Sept/Oct 2008

Carbon dioxide... R.I.P.

A tête-à-tête with Jim Carter, president of the Alberta Carbon Capture and Storage Development Council

By B. Sundararajan

With the threat of climate change looming large, two developments have received much attention — clean coal technology and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). One byproduct of burning coal is carbon dioxide, which can be captured and stored in the vast natural geology of Alberta.

Recognizing the potential of these technologies, the Government of Alberta constituted the Alberta Carbon Capture and Storage Development Council as part of its 2008 climate change strategy. Environment Minister Rob Renner said that the council will match ideas with people who have proven experience in translating ideas into action. One such individual, Jim Carter, the former president and COO of Syncrude, was invited to head the council. CIM Magazine recently spoke to Carter about the council’s mandates, objectives and likely recommendations as well as his own ideas and motivations.

CIM: Can we start with the council’s mandate and objectives?

Carter: The mandate is to take action immediately and begin to capture and store carbon in Alberta. What we are trying to do is establish several commercial-level pilot projects that would successfully store about five megatonnes [of captured carbon dioxide] by 2015. This is in support of Alberta’s climate change strategy to reduce emissions by 50 per cent of projected levels by 2050. This translates to a reduction of about 200 megatonnes. It is expected that about 30 per cent of that will come from energy conservation and renewables, and the remaining 70 per cent will come from carbon capture and sequestration.

CIM: Because this is a goal that needs to be achieved relatively quickly, are there specific actions on the council’s to-do list?

Carter: Well, some of this has already begun. We started meeting as a council, which is comprised of energy industry CEOs, federal and provincial ministers of the environment and members of the academic community. The Government of Alberta announced on July 9 [2008] that they are going to set aside $2 billion to help fund the council’s projects and get them moving. We intend to make our recommendations by the end of November this year. By the end of the first quarter of next year, the projects will go ahead. The attempt will be to have three to five projects implemented by 2015 and to be capturing five megatonnes [of carbon dioxide], which would then set us on the path to the long-term objective of halving emissions by 2050.

CIM: This is a really quick timeframe. I am sure there are several challenges in the short and long terms. 

Carter: We have very energy-intensive industries in Alberta. A lot of our electricity is coal-fired and we have carbon dioxide that results from that. The objective is to have these industries lend a hand in reducing the carbon footprint by capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide. Alberta in particular is able to do this because we have large sources of carbon that lend themselves to capturing. As well, we know how to capture and compress gases because we do that a lot here with the natural gas industry. We also know how to pipeline products because we do it all the time. More importantly, we have the geological formation for the storage.

CIM: Are you referring to the Western Sedimentary Basin?

Carter: Yes. The saline aquifers 1.5 to 2 kilometres under the surface of the earth lend themselves to the storage of liquid carbon dioxide. We also have an opportunity, on the revenue generation side, to use the carbon dioxide for oil recovery by injecting it into oil reservoirs. That is a big part of the project. Our intent, where possible, would be to use the captured carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery so that we can generate a benefit as well.

CIM: Are there challenges to storing carbon in these aquifers? Has it been done before? 

Carter: There is a very large body of knowledge on carbon capture and sequestration around the world. It has been promoted by the inter-governmental panel on the environment, which consists of about 3,000 scientists worldwide. They recognize this as a global opportunity to help reduce the carbon dioxide emissions. We’ve been doing it in Canada for quite some time. The Weyburn Field in southern Saskatchewan has been storing carbon since about 2000. There are approximately seven megatonnes stored there. A large project has been going on for quite a while in Norway. We understand the conditions under which the storage initiatives have operated and can transfer that knowledge to other aquifers, and the space is available in the geology of Alberta. So, it is not like we are starting out with something completely unknown. It hasn’t really happened in huge volumes; but the idea is to progress to the next level of development, hoping, as we gain experience, that we will get better at it.

CIM: Is that where your experience comes into play?

Carter: Yes. When we started making oil from the oil sands about 30 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about that either. We have come a tremendously long way since then in terms of improving the processes, making them more reliable, getting the costs down and creating a body of knowledge around it. And that same sort of ‘build, analyze, improve’ mentality will eventually lead to better and more cost-effective developments in carbon capture and storage.

CIM: Can you tell us about some of the efforts underway and what we can expect from the council?

Carter: We have structured our council such that we have three working sub-committees. The first examines technological, the second, regulatory and the third, fiscal aspects. The intent is to capture knowledge and make sure that we are guided by it. A lot of the work has been done by the Alberta Energy Research Institute and the Integrated CO2 Network that was established a few years ago in Alberta to look into carbon capture and storage. The objective is to not become technical experts, but rather to look at how we can streamline the process so that action can be taken. The last thing we need is another study that will likely collect dust. What we really need is a bias for action and that’s what you are going to see coming out of this work.

CIM: What were your personal motivations in becoming involved?

Carter: I’d like to see Alberta, and indeed Canada, continue to be able to develop our energy resources. I think this is a key component in enabling that to happen. The broader society and the markets that we produce our energy for have expectations around reducing the environmental impact [of the energy industry]. This is an effort towards doing that. I think it really draws upon a lot of strength in Alberta and the strength of technology to solve these problems. This is true technological development and an effort to make a concrete difference to a challenging issue.

CIM: Do you have any thoughts that you would like to leave our readers with, as they follow the progress of the projects?

Carter: [The Government of] Alberta has announced a commitment of $2 billion — money that’s going to support this challenging issue. There were and are many such national efforts that required this kind of support to get them underway. For example, the drawing of the railroad across the country in the early 1900s, the development of the oil sands initially and the exploration and drilling for off-shore oil in eastern Canada all required public support. But once they got off the ground, they became items of national importance to the overall Canadian economy and I expect that this [CCS] could very well be one such effort.

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