Hot air fuels carbon-capture pact
By Graham Thomson
Politicians may use Thursday's announcement as a conference prop
Carbon dioxide might be an invisible gas, but the Alberta government is doing its best to use it as a political smokescreen.
Look no further than Thursday's announcement of $865 million in taxpayers' money for Alberta's first major pilot project for carbon capture and storage (CCS).
At first glance it seems impressive --major government funding;eager private partners;a potential solution to climate change through reductions of greenhouse gas emissions; an actual physical project after a year of promises.
Except look closer and you realize we are no closer today to the pilot project than we were yesterday.
Thursday's announcement was a photo op gathering together Alberta Energy Minister Mel Knight, Natural Resources Canada minister Lisa Raitt and Shell Canada vice-president Graham Boje.
With the news cameras clicking away, they put pen to paper--not to write a cheque but to sign a "letter of intent."
This was not about putting shovels in the ground to start construction. This was about putting lawyers in the room to start negotiations. And there is no guarantee the negotiations between the two levels of government and Quest, the private consortium headed by Shell, will sequester an ounce of carbon dioxide underground.
After a year of backroom talks and negotiations between government and private companies, we are now looking at another "few years" of backroom talks and negotiations. Shell and its partners will not move ahead on the pilot project until they have government funding, regulatory approval and a properly engineered plan. "Construction will only begin after all of these aspects have been addressed successfully, with the aim to start operations in 2015," according to a Quest news release.
So, why did they hold a news conference now?
Well, because Thursday was the last day Knight and Raitt would be in Canada before jetting off to England for the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, a meeting of government ministers from around the world promoting co-operation on CCS. Thursday's signing ceremony gives the ministers political cover. They can show up in London waving the letter of intent in front of anyone who's been reading headlines about Alberta's "dirty oil" and Greenpeace protesters chaining themselves to oilsands equipment.
"I think that we're all looking forward now to going to London and being able to share with our counterparts from around the world this great news about what's happening here in Alberta," said Knight.
"This is not just discussion, this is not just policy proposals; this, ladies and gentlemen, is action, action that will have immediate results locally as it markedly reduces greenhouse gas emissions."
Except that it won't have immediate results. We won't see results for another five years--if the project goes ahead.
The plan is to capture "up to" 1.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from the Scotford upgrader near Edmonton (the same plant Greenpeace protesters occupied last week), compress the carbon dioxide into a liquid, transport it by pipeline to a yet-to-be determined site and inject it more than two kilometres underground into a saline aquifer, a sponge-shaped rock formation filled with salt water.
On paper, the pilot project is actually an ideal carbon capture and sequestration model. It will be well-funded, moderately scaled, carefully selected, closely monitored and will inject the carbon dioxide deep underground into a geological formation unmolested by a drill bit. If you're going to isolate carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, this, in theory, is how you're supposed to do it.
However, Shell and its project partners reserve the right to use the captured carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery. That means injecting the liquid gas into old oilfields to force out more oil that is then refined and burned-- producing more emissions of carbon dioxide. Using CCS to recover more oil might make sense economically but calling enhanced oil recovery "carbon sequestration" in the context of reducing global emissions is, environmentally speaking, a fib.
Then there's the issue of trying to store millions of tonnes of highly pressurized carbon dioxide in old oilfields that are punctured by old oil wells. It's called the pincushion effect and could create leaks of carbon dioxide into groundwater or into the atmosphere. The former could leach elements such as arsenic into underground sources of drinking water. The latter could be a health threat in large enough quantities, but even small amounts over time could undo any climate change good done by sequestration in the first place.
Scientists studying carbon sequestration have high hopes for its safety and effectiveness but cannot, at this point, give us any long-range assurance, especially if we go large scale.
Alberta says it will use carbon sequestration to bury 140 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year by 2050.The federal government wants to bury 600 million tonnes annually by the same year.
Politicians are making promises for the technology that scientists and the energy companies don't know they can keep.
So far, in Alberta, carbon capture and storage has managed to generate plenty of political hot air--if only there was some way to sequester that.
© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal
Graham Thomson is the author of Burying Carbon Dioxide in Underground Saline Aquifers: Political Folly or Climate Change Fix?. See Climate action plan 'sheer folly'Posted by Arthur Caldicott on 13 Oct 2009