Friday, August 3, 2012

Is CCS for Oil Sands Going Too Far?

Last month the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board announced conditional approval for the Royal Dutch Shell Quest CCS project located near Fort Saskatchewan.  If built, Quest would be the world's first CCS project for an oil sands facility.  Shell, along with project partners Chevron and Marathon Oil, is scheduled to make a Final Investment Decision later this year.

Among those who advocate more research into climate engineering, CCS is generally supported since it overlaps in significant ways with several potential CDR strategies.  However, oil sands and associated infrastructure (for example, the Keystone Pipeline) have become the bete noire of the environmental movement, and not undeservedly given the high carbon content of tar sands-derived oil (12% more GHGs per barrel than conventional oil) combined with the considerable ecological damage that results from extraction activities.  This creates a quandary for supporters of geoengineering research: should CCS for oil sands be welcomed as another opportunity to develop technologies that may prove critical to certain methods of large-scale atmospheric carbon dioxide removal? or should oil sands CCS be rejected as industrial-size "greenwashing" designed to promote the consumption of an especially dirty fossil fuel?

To answer this question, it is useful to revisit the underlying case for supporting CCS from a geoengineering perspective.  The starting point is to recognize that several leading CDR technologies share critical subsystems with CCS.  There are three main links in the traditional CCS chain: point-source capture, transport, and storage.  From this point of view, Direct Air Capture (DAC) differs fundamentally from conventional CCS only in that it captures carbon from the ambient air, and CO2 transport and storage figure as integral components.  Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) is, as its name indicates, simply one form of CCS, distinguished by its reliance on biomass combustion and promise of negative emissions.  With substantial funding going to support conventional CCS projects, and minimal funding going to support DAC and BECCS, it makes sense to back CCS projects with broad application to CDR techniques while focusing available geoengineering support on technical problems unique to climate remediation technologies.

Beyond this instrumental argument, CCS is also necessary in its own right.  The fact of the matter is that any realistic path toward avoiding the 2 degrees Celsius threshold entails significant reliance on CCS.  This point was made convincingly by the IEA in its authoritative 2009 CCS Technology Roadmap, which demonstrated that without CCS, the cost of reducing global emissions to 2005 levels by 2050 would increase by 70%.  Put simply, fossil fuels remain plentiful and will continue to be used, and CCS will be essential to moderating their climate impact.

The development of CCS technology has been slow, piecemeal, and insufficient, particularly in industrial applications (see Calls Intensify for More Global Action on CCS, 5/16).  Indeed, while oil sands are recovered in order to manufacture fuel for energy production, oil sands CCS actually represents an industrial application in which CO2 is captured during the upgrading process and stored in geologic formations (the Shell Quest project would sequester CO2 siphoned from the local Scotford upgrader).  Furthermore, although oil sands are a relatively new addition to the world's hydrocarbon stocks, as with coal, oil, and gas, it is hugely unrealistic to expect they will not be exploited in coming decades, with or without CCS.

We are thus confronted with the following points:

  • CCS deserves support both for its essential role in emissions mitigation and its strategic contribution to CDR technology development.
  • Absent a worldwide economic revolution, fossil fuel consumption will continue at a high rate over the next century.  Unconventional oil from tar sands will constitute a growing percentage of global fossil fuel consumption.
  • CCS must be applied to both power generation and industrial sectors.
Given this situation, the geoengineering research community can either a) oppose the use of CCS in oil sands, which logically entails higher carbon emissions and less effort devoted to research that is applicable to CDR techniques, or b) support the use of CCS in oil sands, which implies reduced emissions and more research on key CDR technologies.  Rejecting oil sands CCS will do virtually nothing to discourage the exploitation of tar sands, while dispensing with a potentially large volume of valuable analysis, insights, and experience.  Instead, oil sands CCS should be accepted and taken advantage of as the least bad option in an imperfect world, an option that might pay significant dividends if given a chance.

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