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A pioneering program to dump vast quantities of carbon dioxide - the single most significant greenhouse gas - into porous sandstone rocks deep beneath the North Sea is being developed by Norway.

Its progress will be monitored with great interest throughout the industrialized world, which has recently agreed to legally binding targets and timetables on cutting carbon dioxide emissions.The program is of special interest to the insurance industry, whose worldwide weather-related disaster losses associated with climate change reached $57 billion for the first half of the present decade compared to $17 billion for the previous 10 years.

The project also offers lucrative potential business opportunities for the ocean industries as well as energy, trade, transport, chemicals and engineering, among others.

Carbon dioxide is a waste product from many forms of energy generation, in this case obtained through separation from natural gas. Statoil, the Norwegian state oil and gas company, hopes to bury a million tons of it a year in liquefied form, saving an annual $56 million in carbon taxes which it would otherwise have to pay for atmospheric emissions. The compressed fluid will be pumped into the empty rock of depleted offshore oil and gas fields.

British Geological Survey specialists estimate the capacity of such rock formations beneath the North Sea is sufficient for the indefinite storage of the combined annual carbon dioxide emission of all of Northern Europe's power stations at their present rate for perhaps 800 years.

The Norwegian project is a radical departure in humankind's attempt to slow the impact of climate change. If successful, it could be adopted by many countries in the coming decades, which scientists believe will prove a particularly dangerous period. They expect to see a continuing rapid increase in carbon dioxide emissions, combined with a leveling off or even decline in sulfate aerosols, intensifying the pace of change.

The first attempt to moderate the trend by safely trapping substantial quantities of carbon dioxide beneath the seafloor is to take place at Norway's Sleipner West production field in the center of the North Sea. The natural gas yield of the field contains an unusually high 10 percent carbon dioxide. The waste will be removed in an absorption process at the production platform, compressed and pumped into the rocks a half-mile down.

The liquid waste will displace the hydrocarbon residues in the rock, cutting the cost of their recovery. It is expected also to react chemically with the rock and remain safely stored in the seabed for at least hundreds of thousands of years.

This operation will save Norway 3 percent of its annual emissions.

Elsewhere, future savings may be achieved by the removal of carbon dioxide from the exhaust fumes of power plants.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)