NATIONAL

Deep in the cold, cold ground

That’s where we should put our CO2 emissions, the Conservatives say

JOHN GEDDES November 6 2006
NATIONAL

Deep in the cold, cold ground

That’s where we should put our CO2 emissions, the Conservatives say

JOHN GEDDES November 6 2006

Deep in the cold, cold ground

NATIONAL

That’s where we should put our CO2 emissions, the Conservatives say

JOHN GEDDES

Of the major initiatives taken so far by Stephen Harper’s government, the clean air act sparked the most derisive reaction. Environment Minister Rona Ambrose released it last week to criticism from environmental groups and opposition politicians, pundits and political cartoonists—most mocking her for setting far-off 2050 as the target year for cutting Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions roughly in half. Given the urgency surrounding climate change, that date struck many as laughably remote. If only Ambrose had promised something bold for the near future, a step that didn’t seem either too marginal (weatherstrip the screen doors of the nation) or too radical to fly (a wind turbine in every pot).

Actually, she did touch on an idea that might have been enough to lend last week’s package real heft—if the government had been ready to say much more about it. Of the technological advances that must come if Canada is ever going to significantly cut emissions, Ambrose specifically referred to carbon dioxide “sequestration.” That’s the term for taking the CO2 from, say, a coal-fired generating station, and pumping it deep into the ground instead of into the atmosphere. It only makes sense for large, industrial emitters, and only where the geology is right-as it happens to be under much of Alberta. Environment groups and industry experts have been waiting for years for a big federal push on the concept. But they were not sure how to read Ambrose’s signal. On the one hand, she didn’t say much about it. On the other, it was the only technology she singled out when talking about working on solutions.

Her office wouldn’t answer questions from Maclean’s about plans for promoting sequestration. But serious groundwork is apparently being laid. A year ago, a Calgarybased industry group was formed with largescale sequestration as its goal—whenever Ottawa and Alberta get serious about it. Called ICON, for Integrated CO2 Network, it’s made up of 12 companies, including big players like Suncor, TransAlta, Syncrude, and Shell Canada. ICON’S plan is to collect CO2 from power plants, oil and natural gas processing facilities, and perhaps oil sands operations, and pipe it to suitable geological formations, such as deep saltwater aquifers or depleted oil and gas reservoirs. The group estimates its plan could cut emissions by up to 20 million tonnes per year—equal to taking four million cars off the roads.

That would be by far the biggest success in what has been, up to now, a dismal Canadian record on greenhouse gases. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Ottawa promised to slash emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. Instead, emissions rose 27 per cent to 758 million tonnes by 2004. The Conservatives have shucked off the Liberals’ Kyoto pledge, substituting Ambrose’s goal of a 45 to 65 per cent cut from 2003 levels by 2050. Hitting even that distant target demands big change fairly soon. Sequestration is hardly enough on its own, but it seems like the best bet to appeal to an Albertabased Prime Minister, since it promises to cut emissions from the oil and gas economy without putting the brakes on its rapid expansion. “Let’s face it, oil sands development is big and growing and not going away,” says Mario Raynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based environment group, which last week issued a report calling for massive sequestration.

IT’S A PLAN THAT COULD HELP THE TORIES WIN BACK CREDIBILITY ON THE GLOBAL WARMING FRONT

With industry, some environmentalists, and informed government insiders so enthusiastic, what’s holding the Tories back? Probably money. Pierre Alvarez, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, estimates the cost at $30 to $50 per tonne of CO2, well above the $15 per tonne set as an acceptable future burden on industry in talks with the former Liberal government. “They realized that after $15 per tonne,” Alvarez says, “the economic consequences start getting very, very serious.” Other countries’ governments, however, are investing. Washington is partnering in a US$l-billion coalfired generating plant from which all the carbon dioxide will be stored underground. Norway recently announced the most ambitious CO2 storage scheme ever, a US$594million project to pipe emissions back into its offshore oil fields. Canada’s Conservatives should take note: spending federal cash to get sequestration going here could be their way to win back credibility on what’s arguably the world’s worst problem.