Carbon capture cannot redeem the oil sands


Set aside, for the moment, the very reasonable doubts about whether carbon capture and storage (CCS) is safe and effective, affordable, and capable of rapid deployment. Even if CCS could be implemented rapidly and cheaply, it would not render the oil sands acceptable from a climatic perspective. The reasons for that are as follows:

  1. CCS can only be used to capture greenhouse gasses emitted in concentrated form from large facilities. Not all oil sands emissions are of this type.
  2. Even at large facilities, CCS is only expected to capture about 80-85% of emissions.
  3. The emissions from burning the fuels being produced will not be captured. Even with fuels originating from oil sands bitumen, these are the bulk of total emissions.

The oil sands are touted as a resource equivalent to a second Saudi Arabia. This is the last thing the world needs. There are only so many fossil fuels we can burn while still having a decent shot of avoiding catastrophic climate change. As a result, fossil fuels are an industry with no long-term future. This is indirectly demonstrated by the shamefully weak greenhouse gas mitigation targets adopted by Alberta. They know that even if CCS development progresses perfectly, it will not let them bring their emissions in line with what is sustainable. That’s why they can only hope to have reduced emissions to 14% below 2005 levels by 2050, when the world as a whole needs to have cut them to around 80% below 1990 levels, and rich places like Canada will need to have cut by even more.

There is also the issue of declining energy return on investment (EROI) and the perpetuation of oil dependency. Right now, the global economy is a fossil fuel junky. This cannot be sustained. Starting to depend heavily on alternative sources of oil, such as the oil sands, is the equivalent of starting to shoot up between your toes, because the veins in your arms have collapsed. It is not a far-thinking or effective way to deal with your quandary. The solution is to find a new way to sustain yourself. At best, the oil sands are a significant distraction from doing that.

[Update: 8 March 2010]. is a site dedicated to making the case for leaving coal, along with unconventional oil and gas, underground.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

26 thoughts on “Carbon capture cannot redeem the oil sands”

  1. CCS isn’t intended to make the oil sands sustainable.

    It is a way for relieving political pressure to clean them up. Promising a future perfect technology is an alternative to doing anything now.

  2. Harper and Obama announced a “clean energy dialogue” focusing on “carbon capture and storage” technology (CCS) – a stash-the-emissions pipe-dream that remains unproven on an commercial scale anywhere in the world.

    In particular, the myth that CCS will somehow eliminate emissions from the Alberta tar sands is a dangerous delusion. Just three months ago, a secret government memo came to light showing that significant carbon capture at the tar sands is virtually impossible.

  3. Secret advice to politicians: oilsands emissions hard to scrub
    Briefing document is pessimistic on carbon storage and capture

    Last Updated: Monday, November 24, 2008 | 11:49 AM ET

    Little of the oilsands’ carbon dioxide can be captured because most emissions aren’t concentrated enough, the notes say. For efficient capture, there must be a high concentration of CO2 coming out of a smoke stack.

    “Only a small percentage of emitted CO2 is ‘capturable’ since most emissions aren’t pure enough,” the notes say. “Only limited near-term opportunities exist in the oilsands and they largely relate to upgrader facilities.”

    The Canadian and Alberta governments are spending about $2.5 billion on developing carbon capture and storage, and the oilsands generally come up as the first reason for spending the money.

    In March, when he repeated a $240-million federal commitment to a project in Saskatchewan, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: “This new technology, carbon capture and storage, when fully commercialized … will collect carbon dioxide emissions from oilsands operations and coal-fired electrical plants and seal them deep underground.”

    David Keith, a professor of petroleum and chemical engineering at the University of Calgary, was the lead scientist on the task force.

    He says he’s frustrated that politicians and the industry keep focusing on the oilsands when there are sources of greenhouse gases to capture more easily and at less cost, including coal-fired power plants.

    Rational people shouldn’t focus on reducing emissions in the oilsands through carbon capture and storage, Keith says.

    “The actual content of the briefing note is a pretty fair summary of the technical situation we have,” he told CBC News.

  4. There is no legitimate case I can see for investing one penny of public money, or even corporate money, into CCS for combustive “upgraders” for bitumen. CCS has certain inherent faults that make it a bad idea:

    1. CO2 sequestration is inherently dangerous. CO2 can kill. “In 1986, a tremendous explosion of CO2 from the lake Nyos, West of Cameroon, killed more than 1700 people and livestock up to 25 km away. …” disaster report (external link) and medical from NIH (external link). The fact that we never even hear this admitted is cause for caution.

