Holey smokes: The problem with CO2

A growing number of Alberta-based experts say we must bury CO2. Others say that might bury us.

Let’s face it: Canada has one hell of an appalling record on greenhouse-gas emissions. Right now, we produce more than 2% of the world’s weather-changing pollutants, and only six other countries spew out more carbon than we do. Canadians also burn up more greenhouse gases per capita than any other country, with the exception of the United States and Australia. Thanks to population growth, rapid tarsands development and growing energy exports to the U.S., our emissions exploded by 27% between 1990 and 2004, more than any other industrial nation. To make matters worse, the federal government has spent billions of dollars on five different climate-change programs to control emissions since 1988. All have predictably failed. So what do we do with tonnes of unwanted carbon?

A growing number of Alberta-based academics, scientists and business people in the oilpatch think they have a smart answer. Sometimes when you’ve got a really bad problem, the best thing to do is bury it. That’s right: dig a deep grave and seal it tight. Scientists call it carbon capture and storage (CCS), and David Keith, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Energy and Environment at the University of Calgary, thinks it’s not only exciting, but doable. He also believes Canada is running out of options. “Given the dominance of the fossil-fuel industry and our engineering experience,” Keith says, “CCS is necessary if you want to preserve the Alberta economy.”

The idea of carbon storage has been around for more than a decade and largely draws on existing petroleum technologies. Alberta’s natural gas producers, for example, have been capturing toxic acid gas (a combination of CO2 and sour gas) and burying it deep in the ground for years. Every year, U.S. oil firms also transport 40 million tonnes of CO2 through 2,500 kilometres of pipelines to enhance oil recovery in old fields. Companies inject the carbon into reservoirs, where it helps to flush out more oil. Since 2000, EnCana Corp. has been employing similar technology with great success at the Williston Basin near Weyburn, Sask. The billion-dollar project currently purchases and pipes 5,000 tonnes of CO2 a day from a North Dakota gasification plant. Norway has also experimented with burying CO2 into deep-ocean aquifers in the North Sea. “We have the tool box and all the parts,” says Keith. “What we want to do is reassemble them in a new way.”

Stefan Bachu, a research scientist with Alberta’s Energy and Utility Board, also thinks it’s time to bury carbon on a large scale. After studying the issue for 15 years, he’s concluded that Canada’s western sedimentary basin, as well as offshore basins in Nova Scotia, could store billions of tonnes of CO2 in deep saline aquifers. (Ontario and Quebec just don’t have the geology for carbon burial and will have to rely on hydro electric or nuclear power to reduce their carbon footprint.) Says Bachu: “We have enormous capacity.”

Industry has already recognized the potential. SaskPower, for example, is currently considering a $1.5-billion, 300-megawatt clean coal plant that would first capture 90% of its emissions and then sequester the black stuff underground. Schlumberger Ltd., based in Houston and the world’s largest oilfield services corporation, has also set up an entire carbon-services division to design and monitor CCS storage sites. Other businesses are quietly developing plans behind the scenes. “I know quite a few companies working on it,” says Bachu. “They know it’s coming and don’t want to be caught with their pants down.”

The most ambitious project to date is being spearheaded by a group called the Integrated CO2 Network Industry Group, or ICO2N. Comprised of 14 of Canada’s largest CO2 emitters, including ConocoPhillips, Husky Energy, Imperial Oil, EPCOR and Sherritt International, the group has been studying “a large-scale system concept” to build a high-pressure pipeline for transporting CO2, says its Calgary-based chairman, Stephen Kaufman. The open access line would connect CO2 producers from the tarsands and coal-fired plants to deep formations for direct disposal or occasionally to potential markets for enhanced oil recovery. Explains Kaufman: “Industry is now recognizing that carbon constraints are coming and that as CO2 emitters we are prepared to take action that is reasonable.”

The ambitious network would require a multibillion-dollar infrastructure to capture, treat, compress, transport and finally inject CO2 into the ground. Based on current technology, Kaufman estimates it would cost industry at least $60 a tonne; he and others say it isn’t a business opportunity because “it’s not value added.” Although industry is prepared to step up and contribute to the significant upfront costs, “it can’t be expected to bear the burden alone,” Kaufman adds.

The economic burden won’t be small. Keith estimates that to eliminate coal-fired electricity would probably require an investment of about $1 billion to $2 billion a year over the next 30 years. Kaufman doesn’t have any precise figures for the ICO2N project (it all depends on how much CO2 you want to bury), but concedes it’s in the multibillion-dollar range. He adds that the capture technology is expensive and that government planners generally have difficulty dealing with such long-term time frames. He also suspects that were the activity remotely profitable, deployment would not be an issue at all.

Nor will such an undertaking be risk-free or a political slam dunk. In a 2000 Scientific American article, Keith admitted that “the unfortunate history of toxic and nuclear waste disposal has left many reasonable people skeptical of expert claims about the longevity of underground carbon disposal.”

He wasn’t kidding. For starters, scientists with the International Panel on Climate Change raised concerns about leaks and “storage security” in 2005. Given that Alberta has already been perforated by more than 350,000 oil and gas wells, they are concerned that injected CO2 could find its way back to the surface or groundwater via leaking wells, ground fractures or other pathways. But the geological solution, says Bachu, is to bury the CO2 in safe formations two to three kilometres deep in the ground with little or no penetration from other oil and gas activities.

