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Lock it down

Jack Middleton: Award-winning projects show real potential in carbon capture.

What if there was a way to capture, store, and use carbon dioxide (CO2) from industrial projects rather than emitting it? It’s not science fiction, but an entire green industry on the verge of transforming the natural gas and oil sector.

There are proven examples like Quest and the Weyburn CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) project that have been operating successfully for years. Canada is a leader in this space, backed by government at all levels and it deserves a chance to reach its full potential.

What is Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS)?

At a very basic level, CCUS is the removal of CO2 from industrial projects or the atmosphere, and either storing it, using it to extract more oil from mature reservoirs, or using it to make something new – and at the same time, preventing the CO2 from entering the atmosphere where it contributes to climate change.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is a global authority on energy data and analysis. They model various scenarios for emissions and production and their Executive Director, Dr. Fatih Birol, recently stated that “when we consider the scale of the energy and climate challenge, the critical importance of carbon capture is inescapable.” He also made the point that he prefers “that oil is produced by countries … like Canada (which) want to reduce the emissions of oil and gas.”

To that point, lowering the GHGs of the energy we use is vital to ensuring Canada meets its climate goals. To do that we need innovative technologies, often hard to scale up, and requiring support from governments and venture capital.

You may have heard of some of these technologies through the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE that utilize CO2 in the creation of concrete with Dartmouth, Nova Scotia’s own Carbon Cure taking home the top prize. They were also named one of the world’s top companies committed to acting on climate in the 2022 Global Cleantech 100. Other XPRIZE competitors included using CO2 to make vodka, toothpaste, and sunglasses.

There are also large-scale successful projects in operation right now. For example, the Weyburn CCS project in Saskatchewan has safely stored more than 36 million tonnes of CO2 in the last 20 years, the equivalent of taking more than 7.8 million cars off the road.

Shell’s Quest CCUS project in Alberta has been operating since 2015 and captures and stores about one-third of the CO2 emissions from Shell’s Scotford refinery just outside Edmonton. Over the past seven year, the project has captured more than five million tonnes of carbon dioxide since it began operations in late 2015.

Who supports CCUS?

Many international organizations see CCUS as a part of any real global climate plan. When speaking about a path to global net-zero goals, Hoesung Lee, Chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said, “There is enormous value in carbon capture and storage.” Even Greenpeace in the United States sees the value of CCUS in an industrial context, saying, “We don’t have a lot of issues with capturing emissions from industrial sources.”

The federal government has also focused on funding CCUS. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland explained it in 2021 as “a significant investment in our green transition. There is a big investment in our Net Zero Accelerator: $5 billion in this budget, and we invested $3 billion in December, so that’s $8 billion to help Canadian companies invest in their own green transformation, and there are some powerful tax incentives in the budget to help our green technology companies, to help the development of carbon capture storage and utilization, to help development of green hydrogen in Canada. So, I would say all of those are big investments in long-term productivity growth.”

In 2021 the B.C. Government has also made investments in CCUS that support Indigenous reconciliation. “By working together in partnership with the Upper Nicola First Nation, we are funding new, innovative technology to advance reconciliation and build a low-carbon future for B.C.,” said George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

What’s the problem?

In January, a number of academics released a letter criticizing government support for CCUS. In their mind, “Carbon capture for the oil and gas sector is not a climate solution.”

Their main criticism is that CCUS technology is unproven and prohibitively expensive compared to renewables. They also point to failures of some CCUS projects.

This is disingenuous. As shown above, there are many projects in operation that have showed CCUS can be successful at scale. It also shows why these technologies need further support to enable breakthroughs and greater efficiency. The people working in this field are working in green jobs reducing global emissions. They deserve to be supported in the creation of their industry.

These criticisms also ignore a simple truth of renewables. Unless you are geographically nearby, it’s extraordinarily difficult to export the energy generated from wind, or solar energy. You can export natural gas, oil, and hydrogen, and create well-paying jobs. If we can decarbonize these energy sources, we can continue to deliver them to markets that really need them. For example, propane from the AltaGas Ridley Island Propane Export Terminal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Fortis Tilbury LNG Plant are providing our resources to Asia. Further growth in our LNG exports to Asia are providing cleaner energy than the coal they import from abroad.

British Columbia already produces some of the lowest emission natural gas on the planet and Canadian oil producers have been driving down emissions intensity for years. CCUS offers a potential step-change in realizing significant emission reductions.

Wrapping Up

CCUS is not a silver bullet for all projects, but it is a huge opportunity to decarbonize the Canadian natural gas and oil industry while creating good-paying jobs and reducing emissions globally. There are major projects demonstrating its effectiveness in operation right now.

While there are challenges ahead, these are not reasons to abandon CCUS. They are reasons to push forward, to accelerate the deployment of this technology. It will allow us to provide energy to countries that desperately need it.

Meeting Canada’s climate commitments warrants significant investments and attention in all areas that have the potential to contribute, even if it is difficult to do so. Canada is well equipped to lead, and we have the knowhow to do it.

Jack Middleton is an Advisor for Citizen Engagement and Outreach in B.C. with CAPP.