Stronger and more specific safety and environmental rules need to be in place before carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is brought into widespread use, says an Alberta government report.
The province is relying on the gas-trapping technology to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) as Alberta continues to use its vast coal resources for power generation and pushes for new pipelines to export increasing oil sands production.
As Alberta's industrial output grows, GHG emissions are projected to rise until at least 2020. However, the provincial government has allocated $1.3-billion to two near-term CCS projects, and says 70 per cent of the GHG reductions that will come in the longer term, by 2050, will be a result of broad adoption of the technology. This CCS plan has been part of the Alberta sales pitch Premier Alison Redford has made during her various trade trips to the U.S. where approval of TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline has been front and centre.
There's a strong impetus for Alberta to try to bolster its environmental credibility. U.S. President Barack Obama has vowed that the cross-border Keystone XL pipeline will only get the green light from his administration if it doesn't add to global greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists have argued that approval of the pipeline project will spur production in the carbon-intensive oil sands, and worsen climate change.
Responding to such criticisms, Alberta has decided to focus much of its climate change policy and dollars on CCS technology, which sees carbon dioxide collected from a large industrial source and then injected into a deep underground geological formation.
"For a small population of four million people, Alberta has committed a lot," Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes said in an interview. "It is one element in the suite of approaches that we are pursuing in order to demonstrate to the rest of the world that we are a responsible developer of energy resources."
According to the Alberta government's CCS Regulatory Framework Assessment report released Monday, the province's push to become a world CCS leader could mean more pipelines crisscrossing Alberta, a possible shortage of sequestration sites, and an increase in amine solvents – used to wash carbon dioxide out of a gas mixture – being released into the environment. The report said laws, regulations and public consultations need to be tailored specifically to CCS projects, and for the time being, environmental assessments of CCS projects should be mandatory.
Alberta had originally planned to have four private sector carbon capture projects now under construction but two were cancelled when companies decided that even with a government-infusion of dollars, the projects no longer made economic sense. The two remaining projects are Shell's Quest project, that will capture emissions from an oil sands upgrader, and Enhance Energy Inc.'s trunk line, which will use emissions from an oil upgrader and an Agrium plant for "enhanced oil recovery" – which the report puts in a separate category from regular CCS projects.
The government is now asking for public input on its steering committee's 71 recommendations. Stephen Kaufman, general manager of sustainable development for oil sands at Suncor Energy Inc., said the report, which looked at the current rules for CCS in Alberta and best practices from around the world, is comprehensive.
"The industry thinks that CO2 capture and storage is potentially a very important solution on greenhouse gas emissions."