Doug Ford opens door to storing CO2 underground to help hit climate change targets

Premier Doug Ford's government is opening the door to allowing carbon capture in Ontario, a way of fighting climate change by trapping and storing CO2 emissions underground.

Ontario government looking to carbon capture, following Alberta, Saskatchewan

From left, Alberta Minister of Energy Marg McCuaig-Boyd, Shell Canada President Lorraine Mitchelmore, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell Ben van Beurden, Marathon Oil Executive Brian Maynard, Shell ER Manager, Stephen Velthuizen, and British High Commissioner to Canada Howard Drake open the valve to the Quest carbon capture and storage facility in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. on Friday November 6, 2015.
In November 2015, officials from Shell and the Alberta government inaugurated the Quest carbon capture and storage facility, about 50 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. The $1.3-billion project was paid for primarily by governments, with Alberta providing $745 million and Ottawa paying $120 million. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Premier Doug Ford's government is opening the door to allowing underground carbon capture in Ontario, a way of fighting climate change by trapping and storing greenhouse gas emissions.

The government brought in legislation to repeal Ontario's previous ban on injecting carbon dioxide underground, and is now proposing rules for carbon capture pilot projects. 

The process involves capturing industrial emissions of CO2, compressing them into liquid, then putting them deep into the earth, in effect cancelling their release into the atmosphere. 

Ontario's Minister of Natural Resources, Graydon Smith, calls carbon capture a big opportunity for the province.

"You look at other jurisdictions, not only in Canada but in the United States and really around the world, and carbon capture is seen as emerging effective technology that can really make a difference," Smith said in an interview. 

Graydon Smith shakes hands with Premier Doug Ford,
Graydon Smith, left, is Ontario's Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

While carbon capture has been touted particularly by the oil and gas sector as a way to neutralize emissions, the price tag can be hefty. Federal and provincial taxpayers have covered a significant chunk of the cost of projects in Canada so far.

Industry groups hoping Ontario will move faster

A range of companies and business lobby groups encouraged the Ford government to lay the groundwork for starting carbon capture in this province. 

"This is one of those tools we need to use from our toolbox to help us get to net zero," said Dennis Darby, president and CEO of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters. 

"I'm hopeful that Ontario will get there, but they've been slow," Darby said in an interview. "They've taken the right first step, but it's a bit of a baby step. Let's see if they go further." 

"Industry always wants to to move very quickly and I understand that," countered Smith. "I think they're very excited by the prospects of this technology as are we. But it's also important to get it right." 

Canada's leaders on carbon capture are Alberta and Saskatchewan. According to federal figures, Alberta captured more than three megatonnes of CO2 in 2021. (For a sense of scale, Alberta's emissions that year totalled 256 megatonnes.) 

Ontario's biggest-emitting candidates for using carbon capture include steel mills, cement makers, gas-fired power plants and refineries. 

WATCH | Iceland is trying to slow climate change by pulling CO2 out of the air:

Trying to slow climate change by pulling CO2 out of the air

2 years ago
Duration 6:13
A large facility in Iceland is trying to slow the effects of climate change by sucking carbon dioxide out of the air, but critics say the expensive technology doesn’t remove enough emissions from the air to make a difference.

Jim Redford, vice-president of energy services for Enbridge Gas, says his company's industrial customers are keenly interested in the opportunity. 

"Carbon capture is a great way for those businesses to continue to use natural gas, but also to significantly reduce their emissions," said Redford in an interview. 

"When you look at the energy future, no one type of energy is going to power Ontario," he said, calling carbon capture "a great way for natural gas to continue to be used, with lower [net] emissions." 

Where to store captured CO2 will be key question

Ontario produced 150.6 megatonnes of CO2 emissions in 2021, the most recent year for which figures are available. The Ford government has pledged to reduce annual emissions to 144 megatonnes by 2030. 

One of the issues facing Ontario will be where to store the captured CO2. The two likeliest candidates: disused oil and gas wells that dot southwestern Ontario and saline aquifers (where porous sedimentary rock is filled with saltwater), stretching from Windsor to Port Dover. 

The liquefied CO2 would almost certainly be shipped from the emission sources to the underground storage by pipeline.

Exterior photo of the SaskPower carbon capture and storage facility at the Boundary Dam Power Station in Estevan, Sask.
This is SaskPower's carbon capture and storage facility at the coal-fired Boundary Dam Power Station in Estevan, Sask. The facility has struggled to meet its yearly target for trapping carbon dioxide. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Enbridge "would have the ability to transport carbon dioxide," Redford said. "We are familiar with the geology of Ontario and the storage of underground gases. So transportation and storage [of CO2] is really a natural extension of the business we have today." 

Keith Brooks, programs director with advocacy group Environmental Defence, says carbon capture may be useful for offsetting emissions by the cement or steel industries. But he opposes its use to offset emissions from the use of fossil fuels. 

"We don't think that carbon capture is a good solution for the fossil fuel industry," Brooks said in an interview. "It doesn't actually move that industry into the net zero economy that we're trying to build, and instead it acts as a lifeline." 

Brooks says allowing carbon capture from such industries amounts to prolonging dependence on fossil fuels while "deluding ourselves that we're actually taking action on climate change."

Gas-fired electricity production to ramp up 

He's particularly concerned that carbon capture will be used to justify Ontario using fossil fuels to generate electricity. 

Gas-fired power plants make up six of Ontario's 25 biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, accounting for 4.5 megatonnes of CO2 annually. The province is preparing to solicit bids to build even more gas-fired generation capacity to meet expected growth in demand for electricity over the coming decade. 

White plumes come from the stacks of steel mills, with Hamilton harbour in the foreground.
Ontario's steel mills are among the potential candidates for participating in carbon capture, once the province allows it at a commercial scale. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

There's also the question of who will pay for carbon capture. 

"If companies want to invest in that as a technology, or as a solution to deal with their emissions, that's up to a company to decide, but it's not something that taxpayers should be footing the bill for," said Brooks. 

The province of Alberta paid more than half the cost of Shell Canada's $1.3-billion Quest carbon capture project northeast of Edmonton, and the federal government kicked in nearly 10 per cent. 

SaskPower, the Crown corporation that produces electricity in Saskatchewan, spent $1.5 billion on a project to capture carbon at a coal-fired generating station, and the facility has struggled to hit its targets.   

"At this point, the Ontario government is not backing (carbon capture) projects or funding these projects," Smith said. "We're just creating a framework for them to take place."

As for a timeline, while pilot projects could start as early as this year, it's hard to see carbon capture going at a commercial scale in the province much before the end of the decade.

After Alberta announced funding for the projects in 2009, it took six years for the Quest carbon capture facility to launch and 11 years before the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line pipeline began operating.


Mike Crawley

Senior reporter

Mike Crawley covers provincial affairs in Ontario for CBC News. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in B.C., filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist, then joined the CBC in 2005. Mike was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.