As the world heads towards a climate precipice, there’s a technology that tech advocates say could buy us some time.
Known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), the process promises to absorb carbon emissions from industrial smokestacks, effectively decarbonizing everything from oil and gas extraction to cement production.
Described by the International Energy Agency (IEA) as the “most important” technology for hard-to-decarbonize industries like cement production, governments around the world have invested huge sums of money in CCS .
In order to reach global net zero by 2050, the IEA estimates that annual carbon dioxide capture and storage capacity will need to increase to 1.6 billion tonnes per year by 2030. From 2030 , that means equipping 10 heavy industrial factories with the technology every month. — a massive investment.
In April, the Canadian federal government unveiled a $7.1 billion refundable tax credit program to help the country’s oil and gas industry pursue technology through 2030 and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse effect of its operations.
Tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry are projected to cost taxpayers $2.6 billion in the first five years, then $1.5 billion per year thereafter through 2030.
Proponents of the technology say it offers a realistic path to weaning Canada — and indeed the rest of the world — off fossil fuels without sinking the economy.
Those who oppose the widespread adoption of CCS argue that the pursuit of the technology diverts money from investments in technologies such as wind or solar power. Worse, say opponents, it is being used as a tool to “green” the oil and gas industry and let it carry on as usual.
Now, a landmark new report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) has taken one of the world’s first looks at the promise of carbon capture and storage, where it has succeeded and where it has failed.
“The key question we’re trying to answer is, ‘Does this actually work?'” said lead author and energy analyst Bruce Robertson from his farm north of Sydney, Australia.
Half of carbon capture projects used to recover more oil and gas
Robertson and analyst Milad Mousavian used public data from 13 flagship CCS and CCUS projects (the “U” in cases where captured carbon is “used”). Together, they represent 55% of the world’s carbon capture capacity.
Ultimately, the report found that failed or underperforming projects “significantly outnumbered” successful projects.
When the projects were successful, they were most often where the technology was used to extract and process natural gas.
It was found that two-thirds of all projects were dedicated to natural gas processing. Of these, nearly three-quarters were used for enhanced oil recovery – a process that pumps captured carbon underground to bring more oil and gas to the surface.
This means that about half of all CCS projects were used to extract otherwise inaccessible oil and gas from the ground.
It is a practice that has mobilized environmental groups around the world.
As Environmental Defense said in a written statement, “The Government of Canada has made big bets on carbon capture technology to meet climate goals, including in the oil, gas and power sectors. . But the science just isn’t there.
“Canada should not be basing its climate plans on such unreliable technology, let alone betting billions of dollars on it.
Canada’s latest tax breaks are not meant to apply to enhanced oil recovery projects. Instead, they are intended to support technology to remove carbon emissions from oil and gas production facilities, power plants or heavy industry before storing them permanently underground.
A failed experiment?
First commissioned in 2014, the federal government invested an initial $230 million in the 50-year-old Boundary Dam power plant in Saskatchewan. It is now the only coal-fired power plant in the world that captures carbon dioxide.
Since its inception, Boundary Dam has failed to meet its emissions capture targets, according to the IEEFA report.
Using data from SaskPower, which operates the project, Boundary Dam’s average carbon capture rate to date is around 50%, far from the targeted 90%, the report said.
“We found it fundamentally failed,” Robertson said, pointing to its inefficiency in capturing emissions and the expensive electricity it produced.
“The sheer amount of government money that could have been used elsewhere to promote successful technologies that reduce emissions – it is simply mind-boggling and we are still making that mistake today.”
At press time, SaskPower had not responded to Glacier Media’s request for comment.
The report cites Boundary Bay as an example of several flagship carbon capture projects around the world that either fell short of their targets or consistently underperformed.
There have been a few exceptions. The Quest project in Alberta’s oil sands, for example, has largely achieved its carbon capture goals. But Robertson says globally, that’s the exception rather than the rule.
“We’re looking to subsidize a technology that basically hasn’t had a lot of success,” Robertson said.
Not everyone agrees that carbon capture is doomed to failure. Now a Senior Advisor for the Pembina Institute, Scott MacDougall has worked with the Government of Alberta on CCS and CCUS regulation and reporting.
MacDougall defended the Boundary Dam project’s track record as a first attempt at a new technology, and something the next generation of carbon capture projects can learn from.
He says carbon capture technology is a “necessary solution” to reducing oil and gas emissions as quickly as possible before things like electric vehicle charging networks and sustainable aviation take hold.
“The urgency should prompt us to try to implement whatever solutions we can as quickly as possible, and I think that includes carbon capture and storage,” he said.
This argument holds no weight with Emily Eaton, a researcher who has studied the oil and gas industry in Saskatchewan for the past 12 years.
Eaton points to carbon captured from the Boundary Dam power station which powers extraction operations in the Weyburn oilfield.
“It’s an aging oilfield. With conventional extraction methods, you wouldn’t be able to get any more oil out of it,” Eaton said.
” Essentially, [the captured carbon] enables new fossil fuels that we would not otherwise have access to.
The elephant in the room’
Even the most successful carbon capture project can do little. Indeed, only about 15% of emissions from oil and gas come from the extraction, processing and transportation processes. The rest, more than 85%, escapes into the atmosphere when the fuel is burned.
“The lion’s share of emissions is still created when you turn on your gas stove in your home or drive your car,” Robertson said. “Carbon is not captured by these things.”
Focusing on emissions during mining and processing misses the big picture, or as Robertson put it in the report, “the elephant in the room.”
“We need to get rid of fossil fuels,” Eaton added. “Producing them with less greenhouse gases just locks that carbon infrastructure into the future.”
Eaton says the IEEFA report is the first global picture she has seen that shows systemic failures in carbon capture.
Outside of hard-to-decarbonize industries like cement, fertilizer production and steelmaking, “that should be the nail in the coffin,” she said.