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Ships, storage, and pipes – and a whole new industry.

We cannot achieve climate goals with renewable energy alone. That’s why Knut Mathias Vestbø is working on a large storage facility beneath the seabed in the North Sea. Or more accurately, as the project director for Smeaheia.

“I do believe it. It’s so important to take care of the planet and contribute to a future for the next generation. That’s why it feels particularly meaningful for me to work with what I do.”

Knut Mathias grew up close to nature in the fjord landscape of Ryfylke in Rogaland, west Norway. His interest in mathematics and physics started early, leading him towards engineering studies and work within oil and gas. With 18 years of experience at Equinor, he has held various roles and worked on numerous projects.

In an environmentally-engaged family, his job has led to many discussions around the dinner table. After he started working with carbon transport and storage, he feels he has “risen a bit in the ranks.” But that doesn’t mean the critical questions have stopped. On the contrary. Isn’t carbon capture and storage just legitimising continued CO2 emissions? And why isn’t the money being invested in renewables instead?

The afternoon sun shines in Øygarden. Together with delegations from Japan and Belgium, we have travelled to the small coastal municipality 50 kilometres northwest of Bergen. In front of us, beyond a sturdy security fence, we see an advanced structure consisting of twelve shiny cylinders towering over 30 metres above the ground, connected to an intricate pipe system. Soon, these columns will receive carbon emissions captured by major European industries.

Like the delegates in suits, we’re here to visit Northern Lights. The newly constructed facility is a joint venture between Equinor, Shell, and TotalEnergies, and will be the world’s first commercial facility for the transport, reception, and permanent storage of CO2. By the end of the year, it will be ready to receive around 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 annually, which will be transported to the facility in large ships from industrial plants where the emissions have been captured.

“From here, a pipe extends into the sea and 2,600 metres below the seabed, where the conditions with porous sandstone are particularly suitable for injecting liquid CO2. Above this lies shale, a dense rock that keeps the CO2 in place,” explains Knut Mathias.

Portrait of Knut Mathias Vestbø
“To ensure a liveable planet for our descendants, we must contribute with what we can. And this is an area where Equinor as a company and Norway as a nation have an opportunity to contribute, both with the experience we have from oil and with the geological formations off our coast,” says Knut Mathias.
Photo: Eirik Stordrange

In the face of criticism, he is firm in his stance. Climate change is a global challenge, and to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, it will require massive reductions in global CO2 emissions. The scale of the challenge and the need for speed mean that a focus on renewable energy alone will not get us there. Whether we like it or not, renewable energy sources must be complemented, including with low-carbon technologies. Knut Mathias is particularly concerned with industries that have no way to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions otherwise.

“Cement production, steel mills, and waste incineration are three industries often described in English as ‘hard-to-abate,’ meaning industries that simply cannot be electrified. For we need to build bridges and houses, even in a low-carbon society. Without these industries, that’s not possible. To make ourselves emission-free, carbon capture and storage is one of the mechanisms that must be implemented on a large scale,” he says.

Simply put, CCS (carbon capture and storage) involves capturing CO2 emissions directly from industry and then storing them safely and permanently. Knut Mathias is fully convinced that it is one of the most important tools for steering towards a more sustainable development path. And he believes it is natural and right that Equinor is investing heavily in this area.

“As a nation with an oil and gas background, we have an extra responsibility to contribute to these solutions. Not only do we have nearly 30 years of experience with successful subsea CO2 storage with the Sleipner field, but the geology off our coast is also particularly well-suited for this,” he says.

Equinor’s ambition to make the North Sea a leading province for CO2 storage in Europe excites him greatly. And he sees great possibilities.

A few kilometres from today’s tour, the project Knut Mathias will lead in the coming years is taking shape. Smeaheia can contribute to a shift in pace for CO2 transport and storage in Northwest Europe, with the ambition to connect European customers and emission sources to a vast CO2 storage site in the North Sea, both through a pipeline and through facilitated ship transport.

“What we are planning with Smeaheia is far from enough to save the world, but it’s a start, and we are talking about large quantities. If we build large shipping terminals and pipelines from Europe, it really starts. The seabed off the coast of Norway is well-suited for storing CO2 and has the potential to store CO2 equivalent to 1,000 years of Norwegian emissions,” says Knut Mathias.

But there’s still a long way to go, and some obstacles stand in the way. Much of it is about business development.

“As of today, establishing these solutions depends on financial support. That’s why it’s important to scale up and develop technical solutions that bring development costs down. But we are working on simplifications, improvements, and cost reductions so that we can sell the service as affordably as possible. Fees also play a role, and industrial players must see it as more practical to send CO2 to us than to let the emissions go into the atmosphere,” explains Knut Mathias.

Smeaheia

  • Developing CO2 transport and storage quickly and on a large scale is crucial for Europe to meet its climate goals.
  • The seabed off the coast of Norway is well-suited for storing CO2 and has the potential to store CO2 equivalent to 1,000 years of Norwegian emissions under the North Sea.
  • Our ambition with Smeaheia is to develop transport and storage solutions for up to 20 million tonnes of CO2 per year, which will mean a significant increase in commercial CCS capacity worldwide.
  • The transport concepts being considered are a pipeline from Northwest Europe to Smeaheia, and a ship transport solution with a land-based reception terminal on the west coast of Norway – with its own CO2 pipeline to the wells at Smeaheia.
  • The licence is 100 per cent operated by Equinor and covers a large area east of the Troll field off the west coast of Norway.
  • The project builds on the joint venture facility Northern Lights, as well as over 25 years of experience with CO2 storage in the North Sea, and is planned to be operational from 2028.
Read more about Smeaheia

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