A major prong of Canada's climate change plan is so flawed that to pursue it now - with neither the proper science nor proper laws in place - would be "sheer folly," concludes a new report.
The risks of building a system to capture and store carbon dioxide underground include arsenic leaching into groundwater, unforeseen leaks, cross-border disputes and spiralling costs, according to a paper that will be released by the Munk Centre for International Studies Wednesday.
"Given the paucity of groundwater information in Canada and lack of national water standards, the push to accelerate [carbon capture and storage]could pose real risks to our groundwater resources," argues Graham Thomson, the Edmonton Journal columnist who authored the 63-page document. The research compendium draws from published reports and expert interviews.
"In sum, the marriage of a brave new technology with a political fix for an immediate climate problem could have negative long-term consequences for Canadian taxpayers and water drinkers without stabilizing the climate."
Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, involves siphoning off, then pumping underground, carbon dioxide from emissions coal-fired power plants and oil refineries. It has become a key element of Canada - and the world's- strategy to beat emissions.
The United Nations believes 55 per cent of emission reductions can come from CCS. U.S. President Barack Obama has pointed to the technology as an area where Canada and the U.S. can collaborate. Ottawa has put up to $140-million into funding eight projects. And the Alberta government, despite plunging into a nearly $7-billion deficit, has steadfastly defended the $2-billion it committed to building three CCS pilot plants.
The problem, Mr. Thomson finds, is that Canada has yet to draft the regulations, create the oversight regimes or lay the proper scientific groundwork to launch a project that could see vast quantities of carbon dioxide buried kilometres beneath the earth in saltwater aquifers.
Moving forward without any of those things in place, he writes, "would be sheer folly."
The findings rankled some in Alberta, who argued that it is unfair to point to flaws in a system that has yet to be developed.
Jerry Bellikka, the director of communications with Alberta Energy, questioned Mr. Thomson's scientific credentials - he is a journalist, and the report presents no new findings - and argued that Alberta's long experience in regulating industry's underground injections of poisonous gas makes it fit to properly manage CCS.
"I don't think it should be alarming to everybody that we don't have everything mapped out ahead of time, because we're just starting the process," he said.
But even the sheer scale of what's required for CCS is worrisome, Mr. Thomson writes. For example, sequestering just 25 per cent of global carbon emissions will mean erecting an infrastructure twice the size of what today's entire oil and gas industry has built in the past century, according to one estimate.
That would use such a vast amount of resources "that it would be a colossal diversion of energy and actually a real waste of time," said Andrew Miall, a University of Toronto geology professor who has reviewed the paper, and agrees with many of its conclusions. "How much CO2 are you going to generate to make the steel [pipelines]to transmit the CO2? It just gets plain silly."
Prof. Miall, along with representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resources Canada and environmental groups will debate the paper's findings today in Toronto.
Among those: Pumping compressed carbon dioxide into an earth pin-pricked with holes is inherently risky. In Alberta alone, 400,000 wells have been drilled - and those that have been forgotten or poorly built present a potential carbon escape route. Huge volumes of carbon dioxide pumped into saline aquifers could displace some of that briny water into drinking supplies - exactly what happened with underground wastewater injections in Florida.
Badly designed projects may cause arsenic and lead to leach into drinking water. And massive injections of high-pressure gas into the ground can create micro-earthquakes, fracturing rock and leading to even more possible leakage points.
The costs, too, could rise, as they have with technology like nuclear power generation, making an already-expensive solution even pricier.
Still, others say industrial experience in capturing sulphur emissions has shown that costs can fall dramatically with time. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that leakage risks are minor, especially from aquifers thousands of metres below groundwater supplies.
"There are always doubters and people that have fears," said Jim Carter, who chairs Alberta's Carbon Capture Council. "But CCS has the most promise of anything out there. And I think we'd be irresponsible if we didn't really begin to develop in a meaningful way the opportunity to implement this technology."