Brad Wall and the elusive goal of carbon capture and storage
Technology doesn't eliminate greenhouse gases, but buries them deep underground
The hot and cold relationship political leaders have with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is seemingly never ending.
The idea is attractive. Carbon capture traps and buries carbon dioxide from coal and other power plants, so it cannot warm the climate. However, the execution turns out to be tricky.
In the U.K. last month, the government abruptly cancelled a £1-billion ($2 billion) plan to develop its own carbon capture project. The two private companies in the running both abandoned their plans to construct facilities once they knew there wouldn't be any public funding.
Just one month earlier, the U.K. government's own advisers had praised the technology, commenting it would be "very important for reducing emissions across the economy."
- New tone by Canada and Alberta noticed at COP21 climate talks
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It's another curious, yet not uncommon case in the short history of carbon capture. One moment leaders spout about the wonderful fledging technology, the next moment they're pulling the plug.
SaskPower is engaged with interests around the world who are taking a look at it.– Brad Wall, Saskatchewan premier
Alberta has gone through a somewhat similar experience. Under former premier Ed Stelmach, the provincial government promised billions of dollars to construct carbon capture facilities in 2008. The ambitious goal was to reduce projected emissions by 200 megatonnes by 2050, 70 per cent of which would be achieved through carbon capture.
Four private sector projects were proposed. In 2012, the first company dropped out, followed by a second the following year. The remaining two projects have gone ahead. Shell's Quest project opened recently and Enhance Energy's trunk line is expected to open in 2017.
The current NDP government says no further funding is planned for carbon capture and storage.
The attitude in neighbouring Saskatchewan is completely different.
.<a href="https://twitter.com/SaskPowerCCS">@saskpowerCCS</a> presents 1st CCS plant at <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/COP21?src=hash">#COP21</a>. 1k coal plants in world to be built. Cda can lead cleaning them up <a href="https://t.co/BgU2urrlNW">pic.twitter.com/BgU2urrlNW</a>—@PremierBradWall
Wall sees carbon capture as a weapon against the high emissions from coal in Saskatchewan and around the world.
"We have fielded interest specifically from China," he said in an interview with CBC News. "SaskPower is engaged with interests around the world who are taking a look at it."
It's definitely not the silver bullet.–Amin Asadollahi, Pembina Institute
This fall, SaskPower signed a deal with BHP Billiton, the world's largest mining company, to share information and research.
"I think you'll see another announcement with them here in the weeks and months ahead as they continue their interest in the project," said Wall.
B.C. recently decided to change legislation to open the door to carbon capture projects.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have both supported the technology.
Still, the carbon capture technology hasn't blossomed into the mainstream. The capital costs are high and the operating formula can be challenging. A milestone for the industry will be the point when facilities are constructed and operated without any government subsidies.
"They were certainly expensive when they were introduced in Alberta, and the other issue is whether or not they are economically feasible," said former Alberta premier Alison Redford in an interview at the Paris climate change conference. Redford now leads the Canadian Transition Energy Initiative with the Conference Board of Canada.
Generally, environmentalists prefer moving away from fossil fuels and boosting incentives for renewable energy.
"CCS is one tool in the toolbox. It's definitely not the silver bullet," said Amin Asadollahi, with the Pembina Institute. "We need to de-carbonize our economies in order to remain competitive in a world that is becoming increasingly carbon constrained."
As world leaders search for the answer to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Wall suggests that carbon capture can help countries such as India and China, which rely heavily on coal power plants.
"The world's problem needs to be solved by doing something about coal," said Wall. "We have technology that might provide some answers."