Carbon capture and storage: Grave concerns

Burying greenhouse gases underground isn't the best solution for Canada to be considering.

The federal government, which has wasted $6 billion on nearly half a dozen failed programs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, now has a dumber idea: to spend three times that amount to bury the problem altogether. Now, here’s the hare-brained scheme, and hang on to your shorts because it’s positively idiotic. The Harper Tories want to construct an elaborate carbon funeral industry to capture, compress and then store climate-warming gases deep underground somewhere outside Edmonton or Regina. Unfortunately, you and I will have to pay for the $16-billion funeral arrangements, because the infrastructure doesn’t yet exist. Right now, the hearse hasn’t even been designed, and every nation in the world is balking at the cost estimates, except Canada. Burying carbon has a few other liabilities, too: the underground casket might leak like hell; carbon capture and storage (CCS) requires obscene amounts of energy; and the whole grisly affair will need a 1,000-year-long monitoring program, which, conveniently, is the sort of thing government bureaucracies excel at. Fortunately, Bruce Peachey has a better idea. The Edmonton-based engineer, researcher and president of New Paradigm Engineering thinks that a government serious about reducing GHGs would pick the low-hanging carbon fruit first. “The government wants to go for the big bang, but there are easier things to do,” he argues. And the easiest fruit to pick just happens to be fugitive emissions in the upstream oil and gas business, a subject dear to Peachey’s heart. Peachey has studied the matter in depth for Calgary non-profit research group Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada for nearly a decade. Every year, he says, the oil and gas industry leaks or vents 101 megatonnes of greenhouse gases. That’s about a seventh of the 747 megatonnes released in all of Canada in 2005, or nearly three times the amount now pouring forth from the tarsands. Nearly 40% of these leaks consist of pure methane — one of the nastiest climate changers — while the rest is straight CO2 or other fossil-fuel byproducts. In 2000, Peachey took a look at the huge volume of pure methane being vented by heavy-oil wells in Alberta. In addition to documenting the waste, he also offered a plan to save the methane and use it for well heaters. Alberta’s oilpatch regulator then took an interest — and rising natural gas prices helped do the rest. In the end, a recommendation, followed by a 2006 direct regulation, eliminated the venting of five megatonnes of methane from heavy-oil facilities annually. The savings (at $6 to $8 a gigajoule) paid for the design repairs in less than two years. Companies that don’t leak valuable natural gas, Peachey notes, just make more money.

The industrial opportunities for plugging leaks are as easy as picking apples. One 2005 Alberta Research Council study measured fugitive emissions at several Alberta gas plants. Facilities that thought they were leaking only 188 tonnes a year were actually fouling the atmosphere to the tune of 1,264 tonnes. With an infrared camera and some simple repairs, one plant reduced its methane emissions by 50% and saved nearly a million dollars a year. Peachey now calculates that a few regulations could force the auditing, measurement and repair of leaky valves and pipes, and thereby reduce fugitive emissions by nearly 40 megatonnes within five years. In contrast, the National Task Force on Carbon Capture and Storage wants two-billion tax dollars to figure out how to bury five megatonnes of CO2 over the next decade.

Only two obstacles stand in the way of Peachey’s idea. The first is a lack of rules that direct industry to identify, measure and plug the leaks — an easy fix. The second is the government’s unhealthy obsession with CCS. Peachey admits his low-tech scheme has no sex appeal and, unfortunately, saves money. “It’s just a couple of $10,000 investments, and there is no photo op,” he says. Which probably explains why Ottawa hasn’t thought much about it. Burying carbon can’t be done without pumping billions of taxpayers’ money into the ground. Unless Canada starts to support sensible enterprises, it will be subsidizing the ugliest and most expensive option: a dead-end funeral service.