By Graham Thomson from Calgary Herald
Yet another of Alberta’s proposed carbon capture and storage (CCS) experiments has died and the provincial government doesn’t know whether to mourn or perform a little dance on the grave.
Officially, the government remains committed to the carbon capture and storage experiments as a way to reduce Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions. But unofficially, Premier Alison Redford has displayed no great confidence in the experiments’ ability to deliver as promised.
Her skepticism is understandable. Carbon capture and storage is a troubled, and unproven, experiment that might yield limited results one day by pumping a few million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from Alberta’s industrial plants underground. We have no idea if the government will be able to reach its goal of capturing 140 million tonnes a year by 2050.
Redford let it slip to Alberta journalists in 2011 that she’d prefer to see “better initiatives and opportunities” than CCS to reduce CO2 emissions, although she still hasn’t said what those “better initiatives” would be.
Doubts about CCS surfaced again on Monday with news that the proposed $285-million Swan Hills Synfuels project to turn coal into natural gas — and pump carbon dioxide underground — was being scrapped. The project simply didn’t make economic sense.
That leaves Redford in a bit of a quandary. She seems to be a CCS skeptic, but she has no problem extolling Alberta’s commitment to CCS projects as a way to convince American politicians that her government takes climate change seriously.
She talked about CCS again this past weekend while in Washington, D.C. However, in a move that was positively Orwellian, at the same time she was touting Alberta’s carbon capture and storage experiments, her government was putting the final touches on a news release announcing the death of one of those experiments.
It’s a far cry from the heady days of 2008, when then-premier Ed Stelmach announced his government was committing $2 billion for CCS.
Back then, the Alberta government foresaw a world where countries, notably the U.S., would legislate a reduction on emissions. Carbon capture and sequestration seemed to be the solution, and by announcing $2 billion worth of experiments, Alberta hoped to be first out of the blocks and a world leader in the technology.
That’s not how things turned out. The world economy stalled in 2008, and politicians suddenly lacked the money and political will for such green initiatives, and a concerted public relations effort by energy companies and climate change deniers helped pushed the issue off the public stage.
Now it’s back in the limelight thanks to President Barack Obama’s renewed vow to make climate change a priority. But the curtain has yet to be raised on any of Alberta’s CCS experiments that are still years from reality.
Not that there are many experiments left. The government has just two proposed CCS experiments on the drawing board: the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line and a plan to strip carbon dioxide from Shell’s Scotford oilsands upgrader near Fort Saskatchewan. The total amount of money committed has dropped to $1.3 billion.
The most important domino to fall came last April, when TransAlta announced it was scrapping plans for Project Pioneer, which would have captured carbon dioxide from its Keephills 3 coal-fired plant west of Edmonton.
This was to have been the Holy Grail for the CCS industry: finding a way to efficiently and cost-effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions from a coal-fired plant. This is what the industry means when it talks about “clean coal,” but nobody has been able to do it on an industrial scale. CCS projects are not just experimental, they’re expensive.
They won’t make sense economically unless governments introduce a carbon tax. Alberta has a nominal tax of $15 per tonne on a small fraction of emissions from large companies.
What is needed, say experts, is a tax of about $100 on every tonne of carbon dioxide released to force companies to reduce their emissions drastically.
When reporters asked this week if she’ll raise the tax on carbon, Redford was noncommittal, saying, “It’s far too early to say.”
The political reality is Alberta won’t move to a higher carbon tax unless Ottawa does, and Ottawa won’t unless Washington does. That might be more of a possibility now that Obama has rediscovered the importance of dealing with human-induced climate change.
A major problem, though, is that CCS might not work as advertised, even if it is spurred on with a massive carbon tax. Capturing carbon dioxide from industrial smokestacks, compressing it into a fluid, shipping it to a storage site and then pumping it deep underground forever is difficult, expensive and an environmental question mark.
Technically, it is feasible for small-to-moderate projects, but unproven at the industrial size needed to put a significant dent in our emissions of greenhouse gases.
That might be why Redford, a believer in the science of climate change, is a CCS skeptic and why she’s hoping somebody comes up with “better initiatives and opportunities” to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
Graham Thomson is an Edmonton Journal columnist.
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