The UAE is among the most vocal advocates of the practice of burying greenhouse gas emissions underground, hosting UN talks today in the capital. But it has trouble selling the idea within its borders.
Ambitions for carbon capture on standby
Abu Dhabi hopes to pioneer the practice of burying the world's industrial emissions underground but is having trouble proceeding to the next stage.
UN talks start today in the capital on the technology known as carbon capture, and the emirate is showcasing its own plans, from complex models by its engineers to a 500km pipeline network scheduled to begin transporting carbon dioxide in 2013.
But even as Abu Dhabi captures the international spotlight, its own projects have stalled.
"The engineering has proved a lot simpler than the regulatory framework," said Georgine Roodenrys, the chief executive of the Clean Energy Business Council, a business group based in Abu Dhabi.
"You've got engineers powering ahead, but it's been a lot harder to come up with a policy framework that hasn't been confused by global events and the economic downturn and domestic pressures."
Its plan is to capture industrial sites' greenhouse gas emissions, which many scientists agree contribute to climate change, then pipe the carbon dioxide through the network to underground reservoirs.
There, the gases could help to push oil out of reticent fields or simply remain underground, helping the emirate to cut down on a per-capita environmental footprint that is the world's fourth-biggest.
But those plans, which would have made the UAE the first nation in the Gulf to use carbon capture technology, have hovered in limbo between two government entities.
Officials from Masdar, the clean energy company owned by Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, have said their plans are ready.
But Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the state producer, has yet to agree on the date when its oilfields would be ready for injection or a price at which to buy the carbon dioxide gas from Masdar.
"They are trying to come to some solution. What they are trying to come up with is a commercial model that works," Paul Crooks, the manager of the pipeline project at Masdar's carbon unit, said in May. "There's no point in producing [carbon dioxide] with nobody to use it."
In January, BP, a partner with Masdar on a planned US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) hydrogen-powered plant that was to feed carbon dioxide into the network starting in 2014, pulled its staff from the project, saying it was waiting for the Abu Dhabi Government's decision on carbon dioxide pricing among other things.
Four months later, Mubadala wrote in a bond prospectus seen by Reuters that "until Masdar can obtain certainty, both in relation to the pricing for and the scheduling of, the offtake of the CO2, further development of this project has been put on hold".
Abu Dhabi is not alone in the delays. One fifth of the world's carbon capture and storage projects were delayed or cancelled last year, according to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute.
"[Carbon capture] has had difficulties all around the world and that's simply because it has no precedent," Ms Roodenrys said. "When you're trying be at the leading edge, you'll have a lot of failure before you have success."
One coup for carbon capture proponents was the decision at the UN's climate change talks in December to allow countries to earn credits, which could then be sold, for the carbon they prevent from being released into the atmosphere. That put carbon capture in league with planting forests, producing solar power and other practices that developing nations can use to earn such carbon credits.
The discussions today in the capital centre on the specifics of earning such credits, from how to measure the volume of carbon to whom to hold liable in case potentially dangerous gases escape from underground.
The UAE is proposing that nations pay into an international fund to be used in the case of a disaster, such as a large accidental release of carbon dioxide. The fund, which would mirror other international funds for accidents in mining or the oil industry, would rely on a tax on the carbon credits.