    2. CO2 and CO arise from combustion/oxidation, an inherently inefficient and wasteful way to use fuel. There are many other ways to use CH4 and probably soon CH2 that do not generate waste heat nor put the carbon into an inherently difficult to control gaseous form. The microbial and catalytic non-combustion methods of extracting the H2 seem inherently much more efficient and research into those would probably pay off much more than any amount of research into CCS.

    As for bitumen, the case for this is even weaker than the case for coal CCS which is weak enough. Specific problems with CCS for bitumen are:

    3. Tailpipe emissions from the CH2 (oil) remain as high as for any other oil, and cannot be captured by any intervention at the upgrader or refiner. So unlike coal only a small part of the emissions can ever be captured – while coal is burned all in one place to make electricity – thereafter moves along transmission wires with loss but no emission.

    4. Coal mines today are mature operations – few or no new ones are being opened. There are not as many stages of extraction, upgrading and refining as for bitumen, therefore fewer sites to intervene for CCS and less expense.

    5. Bitumen is a very tiny proportion of world fuel supplies. Coal is far more prevalent. So any solution for coal could be scaled to the world’s many coal users while solutions for bitumen are useful only in Canada, Venezuela and a few other small bitumen sites. Thus it’s uneconomic to invest in any CCS research specific to bitumen upgrades and very likely utterly irrelevant the moment microbial conversion to CH4 works.

    Then there are the problems with bitumen as such:

    6. Bitumen has an inherently low EROI (energy return on investment) and is less able to pay for its own emissions offsets or CCS than other fossil fuel sources. Even coal-to-oil is probably more economic given (again) the large number of coal users and maturity of this technology and amortization of improvements to it.

    7. Bitumen extraction presently requires extensive water and labour and specialized equipment and all of these have their own energy requirements and environmental risk. These too need to be offset.

    8. Unlike coal bitumen extraction and upgrading produces vast pools of waste product that are a hazard to wildlife and arguably to human life. The long term costs of remediating these sites have to be considered as yet another cost of production.

    So a more practical solution is a global ban on export of any bitumen or any oil produced from it, and sanctions against any country using it as a source of fuel (including Canada). Microbial or geothermal or even nuclear fission upgrading could be considered in the medium term but only under certain circumstances like a cutoff of all oil from the Mideast for an extended period.

    However, given that cars are going electric, algae-grown biofuels are an alternative for air transport, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) can fulfil almost any other use we presently have for oil, global demand for Tar Sands bitumen would probably drop anyway if its full price of emissions control and environmental damage were figured in. So there may be no need for such a ban.

    The Tar Sands always were a loser, a Soviet-style gigaproject created by government incentives and lifting of all environmental regulations. They always were a waste of water, of natural gas, and of wildlife and boreal forest. Now they are becoming a health hazard, a global embarassment, an impediment to growing a “green” economy, and a security threat as we contemplate a world racked by climate wars and looking for someone to blame. There are always gas wells being blown up in BC. There will never be a Tar Sands oil pipeline to the coast. As US states ban the stuff, we will view it as what it is: a gigantic mistake.

  5. Can science save the oil sands?

    Falling oil prices and bad PR have hammered the oil sands. Out of all that bad news may rise a new era in innovation

    From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
    April 24, 2009 at 8:58 PM EDT
    FORT McMURRAY, ALTA. — If Selma Guigard is right, an elusive key to reducing the oil sands’ emissions could lie in the science of the super-critical molecule.

    When they are subjected to a certain high temperature and pressure, substances like carbon dioxide enter a state where they are neither liquid nor gas — the super-critical state. When mixed with several other compounds, super-critical carbon dioxide is able to extract hydrocarbons from almost anything, in a process somewhat like the way some dry cleaners work.

  6. Meanwhile Canada is still on the barstool wondering where her old pal went. Carbon emissions in Canada ballooned by 4% in 2007 alone and are now 26% above 1990 levels, with no end in site. Rather than deal with a root cause of extraction and consumption, Canada has instead committed to the technological pipe dream of carbon capture that has already been rejected by experts as a solution to tar sands emissions.

    Of course if the US brings in meaningful cap and trade legislation, it would be a disaster for the already marginal economics of the oil sands. Canada either wants the US to continue ignoring the problem, or make sure that whatever climate bill is passed gives Canada’s tar sands a pass.

  7. Oil giants pull bids for Alberta’s carbon capture funding

    By Kelly Cryderman, Calgary Herald
    April 2, 2009

    Many of Alberta’s largest oilsands producers have abandoned their bids for a share of the government’s$2 billion in spending on carbon capture projects — the province’s primary response to criticism of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

    From an original pool of 20 firms selected by the province last November to move forward in the process, eight companies have chosen not to submit further plans on carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects — including oilsands heavyweights Suncor, Syncrude, ConocoPhillips and StatoilHydro.

