Carbon capture and storage is a pipe dream

Alberta is under fire from environmentalists and foreign governments over its tar sand operations – perhaps with good reason.

Alberta is under fire from environmentalists and foreign governments over its tar sand operations – perhaps with good reason.

Producing oil from tar sand produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than does conventional oil production, and its byproducts are not just unsightly, they’re lethal to wildlife, especially migratory birds.

Tar sand production despoils large areas of wilderness in Canada’s Boreal Forests, and the Syncrude company’s tailing pond is currently the second largest dam on Earth, only exceeded in size by China’s Three-Gorges Dam. Tar sand operations also consume large amounts of freshwater and natural gas.

There’s no question that Alberta’s environmental image has been given a large black eye over its tar sands.

In an effort to blunt some of the criticism of Alberta’s tar sand industry, Premier Ed Stelmach has pledged to spend $2 billion to help fund deployment of technologies to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions generated by the oil sands industry, hoping to at least take the greenhouse gas issue off the list of grievances. But in many ways, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is, both literally and figuratively, a pipe dream.

Rather than producing a viable greenhouse gas control technique, the taxpayers $2 billion “investment” will be little more than a free PR campaign for the tar sand industry.

Let’s review the problems with the idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which make it unlikely as an environmental savior. Land-based CCS consists of three primary activities: capturing carbon dioxide out of an emissions stream, compressing it into a liquid, and then piping that liquid over land, and down into the Earth where, in theory, it will be retained in geological formations for hundreds or thousands of years. It sounds quite simple, until you dig into the details.

First, there’s the difficulty of capturing carbon dioxide.

One of the reasons that carbon dioxide is so difficult to deal with is that it’s an extremely stable molecule, one that isn’t easily bound to other substances.

In fact, binding up carbon dioxide takes quite a lot of energy.

Estimates suggest that capturing carbon from a conventional coal-fired power plant, for example, could consume up to 40 per cent of the plant’s total power output. The technology isn’t exactly cheap, either: the US Department of Energy estimates that adding CCS technology to power plants would double their costs, raising energy rates by 21 to 91 per cent.

Second, transporting the bulk of carbon dioxide that would have to be stored is no small feat.

When fossil fuels are burned, the carbon atoms that make up the fuel are bound to two oxygen atoms. As a result, the mass of the carbon dioxide emissions are considerably greater than the mass of the original fuel.

For example, if you burn one ton of coal that has a carbon content of 78 per cent, you wind up producing almost three tons of carbon dioxide. If one has to transport that mass any significant distance to bury it, the infrastructure costs become a problem.

One estimate, made by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization, suggests that the transport component of CCS becomes cost-prohibitive if it is more than 100km to the point of burial.

Third, there are questions of both durability and safety: what is put underground does not always stay underground. And in the case of carbon dioxide, which is 1.5 times denser than air, the consequences of large scale leaks can be devastating.

A telling example comes from a volcanic eruption in Cameroon. When Lake Nyos erupted in 1986, a mass of carbon dioxide and water was ejected that suffocated 1,700 people, 3,500 head of livestock, as well as large quantities of local wildlife as it spread across the land. Imagine the black eye Alberta could get for a leaky carbon dioxide reservoir, or massive pipeline rupture!

Carbon capture and storage faces innumerable problems, and, many analysts believe, is more likely vapor-ware than hardware.

It’s understandable that Stelmach would like to improve the environmental reputation of Alberta, and he may think that paying $2 billion to promote a technology of dubious merit is a cheap way to buy good publicity. But one has to ask, who should fund what is in essence a $2 billion dollar PR campaign for the tar sands, Alberta’s taxpayers or the companies that seek to profit from it?

Kenneth Green serves as an advisor to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Just Posted

Red Deer group looking to keep roads safe for cyclists

A Red Deer cycling group is concerned about road safety after multiple… Continue reading

Smoke and pets do not mix

Take care of your pets during the smoky weather

Former Red Deer lawyer sentenced

Charges included possession of stolen property

Man causes mischief with axe in Ponoka

Arson and attempted break and enter charges laid

WATCH: Raising money for kids at the Gord Bamford Charity Golf Classic

Former NHL players, Olympians, pro rodeo circuit members and musicians teed off… Continue reading

Oilpatch fears delays as U.S. judge orders further review of KXL pipeline route

CALGARY — Potential delays in the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline… Continue reading

‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin dies at 76

NEW YORK — Aretha Franklin, the undisputed “Queen of Soul” who sang… Continue reading

Arrests in Burnaby, B.C., as order against Kinder Morgan protest camp enforced

BURNABY, B.C. — The RCMP arrested protesters Thursday as officers enforced a… Continue reading

‘Hot and dirty work:’ Commander describes fighting massive Ontario wildfire

BRITT, Ont. — From a helicopter flying over a smouldering swath of… Continue reading

Calgary Fire Department logs record opioid overdose calls in July

CALGARY — The Calgary Fire Department says there were a record number… Continue reading

RCMP in Burnaby, B.C., say Kinder Morgan protest camp to be dismantled

BURNABY, B.C. — The RCMP arrested protesters when officers enforced a court… Continue reading

Study: Smokers better off quitting, even with weight gain

NEW YORK — If you quit smoking and gain weight, it may… Continue reading

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month