Carbon Capture Can't Clean the Tar Sands

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A new study produced by The Co-operative Financial Services and WWF-UK debunks the idea, lauded by oil companies and the Canadian government, that carbon capture and storage (CCS) will significantly counter the high levels of greenhouse gases emitted in the production of oil from the Alberta tar sands.

The following is the Executive Summary of Carbon Capture and Storage in the Alberta Oil Sands – A Dangerous Myth. The full report is available online here. (PDF 2 MB)

The application of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has been widely cited by supporters of the oil sands as justification for ongoing expansion activities. This study exposes the myth of CCS in the oil sands, finding it to have no serious ability to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions anytime this side of 2050. In its application to oil sands developments, CCS has limited potential to reduce upstream emissions to levels comparable with the average for conventional oil. Crucially, CCS will not enable oil sands products to meet emerging international low carbon fuel standards or enable Canada to meet its international climate change commitments.

Alberta’s proven economically recoverable oil sands reserves amount to 173 billion barrels of oil equivalent, with estimates for bitumen in place between 1.7 and 2.5 trillion barrels, making it second only to Saudi Arabia in proven reserves. Production reached 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2008 and current projections place production between 2.5 and 4.5 million bpd by 2020, with production capacity possibly as high as 6.2 million bpd.

The extraction of oil from the oil sands is incredibly energy intensive. Studies have estimated that well-to-refinery emissions are on average three times more carbon intensive than for conventional oil and that Well-to-Wheel emissions are between 14 and 40% higher than the current average for conventional crude sources. These figures do not include emissions resulting from the destruction of boreal ecosystems.

In 2007, Canada’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were 26% higher than 1990 levels and 34% higher than its then agreed Kyoto target. Furthermore, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), industrialised nations should seek to reduce emissions by between 25 and 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 to 90 per cent by 2050 (IPCC 2007). It would appear that Canada’s current model of economic development is totally ill suited to its international environmental obligations.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has been cited by supporters of the oil sands as the solution. It has been claimed that separation of CO2 from combustion streams and from industrial processes is common in a number of industries and underground gas storage has substantial history as a result of acid gas storage and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) projects. However, even the most optimistic estimates from industry experts claim reductions from oil sands upstream operations will be 10-30% in the medium term (and only for the more favourable sites) and 30-50% in the long term. Reductions of around 85% are required to make oil sands emissions comparable with the average for conventional oil production.

The maximum reductions achievable using CCS would therefore be insufficient to meet emerging low carbon fuel standards, such as those in the European Union and California, even by 2050.

Furthermore, CCS cannot address the even larger downstream emissions associated with burning the resulting fuel in vehicles, so that on a full lifecycle basis, emission reduction potential is likely in the 7 to 11 per cent range.

Significant barriers exist to CCS achieving its maximum potential in connection with the oil sands. Not least its expense, with estimates of between $60 to $290 per tonne of CO2 captured ($200 to $290 for in situ production); which compares poorly with emissions capture from larger, highly concentrated sources, such as coal fired power stations. It has been estimated that subsidies of $1 to $3 billion per year would be required from the governments of Alberta and Canada to successfully promote CCS projects in Alberta. If these funds are invested in oil sands operations, then it is a major public investment in a technology that cannot deliver reductions of the magnitude that are required if we are to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.

And from the Report’s Conclusions:

  • Oil sands production reached 1.3 million bpd in 2008. Current projections place production between 2.5 and 4.5 million bpd by 2020, with capacity possibly as high as 6.2 million bpd. As at February 2009, licenses had been granted for the production of 7 million bpd.
  • Even on the assumption of a constrained growth forecast for oil sands developments and the aggressive deployment of CCS, rather than what is likely, projected upstream emissions from the oil sands alone are set to exceed the whole of Canada’s 2050 carbon budget, were it to meet the IPCC 2007 recommended GHG reduction target of 80% on 1990 GHG levels.
  • Optimistic industry estimates for CCS have suggested that overall reductions from upstream operations could be in the 10% to 30% range at the best process locations by 2020 and the 30% to 50% range industry wide by 2050. This would account for at best between 3% and 9%, and between 9% and 15%, of total life-cycle emissions by 2020 and 2050 respectively.
  • The cost of applying CCS to oil sands developments is high and does not compare favourably with capturing emissions from highly concentrated sources such as coal fired power stations. SAGD for instance is estimated to be capturable in the range of $200 to $290 per tonne of CO2, compared to $60 to $150 per tonne for coal fired power stations in Alberta.
  • CCS is unlikely to make a significant contribution to reducing the GHG intensity of oil sands products sufficiently to meet emerging international low carbon fuel standards, at least until 2050.