Climate change and safe burial of carbon dioxide: the world’s biggest miner to the fore

Dr Bryan Lovell, Emeritus Senior Researcher in Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge reflects on how Australian resource company BHP came to play a leading role in the development of technology critical to a low carbon future

CO2CRC's Otway International Test Centre enables field scale research and development of CCUS and H2 storage technologies for commercial deployment
CO2CRC's Otway International Test Centre enables field scale research and development of CCUS and H2 storage technologies for commercial deployment - Image copyright © CO2CRC

All sane opinion now favours a rapid but safe transition to a low-carbon economy.  The role of engineers in harnessing power from atom, Sun, wave, and wind is so obvious it needs no promotion here. The role of the engineer in the essential low-carbon technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is less well known, and in some sceptical quarters remains contentious.

In those same sceptical quarters, Australian miners are still regarded as climate-change villains, even though they have played a significant role in making Australia a leader in understanding CCS. Melbourne-based BHP, the world’s biggest miner, has led in promotion of research on CCS. That research has concentrated on the crucial issue of safe storage of carbon dioxide in subsurface reservoirs. Do we have to use only relatively rare sealed reservoirs? Or can we also store carbon dioxide safely in relatively abundant open reservoirs?

I begin my story in the 1990s, when the Director of the British Geological Survey (BGS) was Peter Cook, an Australian.  Under Cook’s leadership, pioneering experimental work was done on storage of carbon dioxide in porous and permeable rocks. I was on an advisory board for BGS at the time, and was shown the innovative apparatus being used for these tests.  I went excitedly to my colleagues in the oil industry to tell them of the potential of CCS to control emissions from the use of their products.  A few of those colleagues were interested: they began to influence others.

Schematic diagram of the Otway International Test Centre - © CO2CRC

In 2003, the Petroleum Group of the Geological Society of London convened a three-day international meeting on “Coping with Climate Change”. The meeting included an historic event: a debate between BP Vice President Greg Coleman and ExxonMobil Vice President Frank Sprow (Lovell, 2010). Another feature of the meeting was the interest in CCS. One view from a leading oil explorer was: “If our customers really think carbon is the problem, we can bury the stuff once they’ve had the use of it.” That offer was rejected by those environmentalists who mistrust any climate initiative coming from the fossil-fuel industries.

It was against this background that I later attended a seminar at the University of Cambridge given by my colleague Jerome Neufeld.  He showed how some of the supercritical carbon dioxide injected into a subsurface reservoir went into solution with the ambient brine filling the pore spaces. That denser solution sank into safe long-term storage in the lower part of the reservoir.  Received wisdom on storage was that the only safe process is injection into the relatively rare sealed reservoirs beloved of petroleum engineers and geologists. The solution-process described by Neufeld raised a big question: can we also use relatively abundant open reservoirs for CCS?

In Australia some organisations began to seek an answer to that question. Field trials were proposed and funded by a consortium of coal producers. As well as trapping in solution, unconventional mechanisms to be investigated in the field were capillary trapping in the pore space in the reservoir, and trapping by the formation of new minerals.

By 2013 Neufeld and I were involved as consultants in the proposed Australian field trials.  Also in 2013, Andrew Mackenzie became CEO of the world’s biggest mining company, BHP Billiton (now BHP). BHP was a major sponsor of this innovative research. I contacted Mackenzie, a former colleague in BP, to discuss the field trials. As a result of that and later discussions with Mackenzie and his colleagues, from 2013 to 2020 I was adviser to BHP on CCS and climate change

A most thorough field trial of unconventional trapping, funded by BHP and others, is now underway at the Otway Project field research centre in Victoria, Australia (Cook, 2014). One of the goals of the current Otway Stage 4 Project is:

 “Obtain and utilise a unique dataset to comprehensively quantify the role of fine-scale geological heterogeneity and secondary trapping for limiting injected CO2 mobility, validate an advanced characterisation and modelling workflow for reliable prediction of CO2 storage, and use this knowledge to develop solutions for storage optimisation.” (Watson, 2023).

