Characterization of major overburden leakage pathways above sub-seafloor CO2 storage reservoirs in the North Sea (CHIMNEY)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Geosciences


Industrial emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), including fossil fuel power generation, are recognised as a likely agent of global climate change and acidification of the oceans, but most economies will remain dependent on these technologies for the next few decades. Carbon dioxide Capture and Storage (CCS) has been identified as an important way of reducing the amount of CO2 added to the atmosphere. CCS is seen as making a key contribution to reducing mankind's greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% by 2050 and keeping climate change derived temperature increases below 2 degrees C, as outlined in European Commission policy. In addition, CCS is considered an important way of reducing the cost of mitigation measures around the continued use of fossil fuels. Offshore storage of CO2 in depleted oil and gas reservoirs and saline aquifers is the option of choice for most European nations, and there is currently one operational storage complex (Sleipner, Norway), and several other commercial scale demonstration projects are in late stages of development (e.g. ROAD-Netherlands, Peterhead and White Rose-UK), and expected to be in full operation by 2020.
A key element of CCS offshore is that there is confidence that the risks of any leakage are understood. The location and potential intensity of any possible CO2 leakage at the seafloor are critically dependent on the distribution of fluid (dissolved and gaseous CO2) pathways in the rocks overlying the reservoirs in which the CO2 is stored, and on the ability of these pathways to transmit fluid (termed permeability). Recent studies of the structure of marine sedimentary rocks in the North and Norwegian Seas have revealed that near-vertical structures, which resemble chimneys or pipes, cross-cut the sedimentary sequence. These structures may be pathways for fluid flow. Natural fluids from deeper rock layers have migrated through these structures at some point in geological time. If CO2 leaking from sub-seafloor storage reservoirs reaches the base of these structures, and if their permeability is sufficiently high, they could act as CO2 leakage pathways towards the seafloor and overlying water column. To provide a reliable prediction of potential seafloor seep sites, the degree to which these pathways are continuous and especially their permeability needs to be better understood.
In this project (CHIMNEY) we will collect new data over a chimney structure within the North Sea by using a ship to make new and unusual measurements with sound waves. We will use several different marine sound sources to make images of the chimney, using receivers at the sea surface, and also record the sound arrivals on sea bed instruments known as ocean bottom seismometers. By looking at the sound travel paths through the sub-surface from a range of directions and frequencies we will obtain information about fractures/fluid pathways in the chimney as well as the surrounding rocks. We will calibrate and understand our marine seismic results using laboratory studies of materials (synthetic rocks) that mimic the sub-surface rocks. By understanding the propagation of sound through synthetic rocks with known fluid pathways we can understand the results of the marine experiment. We will also drill into the chimney and collect core samples which we will analyse for core geology and fluid chemistry. A computer model of the sub-surface chimney will be constructed combining the results of the seismic experiment, rock physics, and chemistry. We will work with companies involved in CCS to build realistic computer models of fluid flow that tell us about the potential of leakage from chimney structures generally within the North Sea that are relevant to Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage.

Planned Impact

Impact Summary

a. Who could potentially benefit from the proposed research over different timescales?

Identified user groups for the new knowledge that we will create:

(1) Policymakers and regulators, including Department of Energy & Climate Change and the European Commission
(2) CCS Operators
(3) General public, NGOs and fisheries organisations.

b. How might the potential beneficiaries benefit?

Policymakers and regulators
We will produce 3D models of the overburden and produce realistic leakage scenarios for structures relevant to Carbon Capture and Storage sites in the North Sea. This information is required for compliance with the EU CCS Directive and other international CCS agreements (e.g. London Protocol).

CCS Operators
Operators of CCS systems will benefit from the generation of new methodologies to constrain reservoir overburden CO2 permeability and potential near-surface fluid flow paths for relevant example structures in the North Sea. We will generate new tools to constrain leak risks for future CCS projects, developed through collaboration with stakeholders

General Public, NGOs and fisheries organisations
Acceptance of CCS, especially by local communities, depends on many factors, and confidence in the physical security of stored CO2 is a major issue. In this respect, clear and accessible communications designed for specific audiences are critical in ensuring that accurate information about sub-seabed CO2 storage is available to those who need it.

Specific activities for engagement with these target groups are covered in our Pathways to Impact document.


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Bayrakci Gaye (2018) Azimuthal anisotropy at a natural fluid escape structure in the northern North Sea in EGU General Assembly Conference Abstracts

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Falcon-Suarez I (2021) Core-scale geophysical and hydromechanical analysis of seabed sediments affected by CO2 venting in International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control

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Robinson A (2021) Multiscale characterisation of chimneys/pipes: Fluid escape structures within sedimentary basins in International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control

Description The project has demonstrated how specialized multi-frequency seismic surveys can provide significant insight into the permeability of fractured rocks. We have been able to measure how seismic energy is differentially attenuated as it travels in different directions through the same rock. This effect is markedly different at higher frequencies compared to lower frequencies. We have been able to develop models, calibrated with laboratory data, which have explained this effect and allowed inferences about permeability and fracture properties to be made. This is the first time that such information has been obtained from seismic analysis. Analysis of the laboratory data has provided new insights into how pore-scale fluid distributions impact the seismic properties of the rocks.
Exploitation Route The methods developed in this project will be of use in areas where understanding sub-surface flow and fracture properties are important. I am particularly keen to see the methods applied in the field of managing underground CO2 storage projects, but they have application to geothermal and other areas. Insights into the permeability structures with the gas chimney will generate wide interest from an academic point of view, but will also be of relevance to projects where these features pose a significant hazard.
Sectors Energy,Environment