London, 20 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Britain has had a hard time honoring its obligations to the Kyoto treaty on global warming.
According to the agreement, the United Kingdom must cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by 60 percent by the year 2050.
To reach that target, Malcolm Wicks, Britain's energy minister, is now proposing a scheme to liquify industrial carbon-dioxide emissions, and store the liquid in now-empty oil- and natural gas-beds under the floor of the North Sea.
Some experts support the idea. Professor Gordon MacKerron, a researcher at the University of Sussex in Brighton and the head of the Sussex Energy Group, which acts as a scientific consultant to energy firms, says the great advantage of oil or possibly gas wells is that they have very successfully managed to hold in lots of oil and gas for very long periods in the past. "So you think with a bit of good engineering they could also hold in carbon dioxide," he adds.
Wicks, in presenting his proposal, cites a study that he claims shows that up to 85 percent of emissions from coal- and gas-fueled power stations could be stored this way. The British government is investing $50 million in the scheme -- which, MacKerron says, is technologically viable, if not without its potential problems.
"This is a pilot scheme. It wouldn't have got as far as it was if it wasn't technologically really feasible to a certain extent. So it's at least worth trying it out. But I don't think it's a real answer to the problems with the greenhouse gases."
"We know that the Norwegians have already successfully pumped some carbon dioxide in the Sleipner field down some more or less exhausted oil wells," MacKerron says. "Now, there are important environmental questions about how long that will last. The issue seems to me as not one of technical feasibility, but of environmental and legal acceptability, and of course, costs in the longer term."
The launch of such a program could meet stiff resistance when subject to a public debate. It also remains to be seen whether the scheme would violate current international laws on the sea.
Other observers are more skeptical. Professor Wynn Grant is an environmental specialist at the University of Warwick.
"This is a pilot scheme. It wouldn't have got as far as it was if it wasn't technologically really feasible to a certain extent. So it's at least worth trying it out. But I don't think it's a real answer to the problems with the greenhouse gases. The problem is that some of these other schemes, such as wind power, are not making as fast progress as was hoped," Grant says.
Representatives of the energy industry have doubts as well. Some -- like Leon Flexman, spokesman for the RWE npower electricity company -- say they like the idea, but aren't convinced it's viable.
"It's good that the government is putting money into the scheme, and I think it is potentially one route to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But again, on an industrial scale there are significant costs involved," Flexman says.
Flexman says the current priority for Britain's energy companies is to find the most low-cost way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. He says options like wind power are very promising, viable, and do not require the large, long-term investments and technological risks the North Sea proposal does.
The government plan, he says, may have come "a bit prematurely."
Grant says the realization of the plan is likely still many years away. But he says, if successful, the scheme could prove attractive for rapidly developing Asian countries like China and India, which are continuing to rely on fossil fuels for their energy needs.
"It might be an interesting experiment for other countries who would also be able to use disused oil fields in this way. It may be that it will be a money-earner for countries in the future," Grant says.
British companies, Grant adds, could profit enormously from developing the required technology.