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CCS - solution or problem?

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is decarbonisation’s great white hope. Ian Duncan MEP FGS* visited Canada to learn more.

kljhThe UN Paris Climate Change Treaty became law in September 2016 - committing the global community to arrest global temperature rise at ‘well below’ 2oC. But brokering the deal was the easy part - decarbonisation will be the devil. The globe is still wholly dependent upon carbon, even with progress in renewables and synthetic materials.


Some 95% of Canada’s remaining fossil fuel reserve is bitumen, extracted from the tar sands of Alberta. To date only 5% have been exploited. Bitumen recovery employs 130,000 Canadians, generates $5.5 billion per year and adds 2% to Canadian GDP. That’s the upside. The downside: Alberta’s bitumen extraction has resulted in annual carbon emissions of 70m tonnes (0.13% of global emissions). Were Alberta to exploit all its economically recoverable bitumen, some 22bn tonnes of carbon would enter the atmosphere and increase global temperatures by 0.4oC.

One of the world’s largest CCS facilities - Shell’s ‘Quest’ project - is in Alberta. It can capture (and sequester deep underground) a third of the CO2 produced by the conversion of bitumen into ‘lighter’ oils in the Scotford installation - the equivalent of 1m tonnes of CO2 every year. Over its 25-year lifespan, 25m tonnes of carbon will be captured: but 50m tonnes will not.

The governments of Alberta and Canada recognise that tar sand recovery sits uncomfortably alongside climate change ambition. So the Albertan government proposes to cap emissions at 100m tonnes per year and to tax the CO2 released into the atmosphere at a rate of $30 (£18) per tonne. However since annual emissions from bitumen processing are 70m tonnes, this still allows significant growth in the industry – not much of a ‘cap’.


CCS can substantially reduce emissions. But should such carbon abatement technology be deployed to allow the extraction of carbons and hydrocarbons - such as tar sands - which are known to be particularly polluting? Or should it be reserved for the mitigation of emissions from less polluting fossil fuels like natural gas?

Shell argue that Quest has been an important learning process; that the next generation will be more efficient. It is also clear that the Albertan and Canadian Governments are determined to exploit tar sands. That is why Canada invested $120m in Quest, and Alberta $745m. Were it not for Quest the atmospheric pollution would literally be stratospheric.


So, given this is happening, using CCS to cut emissions is ‘a good thing’. But if the use of CCS encourages prolonging our dependence on bitumen or coal, resulting in the release of more carbon than is saved, many would argue that it is ‘a bad thing’. Would this Faustian pact be more palatable if recovery efficiency was nearer 90% than 30%? Perhaps.

A nation with an economic reserve will seek to exploit it. However, if every nation does so, then the world will just go on warming. CCS could be part of the solution, or part of the problem. Having experienced the hottest year on record[1] the challenge remains. We don’t have much time to find out.


*Ian Duncan FGS is Conservative MEP for Scotland and a member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety