Answering Saskatchewan government talking points #2: Carbon capture and storage

In response to a 2016 letter from 250 citizens and 9 groups, premier Brad Wall failed to answer any of the ten questions which we asked him.  Instead he sent a letter consisting of what amounts to a list of his standard talking points on the subject.  We still want answers to our original questions – and as a public servant Mr Wall or his successor should provide them – but as an exercise in public education we are responding to his talking points here.

A core part of the province’s strategy to solve this global problem is the development of world-leading carbon capture and storage technology.  SaskPower made the largest per capita investment in the world by cleaning up coal generation through CCS technology at its electricity generating facility at Boundary Dam in Estevan.  With hundreds of coal plants still being planned worldwide in countries such as India and China, Saskatchewan can play a key role in providing technological solutions to help clean up the power that comes from that coal.  We will continue to present the technology as part of the solution to climate change around the world.

– Brad Wall

Let’s start with the technology.  If the Boundary Dam 3 plant was working as its designers predicted, then it would emit only about 15% of the CO2 emissions of a conventional coal plant with the same net power output.  This is a significant saving, but it isn’t enough.  The science is pretty clear that, if we are to have any reasonable chance of meeting the Paris temperature targets, we need to have reduced fossil CO2 emissions worldwide to zero by around mid-century.  So why only go partway to that goal now when we can go all the way with renewables?

Then there’s the cost.  Boundary Dam 3 came in at about $1.5 billion.  That works out at about 15 cents per kilowatt-hour – at a time when SaskPower should be able to generate from solar photovoltaics at 12 cents/kWh or lower, and wind at between 5 and 8 cents/kWh.  We don’t need “bridge technologies” to sustainable energy when it’s so much easier and cheaper to just leap straight across the gap.  And when Mr Wall brags about the “largest per capita investment in the world” he is merely highlighting a poor investment strategy.  Other jurisdictions worldwide have backed out of investing in CCS simply because it is so expensive, and found more cost-effective emissions-reduction strategies.

In any case BD3 isn’t working to specifications.  The initial claim was that it would remove 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year.  After a difficult first year in which it barely achieved 40% of that, apparently problems have been substantially resolved – but the claim now is only that it can sequester 0.85 million tonnes a year, a 15% reduction from the original plan.

If Mr Wall or SaskPower want to sell the technology to China or India or anywhere else, there is a further problem.  The patent for the adsorption unit – the key piece of technology in the CCS facility – is held not by SaskPower but by Shell.  So Mr Wall’s proposal to “provide technological solutions to help clean up [coal power]” faces three obstacles: it is too expensive, we haven’t managed to make it work properly yet, and we don’t own the rights to the technology.  The continued construction of coal-fired power stations in a number of countries worldwide is indeed a major challenge, but to suggest that Saskatchewan’s CCS experience can meet that challenge in any significant way is to enter the realms of fantasy.

[It is worth noting here that coal consumption for power generation is now on a downward trend worldwide.  See for example here, here and here.]

But there is another vitally important consideration – where does the carbon dioxide go?  At BD3, it is used for enhanced oil recovery – it reduces the viscosity of underground oil deposits so that Cenovus can pull them out more easily.  Assuming that conditions are similar to those in the previous Weyburn-Midale project, each tonne of carbon dioxide pumped underground will liberate an additional quantity of oil which, when burnt, will release between 2.5 and 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide.  CCS with enhanced oil recovery is, therefore, a net source of greenhouse gas emissions – but, as the extra emissions will not be entered on SaskPower’s balance sheet, it remains possible for government politicians and CCS advocates to maintain the pretence that they are “addressing this global problem”.  This sort of creative carbon accounting will do nothing to address the climate crisis.

For answers to more talking points click here.