Many writers have weighed in on carbon capture and storage (CCS), reviewing its benefits, applications, shortcomings, and costs. I’m going to join that long line today and summarize the reasons CCS will have almost no impact on Alberta oil and gas emissions.
I’ll also add some information I’ve uncovered through my own analysis of the Pathways Alliance carbon capture and storage project. This project is highly touted by the oil and gas industry and the Alberta government as a way to eliminate CO2 from our oil and gas. Or “transitioning away from emissions,” as Alberta Premier Danielle Smith puts it.
That’s nonsense. By my calculations, this expensive boondoggle will capture only a sliver of Alberta oil and gas emissions — about 1 per cent.
More on that in a moment. But first, let’s review carbon capture and storage technology and some Alberta carbon capture and storage projects.
CLIMATE, ENERGY AND ALBERTA’S FUTURE
Fossil fuels are damaging our home, our country and the entire world.
It’s time to talk about phase-out. It’s time to build a new province — an Alberta beyond fossil fuels.
Get phase-out news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox.
How Carbon Capture and Storage Works
A variety of technologies are used to capture CO2, but we’ll focus here on post-combustion carbon capture. This technology is used at the Quest Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) facility, where it captures CO2 emitted from the hydrogen plant at the Shell Scotford bitumen upgrader. It’s the same technology that the Pathways Alliance proposes to use in its so-called “foundational project“.
Post-combustion carbon capture uses an amine solvent to scrub CO2 from large sources, like a flue stack. Flue gasses pass through an absorption column, where the solvent captures the CO2 in the gas. The CO2-rich solvent then flows to a desorption column, where it is heated to release the CO2, which is sent on for geologic storage or other use. The solvent is then cooled and returned to the absorption column for further use. This image illustrates the process:
Carbon Capture and Storage Does Not Mean Net Zero for Oil and Gas
CCS proponents argue that the technology can put the oil and gas industry on a net-zero footing, but this argument is misleading. We can capture its shortcomings in just two words — efficacy and scope.
Carbon Capture and Storage Lacks Efficacy
Global Witness investigated the Quest CCS plant and released a report in January 2022. It found that the Quest CCS plant only captures emissions produced by the hydrogen plant’s steam methane reforming (SMR) process, which is how the plant produces hydrogen from gas.
But SMR only accounts for 60 per cent of the hydrogen plant’s total emissions. (The remaining emissions come from flue gas, which is not within the scope of the plant’s CCS system.)
Even then, the CCS plant captures just 80 per cent of the SMR emissions. As a result, the CCS plant’s overall capture rate is just 48 per cent of the onsite emissions produced by the hydrogen plant.
The word onsite in that last sentence is telling. We have to remember that the feedstock for this hydrogen plant is fossil gas, which results in methane emissions all along its supply chain.
What’s more, the CCS plant itself emits approximately 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per year because it, too, is powered by fossil fuels.
Global Witness claims that if we consider emissions from the neglected flue gas stream, methane leakage from the gas supply chain, and the emissions of the CCS plant itself, its net capture rate falls to a dismal 39 per cent of the total amount of CO2 emitted by the hydrogen plant.
This means that, even in the best case, 61% of the total emissions are not being captured. It’s a long way from net-zero.
Carbon Capture and Storage Is Inadequate in Scope
The issues Global Witness identified with the Quest CCS plant have important implications for the net-zero ambitions of Alberta’s oil and gas industry.
The issue is scope, or how much of our emissions we can capture with CCS. CCS works only on large, CO2-rich gas streams, like those in use at industrial facilities. These gas streams also must be stationary for the captured CO2 to be piped into the earth. It’s simply not feasible to apply CCS to small, mobile CO2 sources like airplanes and automobiles.
In other words, we can use CCS to capture some of the upstream emissions of fossil fuels, but none of the downstream emissions.
That’s an inherent limitation with no workaround. The upstream emissions of oil and gas typically account for around 20 per cent of the life cycle emissions. The downstream emissions account for the remaining 80 per cent.
Without capturing downstream emissions, you can’t make much progress on our CO2 problem. That’s why many people believe CCS is oversold — it simply has no way to capture the bulk of oil and gas emissions.
Sharing Is Caring
Share unique content about our province with people who love it as much as you do.
Pathways Alliance Foundational Project
This last point brings us to the Pathways Alliance Foundational Project — a carbon capture and sequestration network centered on Cold Lake, Alberta.
Pathways Alliance intends to capture CO2 from 20 unnamed oil sands facilities (PDF) in the Fort McMurray, Christina Lake, and Cold Lake regions of northeastern Alberta. A 400-km pipeline will carry liquid CO2 from these sites to a storage hub near Cold Lake.
A processing facility in Cold Lake will inject the CO2 underground, beneath a groundwater aquifer and layers of shale, sandstone, and carbonate, to final storage in a saline aquifer (PDF) more than one kilometre beneath the surface.
If it’s ever completed, the project will have the capacity to store 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2. Pathways anticipates an initial capture rate of 10-12 million tonnes at the planned start in 2030, increasing up to 40 million tonnes per year by 2050. Even at full capacity, the total capture over 20 years would be roughly 800 million tonnes.
Alberta Oil and Gas Emissions
Will the Pathways Alliance Foundational Project capture enough CO2 to put Alberta oil and gas operations on a net-zero basis? No, not nearly.
For starters, “net-zero” is a slippery phrase. A reasonable person might think that a net-zero oil and gas project would have no impact on global CO2 emissions. That person would be wrong. When the oil and gas industry calls something “net-zero”, they mean the 20% of the emissions that are a direct result of resource extraction and processing. They ignore the roughly 80% of emissions that happen after the product leaves their facilities. It’s a creative but misleading way of accounting for the emissions. CO2 has the same impact whether it is created as part of an industrial process or comes from burning the fossil fuels in a downstream use.
Maybe we should call it minus 20% instead of net zero.
Let’s revisit the Canada Energy Future 2023 report, which the Canada Energy Regulator released in November 2023. We’ll focus on the Canada Net-zero Scenario because it is legally mandated under the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act.
Under this scenario, Alberta will produce 53.82 billion barrels of oil from 2023–2050. Alberta will also produce 2.39 trillion cubic metres of gas during this same period.
Together, these fuels will result in average annual emissions of around 1,200 million tonnes of CO2. I’m referring here to life cycle emissions — not just the upstream emissions generated during production and refining, but the well-to-wheels emissions. The total life cycle emissions from 2023–2050 will come to around 34.94 billion tonnes.
So when you get right down to it, the Pathways Alliance Foundational Project will capture and store:
- Just 1 per cent of Alberta’s annual oil and gas emissions when it starts in 2030 (12 million tonnes captured out of annual emissions of 1,200 million tonnes)
- Less than 2.3% per cent of Alberta’s life cycle oil and gas emissions from 2023–2050 (800 million tonnes captured from 34,940 million tonnes)
Want to check my numbers? Please do.
- The oil and gas production figures come from Canada Energy Future 2023.
- I calculate the crude oil emissions as described in There Will Be a Lot Less Crude Oil in Canada’s Energy Future.
- I calculate the gas emissions as described in There Will Be Much Less Gas in Canada’s Energy Future.
But the bottom line on the Pathways Alliance project: It will capture only 1 per cent of Alberta oil and gas emissions between 2030 and 2050. That’s not enough CO2 to make Alberta’s oil and gas net zero.
It doesn’t even come close.