C02 storage technologies hold promise, but there are obstacles
April 7, 2008
By Canadian Consulting Engineer
A session at Globe 2008 in Vancouver on March 12 focused on carbon capture and sequestration -- the technology whic...
A session at Globe 2008 in Vancouver on March 12 focused on carbon capture and sequestration — the technology which would literally bury our greenhouse gases deep below the surface of the earth.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS), has been the subject of a flurry of recent government and industry initiatives of late. In its February budget, the federal government allocated $240 million for a new full-scale commercial demonstration project at the SaskPower Boundary Dam Power Station, a project that will collect and store C02 from coal fired power plants.
Meanwhile the University of Calgary has just launched the Wabamum Area C02 Sequestration Project, called the “largest-scale geological study in Canadian history for the permanent underground storage of millions of tonnes of industrial greenhouse gases.” The $850,000 study is due to be completed by mid-2009 and is being funded by the Alberta and Canadian governments, as well as energy partners such as TransAlta and TransCanada Corporation. A consortium of 18 companies led by Enbridge is also conducting a major carbon capture and sequestration review, but its findings are considered proprietary, whereas the Wabamum study will be published in academic journals and will be publicly available.
From the panel discussion at Globe 2008, it was clear that while the technology has already proved itself to some degree, there are many practical hurdles ahead. The first speaker, Gerry Protti, executive vice-president of EnCana of Calgary, reassured the audience that “CCS (carbon capture and storage) potential is real,” and the “technology is maturing.” He explained that EnCana has been operating a carbon capture and storage project since 2000 at the Weyburn oil field in Saskatchewan. The C02 project “has been commercial since Day 1,” Protti said. Unfortunately, however, the C02 being captured and injected into the oil field at Weyburn is not reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, but is being imported from a coal gasification plant in North Dakota. The C02 is used to boost oil production and has resulted in a 65 per cent increase at Weyburn.
When C02 can be used for enhanced oil recovery it may be economically feasible, but otherwise it is a costly investment. That’s why other speakers on the panel, such as Stephen Kaufman, chair of the Integrated C02 Network in Calgary, said government must give more support for the technology. Kaufman said we need firm regulatory frameworks to cover issues related to the liability of long term storage, transfer rights for those who inject the C02, and ways to manage conflicting jurisdictions between the feeral and provincial governments. The biggest challenge, he said, is the economic gap. Currently it costs around $80 per tonne to capture C02.
Jay Nagendran, Assistant Deputy Minister with Alberta Environment, suggested that C02 sequestration was the hope of the oil sands industry. He warned that while Alberta has the second largest oil reserves next to those in Saudi Arabia, the energy and environmental costs associated with extracting the oil from Alberta’s tar sands are creating negative publicity around the world. He said that some countries, and states like California, are even questioning whether they will accept Alberta oil.
Burying the C02 emissions from tar sands operations could help to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint, Nagendran said, such that the carbon emissions counted for Alberta tar sands oil would be on a par with those of regular oil by the year 2050.
Moderator David Lewin of EPCOR, said that studies show a promising use for carbon dioxide could be injecting it into coal bed methane reserves. The carbon dioxide would release the methane molecule, and we could use the gas in our homes. That marriage of technologies “would be magic,” Lewin said.
Several panelists noted that a major challenge will be to match the sources of C02 with an underground storage field of the right capacity. A network approach could help coordinate the different components, but there’s also the issue of distance, and having to pipe the gas across long distances, and sometimes over farmland and other sensitive areas.
Critics of carbon capture technologies such as Greenpeace say it’s too costly to develop, and that since the industry itself doesn’t foresee the technology becoming commercially viable for another 10 or 20 years, the projected greenhouse gas reductions will come too late.