Carbon Capture Technology: Capturing the West’s Attention
By Mehera Salah
In an energy industry with an eye on decarbonization, carbon capture announcements are coming fast and furious.
Shell Canada unveiled plans in July for a facility northeast of Edmonton to capture emissions then transport carbon dioxide to underground storage wells, the company’s second CCS project in the province. It’s the latest in a wave of announcements, including a hydrogen and CCS facility proposed by Suncor and Atco and a carbon transportation and sequestration project from TC Energy and Pembina Pipeline. And these projects are taking off for good reason: the International Energy Agency recently stated that net zero isn’t possible without CCUS.
Western Canada is already a leader in Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS), home to three of the the 21 commercial CCUS facilities currently in operation globally (Boundary Dam, Quest and the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line). CCUS also represents a huge economic opportunity: a report by CMC Research Institutes and the Pembina Institute estimates the global carbon capture market could be worth $1 trillion by 2030.
For all the economic opportunities of carbon capture, it still faces several hurdles, notably that it requires an enormous amount of government funding to be viable. Today, governments are coming through with both funding and creating the policy environment that will provide a tax incentive for building CCS facilities.
WHAT IS CARBON CAPTURE, UTILIZATION AND STORAGE?
CCUS – or carbon capture, utilization and storage – encompasses three distinct but complementary processes, each with technical challenge. Taken together, however, they have the potential to reduce total GHG emissions and mitigate climate change.
Each component of CCUS is a separate technology consisting of
- (CC) Carbon Capture refers to the process of capturing carbon dioxide. Most often, this is done by capturing emissions from industrial sources. Another technology is Direct air capture (DAC), where carbon is removed from ambient air.
- (U) Carbon utilization refers to using the captured molecules for commercial applications – such as to create synthetic fuels, to strengthen materials such as cement, to enhance processes of oil recovery, or to inject into greenhouses to maximize plant growth.
- (S) Carbon storage is the process of sequestering captured carbon dioxide safely, away from the atmosphere typically in rock formations kilometers below the surface; sequestration reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The Start of Something Big: EOR and the Early Days of Carbon Capture
In 1984, the Joffre Viking project’s use of Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) – a process that pumps carbon dioxide into existing reservoirs to squeeze even more of the remaining oil out – made history as the first project of its kind to have an industrial application for the use and storage of CO2. EOR uses C02 in the extraction process AND sequesters it underground.
Today there are approximately seven commercial CO2 EOR projects in Canada, including the largest in the town of Weyburn, Saskatchewan which is operated by EnCana and has sequestered over 10 million tonnes of CO2 since operations began in 2000. The second-largest commercial CO2 EOR project in Canada is run by Apache Corporation at the Midale field in southern Saskatchewan. The Midale project began commercial operations in the fall of 2005, and is predicted to sequester more than 10 million tonnes of CO2 over the life of the project.
With EOR, the groundwork was laid for industry to find new ways to use technology to capture carbon emissions.
A GLIMPSE INTO THE PAST
- 1984 Joffre Viking field: The first CO2 EOR project in Canada started as a pilot in January 1984 and was commercialized in 1991 in the Joffre Viking field east of Red Deer, Alberta. It has stored about one million tonnes of CO2 over the past 25 years
- 1997 PanCanadian Petroleum Limited, now EnCana Corporation, announces plans to implement Weyburn EOR project: The Weyburn-Midale Carbon Dioxide Projectprovided a chance to demonstrate and study a large-scale geological storage project and to provide the data to evaluate the safety, technical and economic feasibility of such storage
- 2002 IPCC holds a workshop to investigate CCSIn April 2002, at the IPCC’s 19th Session November 2002 in Regina, Canada the first assessment of literature on CO2 capture and storage, and a proposal for a Special Report were made.
- 2005 Midale Project: Through the Apache Corporation the Midale project began commercial operations in the fall of 2005. Further, the Midale project is estimated to sequester in excess of 10 million tonnes of CO2 over the life of the project
- 2007 The North American Carbon Capture & Storage Association (NACCSA)Founded in September 2007, the non-profit association supports the development of a commercial CCS industry in the United States and Canada. Founding companies with locations in western Canada include: BlueSource, International Paper, Occidental Petroleum Corporation, Ramgen Power Systems, Schlumberger, and Shell.
