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Monday, July 27, 2009

carbon capture: this public relations facade is a pricey piece of unicorn science.

Last Friday, Jim Carter, formerly of Syncrude and more recently of the Alberta Carbon Capture and Storage Development Council, spoke to the media following the release of a report which indicated the cost of the unproven technology may be higher then had been previously believed.

Carbon capture and storage will "at least double" electricity prices in Alberta and require taxpayers to contribute up to $3 billion more a year to support industry's efforts to use the technology, says the chairman of a provincial advisory council.
Premier Ed Stelmach has used the funding of the unproven Carbon Capture and Storage technology as an attempt to convince international leaders and investors that Alberta can 'green' the oil sands, but a November 2008 leaked government memo written by University of Calgary researcher Dr. David Keith suggested that carbon capture would do little to reduce carbon emissions eminating from Alberta's Energy Beach.
[l]ittle of the oil sands' carbon dioxide can be captured because most emissions aren't concentrated enough.
But what of the two recent provincial studies suggesting that the emissions from Alberta's oil sands aren't as dirty as we thought? Read Graham Thomson's column from this past Saturday to debunk that spin.

Researchers like Dr. Keith have suggested that the technology would best be used to capture carbon from coal burning facilities, which does very little to reduce the fast growing oil sands emissions and nothing to reduce the impact of tailings ponds and open pit mining. With our politicians ready to invest billions of taxpayers dollars in carbon capture, it remains unclear what impact it will have if this technology can be implemented:
Air capture appears to be technically feasible. But the economics are still unclear, and the politics murkiest of all. Will developing countries build enormous air-capture plants, powered by coal, to offset the emissions associated with industrialisation? Will the technology discourage efforts to improve energy efficiency, or might it be a valuable tool in the fight against climate change? At the moment, air capture is merely experimental.
This public relations facade is a pricey piece of unicorn science. With the sheer billions of taxpayers dollars that may be spent on carbon capture, I can't help but imagine the world leader Alberta could become if even a fraction of those billions were dedicated towards smart innovation and R&D strategies in renewable energy and sustainable transportation.

Related Posts

- story time: a tale of two ($2 billion dollar) funds [ccs and public transit in alberta].
- alberta budget 2009: tough economic times.
- the carbon capture pipe dream. alberta should abandon the public relations facades and plan for the future.
- albertans could leave carbon capture in their dust.


Michael in Calgary said...

Great post Dave. Why are taxpayers paying for this at all? Let's get our government out of the business of business! If Syncrude and Suncor want the technology they can pay for carbon capture themselves.

Spending funds on R&D in to renewable energy is a smart idea. The GOA would be smart to do it.

Oliver said...

Dave, are you in the "shut-down the tar sands" camp with the Fed NDP, or if not, how would you like to see the resource developed?

daveberta said...

Oliver: No, I don't believe that it would be realistic to 'shut down the oil sands.' However, I don't believe that we as Albertans are taking seriously our responsibility about how we are allowing oil companies extract our resources in the Athabasca oilsands.

Former Premier Peter Lougheed is continuing to raise some very good points about the pace of development that Albertans should listen to.

Oliver said...

Thanks Dave, so if I have you correct, the "official" Daveberta view is that the oil sands can be developed, at a certain pace. Now, how to determine that pace? That's the question. If you give credence to one retired Premier, do you have to give it to Klein?

daveberta said...

Oliver: Thanks for the comments. The 'official' Daveberta view (which is simply the opinion of this Albertan) is that we as Albertans should be taking a lot more responsibility for how we are allowing our resources to be extracted.

I don't believe that it's realistic to 'shut down the oil sands,' but I also don't believe that we as Albertans are allowing them to be extracted in a responsible way.

I posted a quote by John Kenneth Galbraith on this blog last year that I thought was particularity relevant to Alberta in the context of how we exploit our oil sands:

"The market system and its incentives are an accepted part of the good society; this is not in doubt. But there is no divine right of free-enterprise, or free choice, for the producing firm. Or for its consumers. The largest community interest must be protected, as also the future climate and well-being, and there must be concern as to depleatable resources. Since automobiles must be built, have fuel and be driven, and other consumer goods and services must similarly be supplied and utilized, a compromise between the current financial and long-term public interests in essential and inevitable. As a broad rule, however, this compromise must favor the larger community interest and the interest of those to come. That is because the business and political voice and money are allied with the current economic power - with the firms that produce the goods and services, their lobbies and captive or susceptible politicians. The community and the longer public future draw on less specific support."

Anonymous said...

Great post, daveberta! I agree 100%!

Anonymous said...

You might find a home in the NDP yet, Dave. This weekend Brian Mason was calling for the same sorts of things, a reduced emphasis on the side-show that is carbon capture and an increased focus on sustainable energy projects.

If we accept that the oilsands must be developed to some extent, then we should be using the profits from that to quickly transition Alberta over on to greener methods of production.

David MacLean said...

That's exactly the point Dave -- oil sands represent a chemical fraction of CO2 emissions. The real prize, if you care about such things, is reducing emissions from coal.

You are correct, though, that the focus shouldn't be on the oil sands. But it certainly isn't "unicorn science" -- as Dr. Keith would certainly tell you.

Ken said...

Your repeated talk of "unicorn science" is a slap in the face of all the hardworking Albertans and Canadians (and, indeed, global citizens) working diligently on carbon capture technology. Belittling and insulting these scientists with your out-of-control partisan witch-hunts does not serve your cause.