Another critical concern is liability. After the carbon has been injected underground, just who is responsible for keeping it safely there for the next couple of hundred years? It’s no minor consideration. In order to qualify for a bid to build a billion-dollar U.S. federal demonstration power plant (FutureGen) that will store CO2 deep underground, the state of Texas recently passed legislation assuming all liability for the site. Bachu suspects that provincial governments in Canada would have to pass similar legislation. “This is a huge issue that has to be addressed,” he says.

But the biggest barrier remains “the lack of a clear policy signal and legal and regulatory framework,” according to Bachu. At international meetings, the scientist says he repeatedly hears a familiar and persistent refrain from industry: “Until they know the rules of the game, they won’t make any investments.” On that score, Australia has jumped ahead of the pack by setting standards for CO2 disposal. Canada may make some progress with a newly an-nounced special national CCS task force composed of Keith and several industrial players. It will be making policy recommendations later this year.

Meanwhile, the lack of firm rules or proper monitoring may already be an issue in Weyburn, home to Canada’s largest CO2 project to date. In the fall of 2003, landowners Jane and Cameron Kerr dug a gravel pit on their farm, located near the massive CO2 flood project. At first, the water remained clear, but by spring 2005 it was bubbling and churning a cream and blood colour. After several gaseous explosions rocked the pit and a slick that looked like petroleum contaminants covered the surface, the couple promptly moved into town. “We have a problem and no one wants to properly investigate it,” says Jane, a 51-year-old nurse. “And if authorities can’t even recognize a problem now, how are they going to regulate more carbon storage?”

Malcolm Wilson, director of energy and environment at the University of Regina, is monitoring CO2 behaviour in the Weyburn field. He admits that 1,000 well sites are “the fundamental weak point” and potential pathways for CO2 leaks. To date, however, he hasn’t found any evidence of problems. But he also notes that lab experiments show that CO2 can rapidly degrade Portland cement used to seal old well bores. Scientists also don’t really know what’s happening to the chemistry of the buried CO2 in the 55-million-year-old oil formation, or how much CO2 the Weyburn field can safely accommodate.

Some experts, however, question the concept of storing climate-changing gases underground altogether. Dave Hughes, a Calgary-based coal specialist with Natural Resources Canada, describes carbon storage as “an enabling technology for business as usual.” He fears that it will allow industry to burn more fossil fuels without fully recognizing that the era of cheap hydrocarbons has ended. Given that he and many other experts believe that the world’s oil and gas supply is unlikely to meet growing demand in coming years, Hughes argues that reducing fossil-fuel consumption is more important than piecemeal reductions achieved by burying carbon.

Hughes also argues that the technology required to capture and bury carbon for a coal-fired power plant comes with an “energy penalty.” Incredibly, a power plant actually loses 23% to 37% of its energy by capturing carbon. “These parasite power losses mean you have to mine and burn more coal in order to cover the cost of burying the emissions,” says Hughes. Plants equipped with carbon capture technology also cost 32% to 74% more than conventional coal burners to build. “But coal companies like the idea because it allows them to burn more coal,” Hughes adds. “It’s not a great long-term strategy for the human race.”

According to Hughes, radical cuts in consumption through mandated conservation standards are probably the best way to reduce emissions. “If you don’t burn hydrocarbons, you don’t make any,” he says. “That’s the bottom line.” Nor is he alone in this thinking. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a leading environmental advocacy group based in Massachusetts, for example, doesn’t dismiss carbon storage outright, but actively favours technologies and policies that cap emissions at the source via improved energy efficiency. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Service also ask a good question: Can carbon storage be implemented fast enough to reduce the economic impacts of climate change?

No one has a good answer to that. The International Panel on Climate Change calculates that between 20% to 40% of global fossil-fuel emissions could be technically suitable for capture. But that would mean building thousands of capture systems, each capable of removing one to five million tonnes of CO2 a year. In a 2005 report, Natural Resources Canada estimated that anywhere between 10 and 100 million tonnes could be captured and buried by 2030. (Canada produces 747 million tonnes a year.) The ICO2N group says it could bury as much as 20 million tonnes per year alone by 2015—or the equivalent of taking four million vehicles off the road. “That would be a significant dent in our carbon emissions profile,” says Kaufman.

Advocates of carbon storage also maintain that every reduction counts. “Right now, we have 100% emissions,” says Bachu. “Anything and everything we can put into the ground will allow us to decrease emissions.” He also notes that even David Hawkins, an environmental lawyer with the New York–based Natural Resource Defense Council, one of the continent’s leading environmental groups, strongly supports the idea of carbon storage. Hawkins recommends that governments should “just do it” on the grounds that “further delay will increase climate protection costs.”

Yet even advocate David Keith acknowledges that carbon burial is not a silver bullet. “It’s not the be all or end all. It’s just one of several big solutions with a politically acceptable cost,” he says. The energy and climate-change crisis is so advanced that Canada will also have to invest in nuclear power plants and alternative energy, as well as carbon taxes and energy efficiency. “But we can’t sustain the fossil-fuel horsepower we have without CCS,” Keith argues.

But until the Canadian government gets moving on the policy side and admits that carbon-making comes with sizable economic costs, the nation’s growing carbon pile will remain a messy corpse without a cemetery, let alone a gravedigger.