    “CCS is not a slam-dunk,” said Bob Skinner of StatoilHydro Canada, adding there is “low-hanging carbon fruit” to be found in Alberta’s coal-fired electricity plants, a larger and more concentrated source of emissions.

    Still, Skinner expressed sup-port for the Alberta government’s spending plans even if his company’s particular project wasn’t financially viable. He said he’s concerned about public perception, saying critics will jump on the fact there’s less representation from the oilsands industry in this round and say, “The Alberta government held a party and nobody came.”

  8. Even if all these unlikely planets aligned, such production emissions are only one quarter of the so-called “downstream” emissions. Put another way, the only reason you would ever refine tar it into synthetic crude is so that it can be burnt in a car engine elsewhere in the world.

    Unless drivers consent to dragging long hoses from their tailpipes, “carbon capture” technologies will never be able to deal with this often-ignored issue.

    These downstream emissions dwarf even the colossal production emissions. There is enough extractable carbon in the tar sands to dump an incredible 122 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, no matter what shade of lipstick is applied to the pig at the production phase.

    The bottom line is the tar sands will never be “green”. The already marginal economics forced most operators to pass on accessing billions in taxpayers dollars to build carbon capture pilot plants. Earlier this year, Shell abandoned plans to reduce emissions to those of conventional oil, even though this humiliating climb-down exposed them to litigation that threatens a $13.7 billion oil sands expansion project.

  9. Carbon capture no ‘silver bullet’

    Minister acknowledges what critics have said all along: Technology has limited use in bitumen mining


    From Friday’s Globe and Mail, Friday, Jun. 05, 2009 03:49AM EDT


    The much-touted carbon capture and storage technology is not the answer to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands projects in northeastern Alberta, Environment Minister Jim Prentice says.

    While Ottawa and Alberta are spending billions of dollars on CCS demonstration projects, the minister yesterday acknowledged what critics have said all along: The technology has limited application at the energy-intensive mines and in situ projects that extract the bitumen from the ground.

  10. Carbon Capture Won’t Solve the Tar Sands – Canada’s Environment Minister

    By Mitchell Anderson on Stephen Harper

    it’s official. Canadian Environment Minster Jim Prentice fessed up to what experts have been saying all along: that carbon capture and storage (CSS) is close to useless for mitigating the massive emissions from the Alberta tar sands.

    Canadian Prime Minister Harper is no doubt pissed that his potential leadership rival has gone off message on such an important issue of spin.

    In an editorial board meeting with Globe and Mail Prentice admitted: “CCS is not the silver bullet in the oil sands.”

    Strange. That not what his boss said when he committed at least $650 million in taxpayer’s dollars towards this bitumen boondoggle. Harper is a big booster of CSS, stating that:

    “This new technology, carbon capture and storage, when fully commercialized … will collect carbon dioxide emissions from oilsands operations and coal-fired electrical plants and seal them deep underground.”

  11. Jun 4, 2009
    Clearing the Air of Oil Sands Myths
    Pembina Institute Distributes Facts to Key Decision Makers in Canada and the U.S.

    On June 4, 2009, the Pembina Institute distributed copies of a new resource, Clearing the Air on Oil Sands Myths, to key Canadian and U.S. decision makers. It identifies a growing body of oil sands “spin” from federal and Alberta politicians and the oil sands industry.

    Whether they are dismissing evidence of leaking tailings lakes, ignoring the severe disturbance associated with in situ oil sands development or making claims of leadership on climate change, government and industry have sought to muddy public discussion about the environmental impacts of oil sands development through dozens of claims that fail to provide the full story.

    “Government and industry brochures and presentations that defend status quo oil sands development are littered with misleading statements,” notes lead report author Jennifer Grant. “We wanted to make sure that decision makers, the public and the media had access to the full story when considering and discussing oil sands development.”

    Visit the Oil Sands Myths webpage to view the slide show and download the report.

    Political Folly or Climate Change Fix?

    By Graham Thomson
    For the Program on Water Issues
    Munk Centre for International Studies

    The Oil Sands Illusion: Although both federal and Alberta politicians have promoted CCS as a way to ‘green’ bitumen production in the oil sands, (Canada’s largest growing source of emissions) industry remains divided about its utility and cost. Of 20 firms selected by the Alberta government to submit proposals for carbon capture and storage projects, eight major oil sand firms (including Suncor and ConocoPhillips) chose not to participate for largely economic reasons. With the exception of upgraders most oil sands emissions are too impure or dispersed for this technology. A study on unconventional or highly carbon-rich fuels by the Rand Corporation concluded that even if CCS could be applied to the oil sands, it would “still leave unaddressed the CO2 emissions from final combustion of the fuels.” In other words unconventional fossil fuels “do not, in themselves, offer a path to greatly reduced carbon dioxide emissions.”

  13. SHADES OF GREEN | Insight | Climate change `solution’ a fossil-fuel enabler
    Climate change `solution’ a fossil-fuel enabler

    Oct 03, 2009 04:30 AM
    Peter Gorrie

    This week, the 30-year-old coal-burning Mountaineer generating station in West Virginia became the first commercial power plant to capture and bury some of the carbon dioxide it spews.

    The experiment is a tiny step with giant implications for what we’re increasingly told is the only technology that could save us from the worst of climate change.

    It cost $100 million (U.S.) to build the facility to capture, liquefy and bury about 91,000 tonnes of the gas in a layer of porous limestone some 2,450 metres underground. That’s only 1.5 per cent of the station’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, and an infinitesimal whiff in the 1.36 billion tonnes from all the United States’ coal-fuelled plants and 7.3 billion tonnes from all sources.

    The energy required to operate carbon capture and storage, or CCS, would reduce a power plant’s efficiency by about one-third, and raise costs by 50 per cent.

    Still, proponents hail Mountaineer as an assurance we can continue to burn coal and other fossil fuels – in fact, far greater quantities of them – and keep greenhouse gas emissions at a climate-safe level.

    For most politicians and the industries that rely on fossil fuels, the concept forestalls any need to alter our resource-gobbling economy and lifestyle. Ottawa and Alberta are pumping billions of dollars into studies, hoping the prospect of CCS will disarm critics of the oil sands projects, Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse emissions. The Obama administration has earmarked $2.4 billion (U.S.) for research.

  14. From The Times
    November 4, 2009
    It’s a dirty business — the new gold rush that is blackening Canada’s name

    Canada faces a dilemma as it prepares for next month’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen. It wants to present itself as environmentally responsible but also wants the profits from the tar sands, which cover an area of Alberta’s natural coniferous forest larger than England.

    The sands contain 174 billion barrels of proven reserves, the world’s second-largest reserves after Saudi Arabia. With improved techniques, Canada hopes to extract between 315 billion and 1.7 trillion barrels.

    A Co-operative Bank study calculated that, even if all other carbon dioxide emissions stopped, fully exploiting the tar sands would still tip the world into catastrophic climate change by raising global temperatures more than 2C above pre-industrial levels. Extracting each barrel of crude from the sticky mass of sand, clay and bitumen produces two to three times as much CO2 as drilling for a barrel of conventional oil. The tar sands boom faltered a year ago as the oil price fell below the $60 a barrel at which the extraction process is profitable. Now, with oil at about $80 a barrel, hundreds of fortune seekers arrive each day in Fort McMurray, the oil equivalent of a gold rush town.

  15. “I was asked by a major oil company to advise on the design of an internal, voluntary tradable permit systems for CO2 emissions. My response to the company was ‘fine, but the emissions from your production processes — largely refineries — are trivial compared with the emissions from the use of your products (combustion of fossil fuels). If you really want to do something meaningful about climate change, the focus should be on the use of your products, not your internal production process.’ (My response would have been different had they been a cement producer.) The oil company proceeded with its internal measures, which — as I anticipated — had trivial, if any impacts on the environment (and they subsequently used the existence of their voluntary program as an argument against government attempts to put in place a meaningful climate policy).”

  16. Elevated levels of toxins found in Athabasca River

    Finding refutes long-standing claims that water quality hasn’t been affected by oil sands development

    Josh Wingrove

    Edmonton — From Monday’s Globe and Mail Published on Monday, Aug. 30, 2010 3:00AM EDT Last updated on Monday, Aug. 30, 2010 11:26AM EDT

    A study set to be published on Monday has found elevated levels of mercury, lead and eleven other toxic elements in the oil sands’ main fresh water source, the Athabasca River, refuting long-standing government and industry claims that water quality there hasn’t been affected by oil sands development.

    The author of the study, University of Alberta biological scientist David Schindler, criticized the province and industry for an “absurd” system that obfuscates or fails to discover essential data about the river. “I think they [the findings] are significant enough that they should trigger some interest in a better monitoring program than we have,” he said.

