To paraphrase a famous observation, “Everybody talks about climate change, but nobody does much about it.” Indeed, media reports and scientific publications may be thick with discussion of this extraordinary environmental phenomenon but practical proposals for directly dealing with it are thin on the ground while full-scale initiatives are even more scarce.
It is worth noting one of the most significant of these initiatives in the world is taking place where many Canadians would be least likely to expect it — the oil sands in northeastern Alberta. The process for turning the region’s hydrocarbon-rich soils into useable fuel stock is one of this country’s primary sources of CO2 emissions, the notorious culprit in the climate change story. Shell Canada, a leading player in the development of this resource, is poised to capture as much as a million tonnes of these emissions annually at an ambitious installation that has been more than five years in preparation and is currently under construction.
The project, called Quest, will use technology known as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) for reducing the CO2 emissions from Shell’s oil sands mining operations, specifically the upgrader that turns bitumen into synthetic oil. The strategy is simple: divert CO2 before it escapes into the atmosphere and direct it into stable geological formations for permanent storage. Removing a million tonnes of CO2 may represent the equivalent of taking 175,000 cars off the road, but that barely makes a dent in the billions and billions of tonnes of CO2 cranked out by the world’s engines and factories. Nevertheless, in the years to come, CCS could be expected to become a standard part of the environmental infrastructure found at major industrial facilities.
Quest represents the first commercial-scale application of CCS onto an existing, operating upgrader, a retrofit that employs familiar technology such as compressors, pipeline components and well monitoring equipment, which have been used by the oil and gas sector for decades.
Cost looms large over this work. Shell does not indicate the project’s overall budget but the province of Alberta is providing $745 million to support the building of Quest and its first 10 years of operation, while the federal government is contributing another $120 million. Both levels of government have flagged CCS as an important part of their plans to reduce CO2 emissions, although the technology is regarded by some critics as an overpriced and inadequate approach to climate change.
“It’s not a panacea, it’s a science experiment,” complained Jim Prentice this past July, while campaigning to become leader of the provincial Progressive Conservative party and Alberta’s Premier-designate. Prentice did not entirely dismiss the concept of CCS but he questioned the value of making large public investments in a technology that was not progressing as quickly as many observers had been expecting.
Among those observers has been Greenpeace, which unequivocally rejected CCS in a 2008 report entitled False Hope. This assessment casts the notion of storing CO2 as an expensive, energy-intensive and potentially dangerous diversion from a far better objective — reducing dependence on carbon-based fuels. “It’s the equivalent of trying to build a better typewriter,” says Keith Stewart, Greenpeace Canada’s climate and energy specialist. “The problem is how we get off oil, rather than capturing a portion of the emission stream associated with oil,” Stewart says.
The world’s major oil companies have voiced their appreciation of the call to migrate the global economy to lower carbon forms of energy, but even the most optimistic proponents see migration taking decades.
According to Shell, once Quest begins operation in 2015, emissions from the upgrader should fall by 35 percent. The collected gas will be compressed and shipped through a 60-kilometre pipeline to three wells that have been drilled into a porous rock formation called the Basal Cambrian Sands, where the CO2 will be injected to a depth of around 2,000 metres. From then on, Shell plans to take stock of the day-to-day business of monitoring and maintaining this system, which should reveal in detail just what it takes for an industrial enterprise to confront climate change as part of its regular operations.
(Source: Chemical Institute of Canada)