Opinion | Carbon capture and storage: Hasn't Alberta learned its lesson?

Alberta politicians seem to be looking once again to CCS as a magic bullet in the war against human-made climate change.

Politicians tend to use CCS as a distraction when they don't have a workable plan, says Graham Thomson

Steve MacDonald of Emissions Reduction Alberta speaks at a news conference Thursday announcing Lehigh Cement's feasibility study into carbon capture and storage technology. (Sarah Xenos/Radio-Canada)

Stop me if you've heard this one.

An Alberta cabinet minister walks into a news conference and praises the merits of carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a way to significantly reduce the province's emissions of greenhouse gases.

Not much of a joke, I know.

It wasn't funny when, on Oct. 8, 2009, Alberta Energy Minister Mel Knight declared of CCS, "This, ladies and gentlemen, is action, action that will have immediate results locally as it markedly reduces greenhouse gas emissions."

And it wasn't funny when this week Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon declared, "CCS is a technology that can capture and store up to 90 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions produced from using fossil fuels and electricity in industrial processes."

It's not funny because Alberta politicians seem to be looking once again to CCS as a magic bullet in the war against human-made climate change.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide emissions from a large industrial source (such as a coal-fired power plant or, in the case of this week's news conference, a cement plant), compressing the gas into a fluid, transporting it by pipeline to a site and injecting it more than a kilometre underground.

Lehigh Cement has launched a feasibility study to see if carbon capture and storage can help reduce the high levels of carbon dioxide created in the manufacturing of cement. (Sarah Xenos/Radio-Canada)

What's encouraging about this week's news is that a private company, Lehigh Cement, has launched a first-of-its-kind feasibility study to see if CCS can help reduce the high levels of carbon dioxide created in the manufacturing of cement.

The study will cost $3 million, with $1.4 million of that coming from a government-funded agency, Emissions Reduction Alberta.

Having business work with scientists and engineers to find solutions to global warming is a good idea. Getting politicians involved is not.

In 2008, the Alberta 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.

Alberta hoped not only to get credit for reducing its emissions locally, but also to receive praise for refining the technology that would help other countries reduce their emissions. Take that, Greenpeace.

High cost 

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 per cent of what was originally thought."

Saskatchewan has had its own challenges with CCS. SaskPower's $1.6-billion project at the coal-fired Boundary 3 power plant near Estevan has chronically missed its targets.

Last year, SaskPower announced it would not be expanding CCS technology to two other power plants.

Officials with the Regina-based International CCS Knowledge Centre — affiliated with Saskatchewan's Boundary 3 project and a partner in Edmonton's Lehigh Cement experiment — said Boundary 3's performance has improved. It has now captured three million tonnes of CO2 since 2014.

Today, Alberta has one functioning CCS operation — Shell's Quest project at the Scotford Upgrader northeast of Edmonton. It has managed to sequester one-million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year for the past four years. The cost to the provincial government: a whopping $1.24 billion.

You could argue it is a technological success. But not exactly a bang-for-your-buck success. Remember, the Alberta government was hoping CCS would eventually account for 140 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.

a large industrial facility with many pipes is pictured
Shell Canada's Quest carbon capture and storage project at the Scotford Upgrader north of Edmonton has managed to sequester one-million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year for the past four years. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Every Alberta premier since Ed Stelmach has, figuratively speaking, run screaming from the room whenever CCS was mentioned.

In 2011, Alison Redford said the province should find "better initiatives and opportunities" to reduce emissions than expensive gambles with CCS.

In 2014, Jim Prentice dismissed it as a "science experiment."

In 2015, Rachel Notley said she would continue funding the Quest project (and the still yet-to-be completed Alberta Carbon Trunk Line) only because the government was trapped in contracts.

Proponents of CCS argue the per-tonne costs to capture CO2 are dropping as the technology is improved. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has supported CCS as one tool to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem is politicians who look to unproven technology in general and CCS in particular as simple solutions to a massively complex problem.

Even suggesting CCS can reduce emissions from an industrial smokestack by 90 per cent is misleading. You need to burn fuel to create the energy to capture that 90 per cent. And that process in itself creates emissions.

"All sorts of scenarios have been developed under the assumption that carbon capture actually reduces substantial amounts of carbon," said Mark. Z. Jacobson, an environmental engineering professor at Stanford University, who wrote a report on CCS published in the October edition of Energy & Environmental Science.

"However, this research finds that it reduces only a small fraction of carbon emissions, and it usually increases air pollution."

Politicians and governments tend to use CCS as a distraction when they don't have a workable plan to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It might be an effective strategy politically — but environmentally, it's a joke.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.  


Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.