Mon. Feb 26th, 2024

The challenges of decarbonizing the Alberta oil sands

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According to 2021 federal government data, the oil sands industry releases 85 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually.

  • Anne Levasseur (View profile)Anne Levasseur

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Canada's largest oil sands producers say they want to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 by building a massive carbon capture and storage network. Their ambitions, however, raise many doubts – from the astronomical cost, the majority of which they want to see covered by public funds, to the real effectiveness of the process, including the concerns of the First Nations.

As proposed, the New Ways Alliance project is valued at more than $16.5 billion. To finance its construction, the consortium made up of the six largest oil sands producers hopes to receive support from the governments of Canada and Alberta.

For us, the ideal would be two thirds public funds and the rest, of the industry.

A quote from Kendall Dilling, President of the New Ways Alliance

To date, neither government has committed to subsidizing this megaproject. But the situation could change quickly.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is to announce details of her carbon capture and storage incentive program in margins of the Climate Conference to be held in Dubai at the end of November. These incentives would be in addition to the federal government's investment tax credit announced last year.

The New Ways Alliance brings together major Canadian oil sands producers, including Suncor and Imperial. Their greenhouse gas emissions represent 12% of Canada's total emissions.

The goal of Alliance members is to first to sequester 10 to 12 million tonnes of carbon, or a quarter of the emissions from their installations by 2030, then to double this target before 2050.

To get there, Kendall Dilling concedes that the challenge is significant and that the industry must act quickly. We have no time to waste, everything has to work well from now on.

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Liquid carbon would be transported by pipeline over nearly 400 km. The exact route of this transmission line and storage area will be determined based on soil analyzes and consultations with the municipalities and indigenous communities concerned.

The New Pathways Alliance's plan is to capture carbon emissions from more than two dozen facilities in Fort McMurray, Christina Lake, Primrose, Wolf Lake and Cold Lake.

This CO2 will then be transported by pipeline in liquid form to injection wells scattered over a vast area in the Cold Lake region.

These sinks will push the carbon underground, more than a kilometer deep, where it will be trapped in permeable minerals, beneath thick layers of much more hermetic rock formations.

At-source carbon capture and storage technology is not new. Shell has been using it north of Edmonton for almost 10 years. Elsewhere in the world, installations have been in operation for several years, notably in Brazil, Australia and the United States.

The president of the New Ways Alliance believes the technology is ripe.

From a technical point of view, it's pretty easy. Our members are very experienced in carrying out these types of projects […] Alberta has the best underground reservoir in the world for carbon storage.

A quote from Kendall Dilling, president of the New Ways Alliance

But in reality, carbon capture and storage on such a large scale is unheard of.

The New Ways Alliance has increased its advertisements to tout the seriousness of its ambitions in recent months, particularly in Quebec.

The consortium, however, attracted the wrath of environmental groups such as Greenpeace, who accused it of leading a greenwashing campaign.

De For its part, the Pembina Institute, an energy sector think tank, admits that the proposed plan is ambitious, but believes it is feasible.

It's just a matter of taking what's already done in Alberta and taking it to the next level, but there will definitely be challenges along the way.

A quote from Jan Gorski, Director of Programs and Policy for the Oil and Gas Industry, Pembina Institute

However, oil capture and carbon only concerns emissions generated by oil production. A car running on carbon-neutral oil continues to emit greenhouse gases.

For this reason, some environmentalists see carbon capture at the source as a “bad idea.” The Climate Action Network Canada, among others, believes that we should instead reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.

It's a tactic to delay real measurements […] It's like trying to empty a bathtub with a pipette. What we need to do is turn off the tap.

A quote from Alex Cool-Fergus, national policy director Climate Action Network Canada

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The New Ways Alliance plans to organize public information sessions in all municipalities surrounding the planned area for transportation and storage carbon.

In a reception room of a hotel in Cold Lake, northeast of Edmonton, the New Ways Alliance invited the city's population at an information session.

Experts in engineering, geology and geophysics explain in a loop how carbon capture and storage works.

Among the hundred curious people who came to find out, the questions are more of a logistical nature. Cold Lake residents want to know where and when the project will move forward.

All we heard until now were rumors. There, we know exactly what is going on.

A quote from Cold Lake resident Jerry Smith

To a few kilometers away, on the edge of the great lake of Cold Lake, the concerns of the members of the First Nation are quite different.

The risks of earthquakes and leaks associated with the injection of carbon into the ground worry them.

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Members of the Cold Lake First Nation say they have suffered the consequences of several major infrastructure projects over the years, including the creation of the Cold Lake Aerial Weapons Range in 1953.

Megaproject gives Daniel Mclaughlin a bad sense of déjà vu.

All pipelines have flaws, our nation knows that. Even with security measures in place, nothing ever works perfectly.

A quote from Daniel Mclaughlin, member of the Cold Lake Nation

Even if the pipeline should not pass directly through the territory of the nation, a large portion of the storage area risks extending beneath its ancestral lands, where its members have fished, hunted and lived for generations.

I worry about my children, my grandchildren and their children. I want to know what the long term consequences will be. What will happen in 20, 30, 50 years, after having pumped all this CO2 into the ground?, wonders the father.

The Chief of the Nation Kelsey Jacko accuses the New Ways Alliance of wanting to impose this megaproject on his community without properly consulting them. They should have informed us of their plans from the start.

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The Cold Lake First Nation is concerned about the environmental impact of this project on its territory fishing and hunting.

For the Cold Lake Nation, which regrets not having had the right to its own information session, this false start does not bode well.

Kendall Dilling maintains that all First Nations directly or indirectly affected by the project will be consulted and that their concerns will be taken into account.

< p class="StyledBodyHtmlParagraph-sc-48221190-4 hnvfyV">The New Ways Alliance hopes to move through the regulatory stages in the next year.

We know we must act. The time to talk has passed. I know everyone is tired of the words.

A quote from Kendall Dilling, President of the New Ways Alliance

If the consortium receives the hoped-for funds and permits needed to move forward, construction of the storage network could begin toward the end of 2025.

But without substantial contributions from governments, the tar sands industry's carbon neutrality promises could go up in smoke.

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