Like a reckless gambler, the federal government’s plan to deal with our emissions of climate-altering carbon dioxide is to put most of our money on an unproven, risky and expensive long shot called “carbon capture and sequestration,” CCS for short. In a pair of October announcements, the Alberta and federal governments committed $1.6 billion to use this untested technology to reduce carbon emissions from an Alberta coal plant and a Shell Oil tar sands upgrader. Billions more are promised.
Canada puts 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. That has to stop. This generation, you and me, must determine what methods and technologies offer permanent CO2 reduction at the scale we need, and do so quickly, safely and at the lowest cost. And we must act on that knowledge as if the future of children’s lives depend it because we are shaping the world they will inherit.
We cannot rely on political and business leaders to make these decisions on their own, as will become evident. What other ways could we reduce our CO2emissions with $1.6 billion of public money – $200 per Canadian family of four? Replace 3.2 million older inefficient refrigerators with high-efficiency ones, thus reducing carbon emissions by 2-3 million tonnes annually. The two proposed Alberta carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects promise emission reductions of 2.1 million tonnes in total, if they work as touted. Keep in mind there are no large-scale CCS projects anywhere in the world.
With this level of investment, replacing refrigerators or windows or lights or a dozen other energy efficiency improvements can produce major emission reductions quickly, safely and guaranteed. Buildings use at least 40 per cent of all energy consumed in Canada and retrofits could reduce that energy use to 10 per cent or even less, experts have repeatedly pointed out.
What about alternative energy generation from wind, solar or geothermal? That $1.6 billion could buy and install 1000 one-mega-watt wind turbines – enough carbon-free electricity for 500,000 homes. How many solar panels does $1.6 billion buy and how much CO2 reduction?
These questions need to be part of a public discussion about the ways Canada can reduce its carbon emissions. Right now the Alberta and federal government are only talking to the fossil fuel industry, and “clean coal” CCS is what we get. “There’s been no announcements for efficiency or renewable energy programs,” says Amy Taylor, Director of Alberta Energy Solutions, at the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based environmental organization with a focus on sustainable energy. “We need a balance in energy generation and emission reductions. What if CCS doesn’t work?”
Despite misgivings, Pembina supports the development of CCS in the hopes the technology can reduce emissions on existing coal plants. “The only way to reduce their emissions is with CCS or shutting them down,” she says. Any new coal-fired power plants like the Keephills 3 being built west of Edmonton must have CCS, she says. Not that Alberta actually needs any new coal power plants. Alternative energy generation using wind, solar, or geothermal, combined with energy efficiency, would easily meet Alberta’s future energy needs, Pembina has documented.
“What if you could have your cake and eat it, too?” said Stephen Snyder, president and CEO of TransAlta Corp, an Alberta energy utility building the Keephills 3. Snyder was responding to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s announcement of $778-million to develop CCS technology to capture CO2 emissions from the plant’s smokestack, compress them and store them underground forever.
“What CCS is all about is we get to keep burning coal,” says Graham Thompson, a journalist with the Edmonton Journal and author of a new report on CCS. Canada seems determined to continue to expand fossil fuel energy use and tar sands production since it is relying on CCS to reduce emissions 70 per cent by 2050. “They are making those numbers up….and talk as if this is a proven technology on a large scale,” Thompson said in an interview. “The allure of CCS as a political fix threatens to divert resources from energy efficiency and delay more durable reforms.”
Humanity emits nearly 30 billion tonnes of CO2 annually, mainly from burning fossil fuel. That number has increased year after year, but scientists agree that, to avoid dangerous climate change, global emissions must peak by 2015 and rapidly decline, eventually to zero. CO2 resides in the atmosphere for many centuries, and so this year’s 30 billion tonnes of heat trapping gases is another still-thicker layer on top of the last 150 annual layers of human emissions. The thicker our global atmospheric duvet gets, the hotter our world becomes. “The public doesn’t understand the scale of the energy and CO2 reduction challenge,” says Juerg Matter, a geochemist at Columbia University in New York City. “They think we don’t need coal, we should just shut them down,” says Matter who is also a leading expert on CCS research.
Globally, some 40 per cent of electricity production comes from coal, by far the most CO2 intensive energy source, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The Paris-based IEA estimates coal use will grow at 2 per cent per year until 2030, almost exclusively in the developing world, China and India in particular. Add in other CO2-emitting electricity generation fuels like natural gas and oil and you can see why Matter and many scientists, including the International Panel on Climate Change, say the world needs some form of CCS.
There are different CCS research efforts around the world that hope to sequester CO2, under the sea floor where pressures would keep it immobilized, or turn the gas into limestone, a process called mineral carbonation. Matter explains that under the right conditions CO2 can be dissolved into water and converted into limestone or chalk, locking up CO2 permanently. The first major pilot project is underway in Iceland. Given current and future emissions, CCS is a critical technology for reducing emissions, says Matter. “We need a mix of energy sources and all kinds of places and ways to sequester carbon.”
Canada, Alberta, and many other countries are putting almost all of their money behind “clean coal” CCS technology that chemically separates 70 to 90 per cent of CO2 at a coal plant’s smokestack, compresses it, and pumps it through pipelines to a suitable underground reservoir. Although some Canadian politicians like Environment Minister Jim Prentice pretend CCS is a proven technology, there are no large-scale CCS projects anywhere in the world. Three small-scale efforts, including those in Saskatchewan and Norway, don’t involve coal plants. The world’s first “clean coal” CCS demonstration project, expected to be operational in Spremberg, Germany this year, hasn’t pumped CO2 underground because of protests by local residents.
