Japan to Bury Carbon Dioxide in Order to Curb Emissions

Japan hopes to slash greenhouse gas emissions and fight global warming with a revolutionary plan to pump carbon dioxide into underground storage reservoirs instead of releasing it into the atmosphere, an official said Monday.

The proposal aims to bury 200 million tons of carbon dioxide a year by 2020, cutting the country's emissions by one-sixth, said Masahiro Nishio, an official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Introduced last month, the plan is still under study.

Underground storage of carbon dioxide underlines the new urgency felt by industrialized countries trying to rein in the effects of global warming. By capturing carbon dioxide from factory emissions and pressurizing it into liquid form, scientists can inject it into underground aquifers, gas fields or gaps between rock strata, safely keeping it out of the air.

Japan has no commercial underground carbon dioxide storage operations, Nishio said. But the proposed project would dwarf similar operations under way in Norway, Canada and Algeria, each of which pump about 1 million tons a year.

Tackling carbon dioxide is a top priority for Japan, the world's second-largest economy. The country expels 1.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, making it one of the world's top offenders, despite being a key driver behind the Kyoto Protocol — an international agreement to cut global output of carbon dioxide by 2012.

Underground storage could begin as early as 2010, but there are still many hurdles to overcome, Masahiro said.

Capturing carbon dioxide and injecting it underground is prohibitively expensive, costing up to $52 a ton, Nishio said. Under the new initiative, the ministry aims to halve that cost by 2020 under.

"It's still very expensive, so we have much to study in development," Nishio said.

Safety concerns must also be addressed, to ensure that earthquakes or rock fissures do not allow a sudden release of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that when stored properly, 99 percent of the carbon dioxide will likely remain stable for up to 1,000 years.

Long-term plans call for capturing emissions from steel mills, power plants and chemical factories. But the beginning stages will target natural gas fields, where large amounts of carbon dioxide are a byproduct of gas extraction, Nishio said.