Carbon Capture and Storage: Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem?


Back in September the EU signed the Paris Climate Change Treaty.  As the globe’s third largest emitter of carbon (after China and the US) its signature was instrumental in pushing the agreement over the formal ‘enactment’ finish line.  Signing was the easy bit, the devil is in the decarbonisation. After all, the globe is still wholly and entirely dependent upon carbon in its manifest forms. If only there was some way to stop our carbon emissions entering the atmosphere…

Did someone say carbon capture and storage?

It’s been around for an age. It can reduce emissions by up to 90%. And it was what took me to Canada in October.

Tarred with the same brush

Canada has been in the news of late thanks to the Wallonians (Rufus T. Firefly is not the prime minister), and their hostage holding of the EU-Canadian free trade deal. The news must have pleased those constituents who spammed me with the message: ‘Soon the European Parliament will vote to ratify the huge, toxic trade deal between the UK and Canada…’ As far as I can figure out, the deal’s ‘toxicity’ stems from tar sands.

Tar sands, or bitumen, represent 95% of Canada’s remaining fossil fuel reserve. To extract solid tar from rock is no easy task. Engineers must first inject substantial quantities of natural gas, light crude oil or water into the reservoir to ‘animate’ the bitumen, a process which in itself requires a significant investment of energy[1]. Such is the challenge that Canada only really figured out how to do it in the last fifteen years.

Anyone for carbon capture?

Canada’s tar sands are found mainly in Alberta. Alberta is also home to ‘Quest’, one of the world’s largest Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) plants. A coincidence, i hear you ask? No. No it isn’t.

Were all the bitumen in those sands to be burned, some 240bn metric tons of carbon would be released into the atmosphere. To date Alberta has exploited only 5% of its reserve, resulting in annual carbon emissions of 70m tonnes (10% of Canada’s overall emissions; 0.13% of global emissions). Releasing only the hydrocarbon recoverable with today’s technology Canada would release 22bn metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere and increase global temperatures by 0.4oC. It’s easy to see why carbon abatement technology is vital to Alberta.

The Quest project cost $1.35bn (CAD), with the Canadian government coughing up $120m, the Albertan government $745m and the rest from Shell. It captures (and sequesters deep underground) 30% of the CO2 emissions produced by the conversion of bitumen into ‘lighter’ oils. Over the 25-year lifespan of the project, assuming a constant rate of capture, 24m tonnes of carbon will be captured, 58m tonnes will not.

Anyone for climate change?

For obvious reasons, both Alberta and Canada recognise that the extraction of tar sands sits uncomfortably alongside their climate change ambitions.  To counterbalance this the Albertan government has proposed a carbon price of $30 (£18) on every tonne of CO2 released by hydrocarbon recovery, with the money raised to be invested in renewable energy, green infrastructure and tax breaks for low income families and small businesses. The Albertans have also proposed an emission cap on tar sands of 100m tonnes of CO2 a year.

Is this financial bonanza for green projects enough to justify the carbon cost?

Much can be learned from the Quest project, of that there is little doubt, and one outcome is almost certainly that the next generation of CCS will be more efficient than the last. However, during the life of the project much carbon will be released into the atmosphere. There seems no doubt that Alberta will exploit its tar sand wealth. Without CCS that means even more carbon would be released into the atmosphere. Would the Faustian pact be more palatable if the plant recovered 90% of the carbon than 30%. For some, yes, for others it still wouldn't be enough

Is CSS part of the solution?

Canada is not the only country CCS minded, and it is important to stress that CCS is not the exclusive preserve of tar sands nor indeed of fossil fuel recovery or utilisation. Last month Norway announced plans to construct three CCS plants: one at Yara, the world’s largest ammonia production company; another at Norcem, Norway’s sole cement producer; and a third at Oslo’s waste management and energy recovery plant in Klemetsrud. These projects would reduce Norway’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 5%. Norway has the largest concentration of carbon capture plants in Europe.

In the US too, where the President-elect has promised to revitalise the coal industry, the opportunities for CCS may indeed be about to take off.

Some would argue that any CCS which perpetuates our dependence upon fossil fuels, is part of the problem not the solution. However, CCS which captures the emissions of a necessary process - the manufacture of fertiliser, or cement, or polythene, or ammonia, or steel, or aluminium or glass, etc, etc - is an intrinsic good because it reduces the carbon emissions of the commodities upon which our world depends (albeit invariably pushing up prices)

Much of the current thinking around carbon captured is that it must be sunk deep underground. It is of course possible to use the carbon; many chemical processes depend upon it, whether as a feedstock for polymers, a necessary element of beer making, or even as part of the Enhanced Oil Recovery processes common in the North Sea (though to some that would be bad CCS not good CCS).

Beyond CCS - BECCS

How about a scenario where CCS is bolted on to bio-fuels rather than fossil fuels? Given that biofuels - vegetation, crops, wood and so on - actually sequester carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, combining biofuel energy generation with CCS would actually create negative carbon emissions. The process termed Bio-energy wth Carbon Capture & Storage (BECCS) is not just the stuff of science fiction. Check out the Illinois Basin Decatur Project, for instance.

Of course in climate change there is no such thing as a panacea.  Biomass production has its critics and its challenges: scarcity of arable land and fresh water, loss of biodiversity, competition with food production, deforestation and so on. Still, the BECCS approach does offer a sounder route to a decarbonised world than standard CCS on top of fossil fuels.


If a necessary process is going to continue, using CCS to reduce the emissions is a good thing. If the use of CCS encourages a prolongation and dependence upon fossil fuels, and results in the release of more carbon than is saved, many would say it as a bad thing, no matter how fossil fuel-dependent our world remains. So it seems that CCS is both part of the problem and part of the solution.




[1] The Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI) for conventional oil extraction is 25 (for every unit of energy invested to extract, 25 units are returned). For tar sands the figure is 5. Economic viability in the present climate requires an EROI of 3.

The trip was organised by the European Energy Forum, an independent, cross party body promoting energy dialogue and debate in the European Parliament.  The cost of the trip were met from my Parliamentary resources.