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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Red Deer Rebels winger Arshdeep Bains had two assists in the first period Monday against the Lethbridge Hurricanes in WHL action in Lethbridge. (Photo by ROB WALLATOR/Red Deer Rebels)
Hurricanes hand Red Deer Rebels ninth straight loss

Hurricanes 5 Rebels 2 (Saturday) Hurricanes 8 Rebels 5 (Monday) The goals… Continue reading

Red Deer City Hall. (File photo)
Red Deerians will see a slight tax increase, but the municipal portion is at zero per cent

The provincial educational requisition went up by about half a per cent

The length of grass on people’s lawns could be part of the new Community Standards bylaw being considered by Red Deer city council. (Black Press file photo).
Loitering, noise complaints, swearing covered in proposed bylaw

A few old rules could be dropped and new rules added

Sweden skip Niklas Edin makes a shot against Scotland in the Men's World Curling Championship gold medal final in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, April 11, 2021. Curling's Humpty's Champions Cup in Calgary has been pushed back a day due to the delayed finish of the men's world championship. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Start of Humpty’s Champions Cup pushed back a day in Calgary

Start of Humpty’s Champions Cup pushed back a day in Calgary

Men’s world curling championship in Calgary concludes amid COVID scare

Men’s world curling championship in Calgary concludes amid COVID scare

New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole throws against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning of a baseball game Monday, April 12, 2021, in Dunedin, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
Higashioka and Cole help Yankees beat Blue Jays 3-1

Higashioka and Cole help Yankees beat Blue Jays 3-1

Alberta doctors say trust must be rebuilt after proposed new labour deal rejected

Alberta doctors say trust must be rebuilt after proposed new labour deal rejected

People line up in the rain for a COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up clinic at the Masjid Darus Salaam in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood in Toronto on Sunday, April 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Provinces defend health restrictions as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise

Provinces defend health restrictions as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney updates media on measures taken to help with COVID-19, in Edmonton on March 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta legislature Speaker apologizes for condemning new COVID health restrictions

Alberta legislature Speaker apologizes for condemning new COVID health restrictions

Ukraine’s leader requests a talk with Putin, gets no answer

Ukraine’s leader requests a talk with Putin, gets no answer

Madelyn Boyko poses along with a number of the bath bombs she makes with her mom, Jessica Boyko. Madelyn says she enjoys making the bath bombs with her mom as it is a special time for just the two of them. (Photo Submitted)
5-year-old Sylvan Lake girl selling bath bombs in support of younger brother

Madelyn Boyko is selling bath bombs for CdLS research in honour of her younger brother

Most Read