the choppy waters of the North Sea.

Related story: In-depth - Burying the problem
Our world has too much of a good thing: Carbon. Experts are looking to Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) to resolve this problem. Learn more about CCS, the projects underway in Canada and worldwide, and view an animated video clip on Enhanced Oil Recovery.
Sleipner T, a natural-gas processing facility operated by StatoilHydro (Norway’s partially state-owned energy company), floats like an office block stripped of its exterior walls and hoisted into the sky on bright yellow steel legs. The platform is an outsized, angular scribble of thick pipe, steel rail and scaffolding painted in white, blue and concrete grey, like a nest left in the sea by some industrial bird. Its primary job is to remove the excess carbon dioxide (CO2) from natural gas extracted from wells drilled into the sea floor, and pipeline the gas to shore for sale to the insatiable global market.

It would take a technician’s studied eye to locate the handful of pipes that do a job unlike any other in the fossil-fuel industry — the ones that return the climate-altering CO2 to the Earth’s bedrock. Somewhere beneath the North Sea’s murky depths lies a rock formation known as a “saline aquifer,” and since 1996, the Sleipner T platform has been injecting the pockets of salt water it contains with one million tonnes of highly compressed CO2 every year. The reason for this — the primary reason — is that in 1992, Norway became the first major oil producer in the world to institute a carbon tax.

When Norway passed its groundbreaking legislation, climate change remained little more than an ominous rumour in most of the world and the applied science of carbon capture and storage (CCS) was essentially non-existent (see “Carbon cemetery,” Jan/Feb 2008). Today, as the scale of the roiling climate’s catastrophic potential seems to compound almost daily, like a gambling debt, the question of taking dramatic action to mitigate climate change has moved rapidly from if to how, and the International Energy Agency estimates that, after efficiency improvements and conservation efforts, the single most important technology for reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions will be CCS.

In Canada, meanwhile, the once heretical notion of a carbon tax is now legal reality in Quebec and British Columbia, forms the cornerstone of the energy platform of Stéphane Dion’s federal Liberals and finds a hearing even in the corporate boardrooms of oil-rich Calgary. It is an idea, it seems, whose time has come.

There is, at present, exactly one case study extant of the impact of a carbon tax on a major oil-producing nation. And the best place to view how that tax has changed, and is changing, behaviour is a small port city in Norway called Stavanger.


Comments on this articleLeave a comment

Does anybody believe the U.S. government would be smart enough to use the proceeds from a carbon tax to reduce the deficit or invest in the future? No - the politicians would see it as more money they could spend on pet projects and funnel to special interests.

Submitted by Wayne Dyer on Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Isn't it a shame that such a workable model of just plain old good sense had no resonance with Canadians in our last election.

Someone will eventually have to pay the environmental price for failed economic policies and consumer driven excesses. It's akin to painting ourselves into a corner...there will eventually be no wiggle room!

Submitted by T. A. 'Chip' Dickison on Monday, November 3, 2008

removing 2 oxygen molecules for every dug up carbon molecule....not smart, perhaps they should take some math and a course in formal logic

Submitted by james anderson on Friday, October 17, 2008

I think this article should be reprinted in every Canadian paper for all to read before this illtimed election

Submitted by dick Rotteveel on Tuesday, September 23, 2008

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