Carbon Capture Today
Western Canada has become a launchpad for several high-profile carbon capture projects such as Estevan, Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam, the first and only large-scale power plant CCS project in the world; a direct air capture technology pilot site in Squamish by a company called Carbon Engineering; and Shell’s Quest CCS site near Edmonton, Alberta. This spring saw a flurry of carbon capture-related announcements in the energy sector, including an announcement from Alberta Energy to facilitate creation of carbon storage hubs; a major carbon dioxide pipeline proposal; and commercialization support for carbon utilization innovations.
Finding a way for Canada to thrive and prosper in a low-carbon future is arguably one of the most important public policy issues facing the country today. The West, with its diversity of energy systems and its natural resource-based economy, is at the epicentre of many of the challenges facing Canada’s net-zero ambitions. Moreover, new policies such as the Clean Fuel Standard (CFS), Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (GGPPA), and provincial legislations like Alberta’s Carbon Capture and Storage Funding Act and the Clean BC Strategy encourage fuel switching, systems restructuring, and innovation such as Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) to meet climate strategy goals.
Besides the fast-paced growth of technology, policy implications will be an important decider of CCUS’ success. After the Clean Fuel Standard (CFS) update in 2020, credits can be used by fuel suppliers as one mechanism of reaching the reduction targets. Credits can be generated by a variety of activities that sequester or avoid emissions. This includes carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) and, there is no limit on the number of credits that can be generated or used. This makes CCUS an attractive technology for companies involved in refining, producing, or importing liquid fuels in Canada.
Additionally, in the quest to reduce emissions, policies like the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (GGPPA) aim to set a nationwide minimum price on carbon. Pricing systems vary from province to province and include the use of both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade. Unlike the CFS, the GGPPA applies to all large industrial emitters and is likely to encourage CCUS adoption across a wide range of industries.
Between the IEA’s statement that net zero can’t happen without CCUS and the huge economic opportunities that CCUS represents (a report by CMC Research Institutes and the Pembina Institute estimates the global carbon capture market could be worth $1 trillion by 2030) charging ahead with carbon capture is a win-win for Western Canada. In a May 2020 interview with Bloomberg, IEA executive director Faith Birol called on Canada to step up: “I expect Canada to be a leader in carbon capture and storage… CCS could bring a good marriage between oil and gas and reaching our climate targets.”
There are more innovations on the horizon.
Canadian Natural Resources Ltd has invested in a pilot project for a molten carbonate fuel cell capable of producing 1.4 megawatts of electricity at its Scotford Upgrader near Edmonton. This was inspired by a project with the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), and will be 40 per cent funded by the province’s Emissions Reduction Alberta. The planned start-up date is 2022.
At Calgary’s Shepard Energy Centre—Western Canada’s largest natural gas fired power plant—the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre (ACCTC) is offering a unique opportunity for carbon utilization start-ups. The facility was originally constructed to support the NGR COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition, but since the contest’s completion in April 2021 the centre has been made available to other technology developers. For companies interested in turning CO2 into usable products, finding a suitable proving ground can be a major hurdle. By providing access to five research bays—each supplied with up to five tonnes of CO2/day—ACCTC hopes to accelerate the development of carbon utilization technologies throughout Alberta.
Another innovation opportunity lies in the colocation of greenhouses and natural gas powerplants. Greenhouses can be used to sequester CO2 by injecting the scrubbed exhaust from the powerplant’s turbines into the greenhouse to enhance photosynthesis and plant growth. The use of waste heat from the powerplant to warm the green house offers another emission reduction opportunity. A demonstration project in Alberta involving Doef’s Greenhouses and Hourseshow Power has taken advantage of both these opportunities and is expected to result in a reduction of 23,000 tCO2e/yr—equivalent to removing 5,000 passenger vehicles from the road.
Canada is generally very good at invention—developing new technologies both inside and outside universities and polytechnical institutes. But we struggle to get them over the finish line to commercial adoption. When it comes to carbon capture, one success story is Carbon Cure, a Halifax startup. Its technology embeds CO2 in cement to sequester it and improve the cement mix at an affordable cost. Significantly, it has already been deployed in almost 1.4-million truckloads of cement sequestering more than 100 thousand tonnes of CO2 (the equivalent of five million trees growing for one year). That commercial success, including winning the $20-million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, was enabled by access to the ACCTC facility to develop the technology and demonstrate that carbon can be captured and used to create valuable products on a commercial scale. That is, out of the lab and into production.
Western Canada’s efforts to build a successful and sustainable economy will rely on its strengths. Carbon capture is clearly a strength. This means pressing on with CCUS strategies as an opportunity to spur the economy, decrease GHGs, and inspire innovation in the region.