    The Athabasca has increasingly become a flashpoint for debate. Earlier this year, Environment Minister Jim Prentice dismissed Dr. Schindler’s previous peer-reviewed work as “allegations.”

    Oil surfaces naturally in the Athabasca and its tributaries as the river erodes the bitumen below it. The government argues it is this, not industry, that is the main cause of the pollution.

  17. Carbon capture and storage cannot significantly reduce tar sands emissions says new report
    October 26, 2009

    The 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 tar sands deposits in Alberta, Canada.

    The production of tar sands oil is a highly energy intensive process and emits on average three times more CO2 than conventional oil production. Canada’s proven tar sands reserves are 173 billion barrels of oil, second only to Saudi Arabia.

    The report examines the potential for CCS to prevent CO2 from entering the atmosphere as a result of tar sands production and concludes that the process could not possibly achieve what has been claimed.

  18. The government has made a huge bet on burying carbon emissions through carbon sequestration schemes. It’s put $2-billion into projects that will start in the 2013-2015 range. Spread out over that period, the cost will be $400-million to $700-million a year.

    If all goes well, Alberta would eliminate four million to five million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. Great, but the government says it plans to use carbon capture and storage to get rid of 139 million tonnes by 2050. Do the math. If $2-billion spread over three to five years achieves a reduction of four million to five million tonnes, Alberta would need $60-billion to $70-billion between now and 2050 to get 135 million more tonnes out of the atmosphere – or $1.5-billion to $1.75-billion each year (in today’s dollars) instead of $400-million to $700-million.

    Do Albertans realize how expensive carbon capture and storage will be, considering that schemes such as the ones now being planned also take big dollops of cash from Ottawa and the companies? Chances are they don’t, because politicians don’t like to talk about the long-term financial challenge. It’s good enough for the government in a province with many climate-change deniers to waive the $2-billion fund and say the province leads the world. It’s also easy to say, yes, today’s costs are high, but they’ll come down as carbon sequestration technology improves. Maybe it will is the only plausible response, because there are industry representatives who doubt that all four of the identified projects will actually materialize.

  19. Harper government spent $1-million to lobby U.S. on carbon capture and storage

    OTTAWA – The Canadian Press
    Last updated Sunday, Jun. 19, 2011 9:22PM EDT

    Canada has spent $1-million on a travelling salesman peddling a fledgling, still unproven technology that has been a darling of the Conservative government, internal documents show.

    The federal government hired a special adviser on climate change and energy to lobby key players in the United States over energy and environmental issues. The job description includes promoting a made-in-Canada technique of pumping greenhouse gas deep underground.

  20. In the past year, the oil sands industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising to convince Canadians that the world’s single largest industrial development and the fastest growing source of Canada’s global warming pollution is being “fixed.” This advertising blitz has been reinforced by our federal government’s taxpayer-funded advertising campaign and, recently, by former Suncor CEO Rick George’s highly publicized book tour.

    We all want to believe it’s possible to just “fix it.” Unfortunately, slick ads claiming a cure for the environment offer nothing but a false sense of security for Canadians. In reality, little has changed on the ground.

    We keep hearing that the damaged land is being reclaimed, that we’re going to make a lake district out of toxic sludge pits known as tailings ponds. A wetland-dominated forest out of old mines.

    How many toxic ponds have actually been certified as reclaimed? Zero.

    How much land has been successfully reclaimed? 0.1 per cent.

    There are still no laws governing the amount of toxins spewed into the water. There’s no plan to reduce global warming pollution. There are no hard limits around the amount of water that can be withdrawn from the Athabasca River, yet the oil sands are allowed to divert from the river the equivalent of seven times the annual water use by the city of Edmonton. The oil sands have not been “fixed.” Just the opposite.

  21. “But there is an energy paradox with CCS. Any coal-fired power plant, oil refinery, or bitumen upgrader equipped to handle CCS will pay a huge energy penalty: it will have to burn anywhere from 25 to 32 percent more fossil fuels. Stripping and compressing CO2 is not cheap. This form of energy cannibalism also requires nearly a third more water and a third more chemicals. And the penalty doesn’t include the energy costs of retrofitting these plants. Moreover, to bury just 20 percent of the world’s emissions, calculates energy expert Vaclav Smil, we would need to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering/compression-transportation/storage industry. That industry’s annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the entire global crude oil industry, whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations, and storage systems took generations and about $60 trillion to build. Monitoring CO2 cemeteries would require more energy and public funds for thousands of years.”

    Nikiforuk, Andrew. The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. 2012. p.172 (hardcover)

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