STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Why Carbon Capture is an Illusion

Posted by mhudema on March 25, 2008

Special to Globe and Mail Update

On March 10, Environment Minister John Baird released detailed regulations to address global warming. These so-called tough measures lean heavily on new technology that captures and stores greenhouse gas emissions. Mr. Baird says catching carbon emitted from coal-fired power plants and tar-sands projects, then burying it deep underground, is a large part of Canada meeting its greenhouse gas emissions targets for 2020 and 2050.

This is unlikely. Even if we set aside the fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has set new, weaker goals so that Canada is no longer holds up its share of the Kyoto agreement, the sorry truth is that carbon capture and storage is a kind of fool’s gold — all glitter and promise, but of no real worth. It won’t enable us to meet even these weaker commitments, and it will be an expensive, diversionary tactic while Canada climbs the carbon charts.

Simply put, taking the carbon dioxide out of emissions (from a power plant or installation), and finding a safe place to tuck it away permanently isn’t easy, isn’t cheap and isn’t going to happen in time to save the climate. There are problems with the technology that no one has been able to solve on an industrial scale. Enormous amounts of money will have to be spent just to try and make it work. It really does look like the proverbial bottomless pit.

But the most damning problem is that even if it works and even if you assume the industry’s enthusiastic targets for this technology can be realized, the technology will kick in too late. The international consensus is that to avoid the worst excesses of climate change, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2015, then start falling — down at least 50 per cent by 2050. Even industry’s own predictions don’t foresee carbon capture and storage becoming commercially viable before 2020 or 2030, and that will miss the critical threshold for turning things around.

A joint Canadian government-industry initiative has produced a “technology road map” full of caveats that illustrate both the uncertainties and the limitations of CCS. By 2015, there “may” be a demonstration coal-fired power plant fitted with the technology, and carbon dioxide “might” be captured from tar-sands projects. And “if” Canada has constructed a system of pipelines across the western provinces to collect and transport the carbon dioxide from the tar sands hundreds of kilometres to an (as yet unknown) location, then “up to” 10 megatonnes of it might be flowing from Alberta for burial in 2015.

That is less than 1.2 per cent of Canada’s expected carbon dioxide emissions for that year, just a drop in the bucket. It’s certainly not going to meet Mr. Baird’s aspiration of making our targets, let alone stop climate change.

The glittering hope of being able to capture and store carbon pollution is, unfortunately, leading our Environment Minister away from what really needs to be done. It’s an expensive and probably worthless smokescreen, behind which the oil extractors and coal-burners plan to carry on as usual, with the promise that some day there will be a technical fix to clean up after them. Like the fabled nuclear promise of “electricity too cheap to meter,” this is a technical illusion, an invitation to pour on the money and trust that things will work out right.

Canada’s climate-change prevention efforts are being led around on a leash held by a fossil-fuel energy policy that is out of control. It is simply madness to be investing more and more effort to wringing the oil from the ground and chasing illusory solutions to deal with the problems that it creates, when what really needs to happen is a fundamental shift in how we produce and consume energy. Last year, Greenpeace released a practical blueprint showing how renewable energy combined with greater energy efficiency can cut global carbon dioxide emissions by almost 50 per cent, and deliver half the world’s energy by 2050. Decades of technological progress have seen renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines, solar photovoltaic panels, biomass power plants and solar thermal collectors move steadily into the mainstream.

These are proven technologies that exist today and are examples of the initiatives that Canada should be pursuing. Yet last month’s budget contained $250-million, plus tax breaks, for carbon capture and storage projects, but no cash for renewable energy.

There’s an old political adage that says “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” The demonstration carbon dioxide underground storage project in Weyburn, Sask., cost $1.5-billion in initial investments alone, and $28-million since. There is another demonstration project below the ground in Norway, at similar costs. The Canadian government-industry road map says we’ll need five or six more of these demonstration projects before we can figure out which type might work.

Our Arctic is melting, our climate is changing and still Canada has its head in the tar sands. CCS is not going to help; the list of technical, physical, social and financial barriers is endless and the best-case scenario is that it won’t be ready in time. How many holes, and at what cost, does Mr. Baird want to dig before he realizes that the best way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we produce?

Bruce Cox is executive director of Greenpeace Canada.

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