In the thick of the current trials of unconventional storage at Otway is GeoCquest, a research group drawn from the universities of Cambridge, Melbourne and Stanford.  GeoCquest is funded by BHP, and was established by the company as one of several CCS projects. The research group is chaired by CCS-pioneer Peter Cook. Cook returned to his homeland at the end of his term as director of BGS and was instrumental in establishing the initial Otway Project.

The binary nature of the debate on climate change continued, with elements on both sides ignoring the primacy of using a full range of technologies in making a safe transition to a low-carbon economy

What was happening in BHP that led to this funding of fundamental research, by GeoCquest in Australia, at Boundary Dam in Canada, and elsewhere?  From 2013 onwards, Mackenzie and his colleagues enhanced BHP’s policy on climate change. The company would invest in low-carbon technologies, not least carbon capture and storage.  This policy was made public in 2014, and formed the basis of an innovative document produced in September 2015, some weeks before the successful Paris climate summit later that year. 

That 2015 document analysed the portfolio of BHP from the perspective of restricting emissions to limit global warming to 2° C, thus anticipating a target that was soon to be agreed in Paris. BHP would do its fair share in meeting that target, both in its own operations and in helping its customers to control emissions resulting from the use of BHP’s products. An example would be international and integrated studies of the use of CCS in the steel industry in China. Other BHP initiatives included major engagement in the existing Boundary Dam CCS project in Canada, and forming an international CCS research group on storage. These various projects were expertly implemented by Graham Winkelman (BHP Practice Lead Climate Change).

The September 2015 public commitment by BHP was timely. But at the Paris meeting there was still animosity directed at BHP’s Vice-President, Environment and Climate Change, Fiona Wild. Wild was pilloried and threatened in public by a particularly ignorant wing of the environmental movement. Did those posting such unpleasant notices on the streets of Paris have any idea what Wild had achieved in guiding climate policy in their target companies, first in BP and now in BHP? The binary nature of the debate on climate change continued, with elements on both sides ignoring the primacy of using a full range of technologies in making a safe transition to a low-carbon economy.

The Otway International Test centre is based in in South-West Victoria, Australia - © CO2CRC’

Since Paris, the involvement of the global financial community in facilitating that transition has led to more widespread acceptance by investors of the need to consider climate change. Yet most fossil-fuel companies are still producing much more than their fair share of the remaining global carbon budget. The state-controlled companies, who own and produce most of the world’s fossil fuels, are prominent amongst those who need to raise their game on unabated emissions.

I close on a personal note. For me the opportunity to work with BHP on climate change and CCS was a chance to put words into action. CCS is featured in a much-quoted article in Science (Pacala and Socolow, 2004). Pacala and Socolow quantify in their “Princeton Wedges” the reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide through to mid-century required to hold atmospheric concentrations to c. 500 ppm. In Lovell (2010) I wrote of the Princeton Wedges: “Companies such as BHP Billiton [BHP] that mine minerals and coal as well as producing oil and gas could put a tick in just about every box were they considering a contribution.” I had no inkling in 2010, when I singled out BHP in this fashion, that three years later I would become directly involved with that very company, in pursuit of that very contribution.


Cook, P.J. (editor), 2014. Geologically Storing Carbon: Learning from the Otway Project Experience, published by Wiley. 

Lovell, B., 2010. Challenged by Carbon: The Oil Industry and Climate Change, Cambridge University Press.

Lovell, B., 2020. An adviser’s perspective on BHP, climate change and CCS 2013-2020. With agreement from BHP, in 2024 this document was placed on open file in the archives of the Geological Society of London.

Pacala, S. and Socolow, R., 2004. Stabilization wedges: solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologies. Science 305, 968-972.

Watson, M., 2023. CO2CRC Otway Project. Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum June 13–14, 2023, Warsaw, Poland.