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Is carbon capture a doomed technology?

A recent report looking at 13 flagship carbon capture projects around the world found the technology — which promises to scrub carbon emissions from industrial pollution — are failing to reduce emissions.
Boundary Dam
The carbon capture facility at SaskPower’s Boundary Dam Power is the only coal-fired power plant in the world that captures carbon dioxide. A recent report found it has consistently failed to hit its emission reduction targets. File photo

As the world barrels toward a climate precipice, there’s a technology advocates say could buy us time. 

Known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), the process promises to suck carbon emissions from industrial smokestacks, effectively decarbonizing everything from oil and gas extraction to cement production. 

Described by the International Energy Agency (IAE) as a “the most important” technology for hard-to-decarbonize industries like cement production, governments around the world have been pouring vast sums of money into CCS. 

In order to reach global net zero by 2050, the IEA estimates annual capacity to capture and store carbon dioxide will need to climb to 1.6 billion tonnes per year by 2030. From 2030 onward, that means equipping 10 heavy industrial plants with the technology every month — a massive investment. 

In April, the Canadian federal government unveiled a $7.1-billion refundable tax credit program to help the country’s oil and gas industry pursue the technology through 2030 and scrub greenhouse gas emissions from its operations. 

The tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry are expected to cost $2.6 billion in taxpayer dollars over the first five years, and other $1.5 billion annually after that until 2030.

Proponents of the technology say it offers a realistic path to wean Canada — and indeed the rest of the world — off fossil fuels without sinking the economy. 

Those who oppose the widespread adoption of CCS say pursuing the technology funnels money away from investments in technologies like wind or solar energy. Worse, say opponents, it is being used as a tool to ‘greenwash’ the oil and gas industry and let it carry on as usual.

Now, a new landmark report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) has taken one of the first global looks at the promise of carbon capture and storage, where it has succeeded, and where it has failed.

“The essential question we're trying to get to is, ‘Does it actually work?’” said lead author and energy analyst Bruce Robertson from his farm north of Sydney, Australia.

Half of carbon capture projects used to recover more oil and gas

Robertson and analyst Milad Mousavian used public data from 13 flagship CCS and CCUS projects (the ‘U’ in cases where captured carbon is ‘utilized’). Together they account for 55 per cent of the world’s entire carbon capture capacity.

In the end, the report found failed or underperforming projects “considerably outnumbered” successful ones. 

When projects did succeed, they were most often found where the technology was being used to extract and process natural gas. 

Two-thirds of all projects were found to be dedicated to natural gas processing. Of those, nearly three-quarters were used for enhanced oil recovery — a process which pumps captured carbon underground in order to squeeze more oil and gas to the surface.

That means that roughly half of all CCS projects were found to be in the service of getting otherwise unreachable oil and gas out of the ground.

It’s a practice that has mobilized environmental groups around the world. 

As Environmental Defence put it in a written statement, “The Government of Canada has made big bets on carbon capture technology to deliver on climate targets — including in the oil and gas and power sectors. But the science just isn’t there.” 

“Canada shouldn’t be basing its climate plans on such unreliable technology — let alone betting billions of dollars on it.”

Canada’s latest tax breaks are not meant to apply to enhanced oil recovery projects. Instead, they are meant to support technology to scrub carbon emissions from oil and gas production facilities, power plants or heavy industry before permanently storing it underground.

A failed experiment?

First commissioned in 2014, the federal government invested an initial $230 million in the 50-year-old Boundary Dam power plant in Saskatchewan. It is now the only coal-fired power plant in the world that captures carbon dioxide. 

Since its inception, Boundary Dam has consistently failed to hit its emission capture targets, according to the IEEFA report. 

Using data from SaskPower, which operates the project, Boundary Dam’s average carbon capture rate to date sits at roughly 50 per cent, far from the targeted 90 per cent, states the report.

“We found it basically failed,” said Robertson, pointing to its inefficiency in capturing emissions and the expensive electricity it produced.

“The sheer volume of government money that could have been used somewhere else to promote successful technologies that do reduce emissions — it is just mind-blowing and we're still making this mistake today.” 

At the time of publication, SaskPower had not responded to Glacier Media's request for comment.

The report points to Boundary Bay as an example of several flagship carbon capture projects around the world that have either failed to meet their targets or consistently underperformed.

There have been some exceptions. The Quest project in the Alberta tar sands, for example, has largely met its carbon capture targets. But Robertson says globally, this is the exception rather than the rule.

“We're looking at subsidizing a technology that essentially hasn't been very successful,” said Robertson. 

Not everyone agrees carbon capture is doomed to fail. Now a senior advisor for the Pembina Institute, Scott MacDougall used to work in the Alberta government on the regulation and reporting of CCS and CCUS. 

MacDougall defended the track record of the Boundary Dam project as an early attempt at a new technology, and something the next generation of carbon capture projects can learn from.

He says carbon capture technology is a “needed solution” to reduce emissions from oil and gas as quickly as possible before things like electric vehicle charging networks and sustainable aviation take hold. 

“Urgency should move us to try to implement all the solutions that we can as fast as we can, and I think that includes carbon capture and storage,” he said.

That argument doesn’t hold weight with Emily Eaton, a researcher who has studied the oil and gas industry in Saskatchewan for the past 12 years. 

Eaton points to the captured carbon from the Boundary Dam power plant that feeds extraction operations in the Weyburn oil field.

“It’s an aging oilfield. Through conventional methods of extraction, you wouldn’t be able to get any more oil out of it,” said Eaton. 

“In essence, [the captured carbon] is enabling new fossil fuels that we wouldn't otherwise be able to access.”

The ‘elephant in the room’

Even the most successful carbon capture project can only do so much. That’s because only roughly 15 per cent of the emissions produced by oil and gas comes from the extraction, processing and transportation process. The rest — more than 85 per cent — wafts into the atmosphere when the fuel is burned. 

“The lion's share of emissions are still being created when you turn on your gas stove in your house or you drive your car,” said Robertson. “The carbon is not captured off those things.”

Focusing on emissions during extraction and processing misses the bigger picture, or as Robertson put it in the report, “the elephant in the room.” 

“We need to get rid of fossil fuels,” added Eaton. “Producing them with fewer greenhouse gases really only locks in that carbon infrastructure into the future.”

Eaton says the IEEFA report is the first global picture she has seen that shows carbon capture's systemic failures. 

Outside of hard-to-decarbonize industries like cement, fertilizer production and steel manufacturing, “it should be the nail in the coffin,” she said.