BLOG / Carbon Capture and Sequestration: Deja Vu-doo

Premier Jason Kenney doesn’t talk a lot about former-premier Ed Stelmach, probably because Stelmach wasn’t a particularly successful premier. Stelmach tried to raise royalties on energy companies, tried to erase the infrastructure deficit created by Ralph Klein, and tried to take human-induced climate change seriously. 

However, Kenney did mention Stelmach on July 10 when holding a news conference to announce a “milestone” at Shell’s Scotford upgrader near Fort Saskatchewan. In the past five years, Shell has managed to bury a total of five million tonnes of carbon dioxide as part of the upgrader’s carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) facility.

“The facility represents the first application of CCS technology at an oil sands upgrader, and highlights both the energy sector’s dedication to technological innovation, and our government’s commitment to responsible energy development,” said Kenney. “This achievement could not have been accomplished without the significant investment and vision of former premier Ed Stelmach, whose commitment to commercial carbon capture and storage projects led to more than $1.2 billion in government support.”

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide emissions from a large industrial source (such as a heavy oil upgrader or a coal-fired power plant), compressing the gas into a fluid, transporting it by pipeline to a site and injecting it more than a kilometre underground.

Shell’s project is actually an ideal example of how a CCS scheme can work. It is well-funded, moderately scaled, carefully selected, closely monitored and injects the carbon dioxide deep underground into a geological formation unmolested by a drill bit. If you’re going to isolate carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, this, in theory, is how you’re supposed to do it. The problem is even though the cost of CCS technologies have dropped, they are still expensive. And to make a significant dent in global greenhouse gas emissions, we’d need to scale up the size and number of projects astronomically.

In 2008, the Selmach government had such high hopes for CCS that it committed to spend $2 billion over 15 years for an anticipated five experimental projects to refine the technology.

The government predicted that by 2050, the province would be capturing and storing 140 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year — 70 per cent of its 200-million-tonne-a-year goal.

However, company after company pulled out because of the costs involved. In 2014, Alberta’s auditor general, Merwan Saher, concluded that CCS would not solve Alberta’s greenhouse gas problem: “We’ve learned in this period between 2008 and now that carbon capture and storage isn’t going to produce anything like 70 per cent. The best estimates of the moment, I think, are carbon capture and storage might produce 10 percent of what was originally thought.”

But CCS is back — or at least the Kenney government is hoping to bring it back. Mind you, not with the kind of money thrown about by Stelmach. The current government is putting $1.4 million (as opposed to the $1.2 Billion spent on Shell’s project) into a first-of-its-kind feasibility study at the Lehigh Cement plant in Edmonton to see if CCS can help reduce the high levels of carbon dioxide created in the manufacturing of cement.

I am a CCS skeptic.

In 2009, I wrote a research paper for the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto entitled Burying Carbon Dioxide in Underground Saline Aquifers: Political  Folly or Climate Change Fix?

I updated my research in an article for Alberta Views Magazine in 2015 entitled Pipe Dream: The failure of Alberta’s carbon-capture experiment.

Although the costs of CCS have dropped since then, many of the problems apparent a decade ago still exist today.

Politicians tend to use CCS as a prop or diversion when they don’t have a workable plan to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I remain a skeptic.