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Carbon Capture and Storage Is a 1% Solution

Carbon capture and storage plant
Carbon capture and storage
Credit: Richard Hurd. Copyright: creative commons-attribution 3.0

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.

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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:

Postcombustion carbon capture technology
Postcombustion carbon capture technology. CSIRO, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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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.

The project’s estimated cost is $16.5 billion. Pathways Alliance also plans to spend $7.6 billion on research into CCS, steam reduction, fuel switching, and the use of small modular reactors.

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.

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.

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2 Comments

  1. As you rightly state, Carbon Capture and Storage, will not in itself, get greenhouse gas emissions to zero in the province. Rather than attack it, let’s acknowledge that going after 20% of O&G life-cycle emissions, even if only 40% successful is a pretty meaningful step in the right direction. Let’s hold them the companies of the Pathways Alliance to account for their performance against their target and not to political spin from “those who must not be named”.

    The stated goal of the Pathways Alliance is “net-zero emissions from operations”. If the O&G industry successfully captures the emissions resulting directly from their resource extraction and processing operations, surely that is a good thing? How is that being misleading? Why would we cast aspersions on the participants because of unattributed assertions and spin? That hardly seems productive in advancing the cause.

    Or do we, as the article implies, hold the O&G industry accountable for reducing all the downstream emissions of fossil fuel users such as you and I? That doesn’t seem right to me. Aren’t we responsible for finding the other 80%?

    Will CCS get oil & gas operators to net-zero operations by itself? Maybe not. But it’s a good start. Even if only 40% successful, at $16.5 billion over 9 years, it’s hardly an expensive boondoggle. The cash flow from operating activities for the 6 member companies alone was $87.2 billion in 2022, which by the way ,suggests that they really don’t need financial help from the federal or provincial governments to fund the effort. I look at it as a cost to stay in business.

    As an aside, we can reasonably expect the performance of CCS to improve over time, as is the case with all new technology.

    Finally, let’s acknowledge that achieving a 100% reduction in carbon footprint is a very tough, if not aspirational target. Making it personal, my wife and I have reduced our carbon emissions by about 31% over 4 years, but it’s getting exponentially harder and more expensive to find the remaining 69%.

    1. Hi Jerry,
      Perhaps I overstated things when I referred to the PA project as a boondoggle. You’re right that $16.5 billion isn’t such a stretch as I first thought it was. I also agree with you that with $87.2 billion in cash flow, the PA members shouldn’t need government help. Perhaps they’d find a higher carbon price more motivating.
      By my calculation, the PA project will capture just 1% of the life cycle emissions in 2030 from Alberta fuels, using the production levels foreseen in the 2023 CER Canada Net-zero Scenario. Just 1%–that’s really not terribly impressive.
      My point here and in other posts on this blog is that even if we’re not responsible for reducing downstream emissions, it’s still not in our best interests to engage in such a destructive trade. Consider the string of disasters we’ve seen in previous years in Alberta and Canada. Alberta by itself is the world’s 4th largest crude oil producer. It’s the world’s 11th largest gas producer. We also produce coal. How can we claim that Alberta fossil fuels don’t make a substantial contribution to the problem? When are we going to stop harming ourselves?

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