Alberta's Carbon Guinea Pigs

ENERGY & EQUITY: It's crazy to spend a billion pumping CO2 underground. Ask the Dutch, who said no.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 1 Jul 2011 | TheTyee.ca

This is the latest of Andrew Nikiforuk's weekly Energy and Equity column for The Tyee. Nikiforuk is an award-winning author and journalist, and a contributing editor to The Tyee. Read his previous Tyee stories here.

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Poster rallying people of Barendrecht to oppose burying CO2.

With much fanfare, the petro state of Alberta announced last week that it is giving Shell, a company that makes more than $2 million every hour, almost a billion bucks to bury insignificant volumes of carbon pollution over the next 15 years.

Premier Ed Stelmach, who sounds more and more like a member of the Chinese Communist Party (Mao's motto was also to "think big, move fast and worry about the consequences later"), tried to explain the reasoning for the gross subsidy: if Alberta taxpayers didn't fund the funeral scheme, then no one in their right mind would do it because uneconomic "CCS projects are at a standstill globally."

What Stelmach neglected to add, however, was the same cockamamie scheme championed by Shell just got nixed by Dutch citizens in Shell's very own backyard, the Netherlands. The good people of Barendrecht, a town of 45,000, didn't want to be carbon storage guinea pigs let alone subsidize Big Oil.

The big idea

Now, the basic science behind carbon capture and storage all sounds tempting. Take a stream of CO2 from, say, a coal plant or in Shell's case, from its Scotford bitumen upgrader, purify the damn stuff, compress the gas, and then pump the liquid two miles underground into an old saline aquifer, where it will slowly expand like an inflated balloon over time. Then monitor the novel graveyard for thousands of years to make sure the carbon doesn't acidify groundwater, leak zombie-like back to the surface or cause earthquakes.

The experimental technology, however, raises a number of big policy issues. The first is safety and integrity of carbon cemeteries. Although the Alberta government has declared the technology perfectly benign, that's not what the science says.

In a masterful 2009 review of the subject for the Munk Centre, journalist Graham Thomson found lots of unanswered questions about safety, leaks and groundwater. Moreover, "the rapid injection of CO2 could force brine waters to migrate into the shallow portions of freshwater aquifers. Such a migration could affect pressure and degrade water quality. Yet according to the U.S. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, "the impact of large-scale CO2 injection and related brine displacement on regional multilayered groundwater systems has not been systematically assessed."

Next comes the issue of energy cannibalism. It takes a lot of energy to separate CO2 from other pollution streams. It then takes more energy to compress it into a liquid and even more energy still to inject the waste underground. A coal power electrical facility equipped with CCS technology actually has to burn between 23 to 36 per cent more coal to do the trick. So, CCS is a great way to support the coal industry at taxpayer's expense.

Huge costs added

Next comes the technology's irresponsible nuclear-like economics. The Alberta Carbon Capture and Storage Development Council estimates that CCS is so costly that it will require public subsidies between $20 billion to $60 billion over the next two decades. Adding a CCS unit to any power plant raises the capital costs between 32 and 74 per cent. Whenever a petro state pays one of the world's richest companies $750 million to bury something it can't afford to bury on its own, taxpayers should ask what the hell is going on.

Last comes the issue of scale. CCS can't solve any big climate problems. It's not a silver bullet, let alone a lead one. Vaclav Smil, one of the world's foremost energy economists, calculates that it would take twice the world's petroleum infrastructure just to capture, pipe and bury about 25 per cent of the world's carbon over a hundred year period. Yet Alberta's incompetent government has proposed to bury 70 per cent of the province's carbon with an unproven and non-commercial technology by 2050. Almost every scientist in the province, including Canada's Royal Society, considers the goal a ridiculous fantasy.

Stuff it somewhere else, say protester

So what happened in Barendrecht? Well, in 2009 Shell proposed to hide 10 million tonnes of CO2 from a nearby oil refinery in two depleted gas fields that just happen to lie underneath the town. The Dutch government, a chintzy organization by Alberta standards, proposed to threw in $40 million for the experimental venture with the goal of promoting "international trade of equipment and expertise."

At that point, the people of Barendrecht started to ask questions about the safety of storing carbon under a densely populated area, given that an accidental release of CO2 could smother humans and animals alike. There, too, were questions about liability, groundwater, monitoring, earthquakes and property values. Neither Shell nor the Dutch government had good answers.

One citizen put it this way: "Why do a project in a residential area and not offshore? The atomic bomb wasn't tested under Manhattan. To me this means: Not under my backyard."

Within a year, citizens set up a group called "CO2 Is No." Public meetings attracted up to 1,000 people or more than any other political issue in the town's history. The group presented 750 letters to local government and adopted the guinea pig as its mascot. Opponents even sponsored guinea pig races. Meanwhile newspaper headlines screamed that the "Dutch cabinet has been taken hostage by Shell."

In the end, overwhelming public opposition to the project's complex economics and uncertain safety risks killed the scheme. So, Shell and the Dutch government called the whole deal off. Shell, however, blamed the project's defeat on "poor communication" instead of bad ideas.

Europeans know that there are lots of cheap ways to reduce carbon pollution. They include burning fewer hydrocarbons, taxing CO2 emissions, controlling fugitive emissions and decentralizing electrical production (or the opposite of Alberta's carbon happy transmission scandal). Investments in small-scale renewable energy, local farms and public transit also deliver tangible economic returns.

So here's the question: Will Alberta's guinea pigs (and taxpayers) have the same courage as the good people of Barendrecht?  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Rights + Justice

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