The Alberta government has placed a large importance on carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction technology, committing $2 billion to advancing four large-scale demonstration CCS projects in the province.
But can CCS actually help reduce oil sands emissions? The simple answer is potentially. And while CCS may prove useful in certain applications, the technology is not a silver bullet but rather one of many methods being explored to curtail GHG oil sands emissions
How does CCS work? It involves capturing GHG emissions from large industrial facilities before the particles reach the atmosphere. The captured emissions are transported through pipelines for permanent storage in deep, secure, porous underground rock formations where a barrier of impermeable cap rock and natural trapping mechanisms keeps the gases stored forever.
Because of high costs and large-scale infrastructure requirements, CCS technology is best applied to large concentrated emissions sources. While oil sands development involves multiple emission sources, few of them are actually large concentrated emission sources. CCS appears to fit best in reducing emissions in oil sands upgrading, and, to a lesser extent, in situ oil recovery.
Upgrading is where CCS will first be used in oil sands development. Costs vary by facility, but are in the same ballpark as they are for using CCS on coal-fired electricity plants. According to ICO2N, a group of Canadian companies developing CCS in Canada, CCS on upgraders is expected to initially capture about 35 percent of a facility’s emissions as opposed to 90 percent-plus for CCS at coal power plants. Of the four Alberta projects, two involve CCS on upgrading facilities – at Shell Quest and North West Upgrading.
As CCS technology improves and costs decline, it may be used in other facets of oil sands operations, including at in situ facilities. Current pilot projects are testing the technical viability and safety of CCS at operating in situ sites. One such project is being proposed by the CO2 Capture Project and led by Suncor. This project is an oxy-fuel combustion initiative on a once-through steam generator at Cenovus' Christina Lake Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage facility.
While government and industry are generally supportive of CCS technology to help curb oil sands GHG emissions, it gets mixed reviews within the environmental community. For example, Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation and World Wildlife Fund oppose CCS as it’s seen as extending the use of fossil fuels at the expense of investment in renewable energy development. Other groups, such as the National Resources Defense Council and the Pembina Institute, support CCS as one possible technology, although both organizations have voiced concerns about the overall costs and pace of reducing GHG emissions.
Concerns aside, CCS is one of many potential methods in the tool kit for use in lessening the environmental impacts of oil sands development.