I sat down with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall last week for a Q&A, which you can read in the latest issue of Canadian Business on newsstands tomorrow. One topic we discussed thats not in the print edition is carbon capture and storage, a technology the premier is quite excited about.
I asked Wall about the criticism of CCS that it just perpetuates a fossil fuel-based economy, and that it funnels investment away from renewable energy such as wind and solar. Here’s what he said:
Ive never understood that argument, because it actually takes the carbon out. Thats what were supposed to do, and it gives life to a very affordable source of energyif it works. So its worth exploring. However, we are looking at all the renewables I think clean coal is part of it.
Saskatchewan is already home to one of the worlds few large-scale CCS projects. EnCana has been taking liquefied CO2 from a coal gasification plant in North Dakota and injecting it into a depleted oilfield near the town of Weyburn since 2000. The CO2 helps flush oil to the surface in a process known as enhanced oil recovery.
In addition to work on a $1.4-billion CCS project at Boundary Dam, the province is currently in talks with the state of Montana on a $270 million demonstration facility, this time taking CO2 from a coal-fired power plant in Saskatchewan and storing it underground in Montana. Wall said the provincial government may kick in around $50 million, and added Montana governor Brian Schweitzer is hoping to tap into federal stimulus money to fund the project.
One of the major drawbacks of CCS is the cost. Estimates vary, but the U.S. Department of Energysays it currently costs around US$150 to capture one ton of carbon, much too high for carbon emissions-reduction applications. Technological advances can bring down costs, of course, but more importantly, governments need to put a price on carbon, which Canadian politicians are taking their sweet time doing. There is little incentive for private industry to bear the high costs of CCS otherwise.
Many have also pointed out that in terms of a global warming solution, CCS quite literally buries the problem. The phrase clean coal is really a misnomer. Just because the carbon is buried doesnt make the process clean.
But CCS is quite popular in Canada. Slightly more than 8% of the federal governments stimulus package went toward green initiatives, according toBritish economist Nicholas Stern. Of that amount, the largest chunk of cash (US$1.1 billion) was earmarked for CCS projects. How much did renewable energy get? Zip.
Wall pointed out that Saskatchewan is exploring all energy options, and plans to boost wind power. (Saskatchewan is the fourth largest producer of wind energy in Canada). But while the latest provincial budgethad millions of dollars for CCS and enhanced oil recovery projects, it did not once mention renewable energy. Same with the 2008 budget.
Given the current trends, CCS will undoubtedly be a part of the future energy mix, but it is not necessarily a long-term solution to reducing our use of fossil fuels and cutting emissions. Karen Campbell, staff counsel and director of strategy for the Pembina Institute, calls ita bridge between the present and a renewable energy future:
The real solutiona transition away from fossil fuelsshould be the primary focus of our creativity, our research dollars and our technology developments.”