Saskatchewan made history this week by launching the world's first commercial-scale carbon-capture and storage operation at a coal-fired power plant.

With the $1.4-billion mega project, Saskatchewan has leapfrogged past Alberta to take the lead in the race to capture carbon in Canada.

The facility in Estevan will take a million tonnes of CO2 a year from a SaskPower station, convert it to liquid and bury it deep underground.

SaskPower says the captured emissions are equivalent to taking a quarter of a million cars off the road.

Alberta’s plans sounded even more ambitious six years ago when the government announced it would invest $2 billion in four major carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects to slash emissions.

But since then two projects have been scrapped and new Premier Jim Prentice now seems lukewarm on CCS.

“Carbon capture and storage is a very expensive way to reduce emissions,” he said. “I've articulated concern about this and the expenditure of public dollars on carbon capture and storage projects.”

2 projects going ahead

Prentice says the two remaining projects will move ahead, including Shell Canada's Quest project, which is set to open next year.

It will bury a million tonnes of carbon per year at the company's Scotford oilsands upgrader.

Shell had a hand in getting Saskatchewan's new CCS facility off the ground.

“CCS is happening in Saskatchewan it is happening in Alberta. And it is a combination of tried and tested technologies that are coming together at an industrial scale,” said Shell spokesman David Williams.

"The project is about 70 per cent complete and it is on time and on budget."

David Keith, who teaches at Harvard and heads a Calgary-based company that sets out to capture carbon from the air, says the concept was oversold in Alberta.

“There was a brief period where Alberta politicians were saying, at least publicly, that they were going to be making very deep emission cuts with CCS. And my personal belief is that no one really believed that,” he said.

Nonetheless, Keith says using carbon capture technology still makes sense.

But to make a real difference, he added, Alberta needs to use more renewable energy and burn less coal as well.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the Shell Canada Quest project was projected to bury a million tonnes of carbon per day. It's actually expected to bury that amount per year.
    Oct 03, 2014 9:47 AM MT
With files from the CBC's Erin Collins