Small Slow Leaks Aren’t the Only Hazard
Pumping millions of tonnes of CO2 deep underground into saline aquifers under towns or communities may make people nervous. A leak of sufficient volume and concentrations could be hazardous to people, animals and plants. The chances should be remote, says Columbia’s Matter, but do require monitoring. The real danger is many small, slow leaks that add more CO2 to the atmosphere. For CCS to work, the sequestration part has to be reliably, 1000-plus-years, permanent.
The Edmonton Journal’s Thompson report for Munk Centre for International Studies at University of Toronto takes a hard look at the risks of CCS in Alberta, given the fact that the province hopes to eventually pump 140 million tonnes of captured CO2 underground. Many parts of Alberta are literally pin-cushions with thousands of old drilling and bore holes, Thompson discovered. The University of Alberta’s Karlis Muehlenbachs told him that at least 400,000 such holes have been drilled in Alberta in the last 70 years. Although plugged with cement, 100,000 of those may have sprung leaks. Large volumes of pressurized CO2 pumped underground have the potential to displace or contaminate groundwater either directly or indirectly.
The captured CO2 will also contain contaminates from coal combustion including nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide as well as trace heavy metals including lead, mercury and cadmium. Both CO2 and sulphur dioxide form acids in contact with water, and could leach lead or arsenic out of the surrounding rocks. Worse still is the possibility of causing earthquakes. In 2008, the CCS demonstration site at Norway’s Sleipner gas field in the North Sea, may have triggered a magnitude 4
earthquake, according to Christian Klose, a geophysicist at the Think Geohazards consulting firm in California. Klose and other specialists were in London, England in early October at a special conference to assess the risks of CCS.
Another of those specialists, Andrew Chadwick of the British Geological Survey, warned that if pressurized CO2 rises up through porous rocks or cracks it will expand. “If enough CO2 is injected into an aquifer, it could increase the pressure enough to reactivate a fault and trigger an earthquake,” Chadwick told the magazine New Scientist.
No Clean Coal
Even if CCS works as promised, there is nothing clean about burning coal. Coal plants are the leading cause of smog, acid rain, emissions of mercury and other toxic metals. Burning coal and oil costs the United States about $120 billion a year in health costs, mostly because of thousands of premature deaths from air pollution, the US National Academy of Sciences reported in a study on October 19th. The study did not include the environmental damage from coal mining or the pollution of rivers with chemicals that were filtered from coal plant smokestacks to keep the air clean. “Coal mining is a dirty, dirty business,” agrees Columbia’s Matter. CCS will do nothing to improve that fact but some worry that such huge investments in CCS bring new and longer life to a dirty business that ought to be phased out for other environmental reasons.
CCS and the Tar Sands
When it comes to large-scale industrial pollution nothing in Canada tops the Alberta tar sands oil production. It is the country’s largest and fastest growing source of CO2 , and releases at least three times the CO2 emissions as regular oil production, according to Pembina. And CCS will do little to change that, agree Taylor and Thompson. Tar sands, also called oil sands, production covers thousands of square kilometres, and emissions come from a great many sources including the giant trucks used to move the mined sands.
“CCS doesn’t really work in the tar sands,” says Thompson, despite all the claims. One of the two CCS projects announced in mid-October was Shell’s Scotford oil sands upgrader north of Fort Saskatchewan. An upgrader is a massive, energy intensive petro-chemical complex that converts mined bitumen into a range of synthetic crude oils and is one of the few single-source large emitters of CO2 .
The project was awarded $865 million from the Canadian and Alberta governments to kickstart the $1.35 billion project to capture about 40 per cent of the upgrader’s annual emissions and pump them 2,300 metres underground. “Taxpayers should not be shouldering the bulk of the cost of this project,” says Taylor. “Oil companies should be paying for their pollution.” Why does Canada need to invest billions in “clean coal” CCS at all? There are only 21 coal plants in the entire country, and Ontario is shutting down its four plants to reduce its emissions. CCS doesn’t do much for tar sands. And new energy needs could be met by serious investments in alternative energy sources and efficiency improvements.
“The coal age is over,” says Lester Brown, founder and president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, a think tank devoted to creating an environmentally sustainable economy. “Even the US energy utilities are giving up on coal. And they aren’t interested, and don’t have confidence in CCS,” Brown said in an interview.
Fortunately low-carbon energy sources like natural gas, wind, and solar are ramping up and energy efficiency is finally getting started. US carbon emissions have fallen 9 per cent since 2007 and that drop is only partially due to the recession. Bigger declines are in the pipeline because the Obama administration has passed laws to improve appliance efficiency, and mandated that federal government departments reduce their energy use. More than 100 wind farms will go on line in 2009, and 132 geothermal plants are underway along with 15 very large solar thermal plants. “Investing in CCS for coal is thinking in the past when things are changing very fast,” Brown says. Apparently Ottawa and Alberta didn’t get the memo.
Stephen Leahy is an environmental journalist from Uxbridge Ontario.