Derrick Jacobson said...

Controlling the pace of growth in the oilsands is a ridiculous idea. If we go back to the Royalty Framework the idea behind raising them was to slow down the growth. It is very clear this worked, shutting down the oil and gas industry in our province. Government intervention does not work as they do not understand the dynamics of it.
As far as carbon capture and CO2 emissions, the oilsands are not a very big emitter in comparison. 2B in taxpayers dollars should not be used for this, the oil and gas companies know that the view of oilsands is poor and will do the work required to change the public perception. With their own money!
Good Post Dave.

Anonymous said...

Why is the government using our tax dollars to pay for this? Why should taxpayer be given the bill?

Anonymous said...

Ken, CCS is a cop-out to let society keep consuming and polluting rather than develop viable alternatives. It is a slap in the face to the millions across the world pushing for alternatives only to be handed this as the only option the government is willing to consider.
Nader makes a great point: oil is finite and we can do tons of great things processing it in to products in science, medicine, and elsewhere - why just burn it up?

Gauntlet said...

Hey, Dave: Yeah, I have to agree that you're being a little hard on the science, here. The realistic fact is that energy use is going to go up faster than increases in the use of renewable sources can fully accomodate for on the basis of population growth alone, and so emissions are going to rise. We need to be able to deal with that, and carbon capturing is a viable way of making a difference.

Particularly considering the fact that carbon capture is one of the real things that we can do to improve emissions from those places that are growing fastest, which incidentally are also most dependent on coal for their energy.

I don't think air-capture should be tied in with it as if it was the same thing, either. Fixed-source carbon capture, like the type you use at a coal plant, is not the same as air capture, which is much more experimental.

I'm not saying the money being spent is good, or bad. There are arguments either way. I'm just saying it is not a valid argument to say that carbon capture is essentially voodoo. It's not.

SD said...

Dave, I think Gauntlet is on the right track with this one. Carbon capture has the potential to be a major Canadian contribution to the world in terms of reducing our collective GHG release. The fact that the technology can be easily adapted for use on coal-fired power generation should be viewed in a positive light given the rapid growth of coal power in places like China.

While the "Chief of Staff" may continue to label the technology as black magic, it is far from unicorn science. I hope the private and public sectors can see this project through to completion

My concerns are making sure that corporations that will benefit the greatest from this investment are contributing to the technologies development. They may be, but I haven't seen any conclusive data from a reliable source. I do not think the taxpayer should be solely responsible for the R&D process and would be interested to see more on this topic.

Real Conservative said...

Dave, Good post. Oil companies get enough handouts and tax breaks as it is. If they want the technology they should not be bankrolled by taxpayers. To bad Stelmach and Knight are waiting at the open government vault to appease Calgary's Big Oil. Missed the campaign donations, boys?

J. Christine said...

Good debate. Thanks for getting this started Dave. I don't know enough about CCS to have an informed opinion but I don't like it when the government wastes money on pie in the sky projects either.

Anonymous said...

If there was a demand for Carbon Capture and Storage then the market would make it happen. There is not. This is why the government is paying for it. Let the market be!

LMA said...

As you note in your post, emissions are only part of the problem. What can be done about the nightmare of tailings ponds and the stripping of the boreal forest? Don't clean water and wildlife habitat matter to Albertans?

Anonymous said...

If this were to go through, Albertans would have a form of deregulation on the business side and a form of regulation on the environmental side--the worst of both worlds. One has already more than doubled the cost of electricity, while the other is poised to do more of the same thing. Oh brother!

Oliver said...

Guys, CCS will be part of the carbon solution, everyone including the NRDC believes that. There is one solution to reducing carbon; there needs to be many initiatives, including CCS, but to think that there's going to be amazing magical green answer, ain't going to happen (unless you want to go nuclear, which of course, has other issues, but I like Andrew Weaver's call on it).
The majority of Alberta's electricity comes from a high carbon source, coal. If it's replaced by a "green" type, it's going to be expensive. If it stays as carbon under future carbon pricing, it's going to be expensive.
If you live in Alberta, your electricity bill is going to go way up, no matter how the generation. If you get a chance, lock in your rates. Otherwise, hang on tight. And turn off your lights.

Berry Farmer said...


Your last point... wondering how far ahead we would be if we put the same effort (and money) into smart energy innovations, renewable energy and sustainable communities is the one I am most interested in.

It says a great deal that Alberta is ahead of other provinces.

No one with any sense wants to close down development of the oil sands. However, using them as a transition economy and putting revenue toward a new energy economy is what will propel us into the future.

Dumping money into cleaning up the technology of the 19th century seems like a dead end to me.

But then again, I'm just a farmer in old faded overalls.


Anonymous said...

I think the idea of carbon capture and storage is great and I will support any MLA who supports the plan.

Anonymous said...

Shut 'em down. Completely. The tar sands are a shame to Albertans and all Canadians. They are proof of our stupidity.

Brian Dell said...

Greenpeace calls CCS a "scam" and Wildrose Alliance leadership candidate Danielle Smith is calling for cancellation of Stelmach's CCS Fund. So who is left supporting this?

Anonymous said...

Uh, Brian, are you serious?
Obama, Chu, Sandalow any of those names ring a bell?
How about IPCC?
Australia? Germany? Norway?
Are you "unicorn science" folks just so blinded by your dislike to Alberta Tories that you can't see anything?

Anonymous said...

Stelmach isn't great at times but he's showing some real leadership here. Call your MLA and voice your support for carbon capture and storage.