As British Columbia and the rest of the world grapple with increasing evidence of dangerous climate change, there is a new urgency to find solutions. From carbon taxes to home energy retrofits, there is no shortage of proposals — but is there a quick fix?
Enter carbon capture and storage, or CCS as it is known by industry. CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from large industrial sources before it escapes into the atmosphere, and injecting it deep underground into permanent, secure rock formations. The gas industry has been injecting unwanted toxic sour gas back into the ground for a long time. The oil industry uses the same technique to repressurize oil formations and extract more oil. What’s relatively new is the idea of using this technology solely as a way to address climate change.
At first glance, CCS seems like a great idea. The oil and gas industry is responsible for about 20 percent of British Columbia’s global-warming emissions. CCS could help eliminate about one-third of those emissions, according to Pembina Institute research. Northeast British Columbia has the right geology to store carbon and is near where most of the gas extraction and processing occurs. If done successfully, CCS should result in a closed loop.
However, from an energy-supply perspective, it takes considerable effort and expense to recapture emissions that have escaped and inject them back into the ground.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to not let the carbon dioxide out in the first place?
Here is the challenge for British Columbia. Until we are ready to leave carbon dioxide in the ground and shift to more sustainable energy sources, there is value in capturing and storing emissions from oil and gas development. In other words, CCS is a good Band-Aid. It provides an end-of-pipe solution with immediate results. Where it can be done securely and successfully, CCS will help reduce emissions.
End of pipe, or end the pipe?
Even with the use of carbon capture and storage, however, British Columbia will still need to shift toward low-impact renewable energy to power our province and build our economy.
British Columbia law now requires the province to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions. And while CCS can offer a limited fix, the long-term solution will require British Columbia to commit to leaving the gas in the ground. Most of British Columbia’s easily accessible gas reserves have been tapped out. The next wave of fossil-fuel development will involve different sources such as shale gas or coal-bed methane, which can be more costly to extract and often have a higher impact on the environment. It is time to start powering British Columbia’s homes and businesses with low-impact renewable energy, which is increasingly available around the province.
This challenge is made greater given the steady increase in gas production in the northeast over the past few years. Although British Columbia’s commitment to reduce dangerous greenhouse-gas emissions is now law, oil and gas development is still on the upswing.
The Pembina Institute recognizes that there is an immediate benefit to CCS. It can help us respond to the urgency of climate change and meet British Columbia’s greenhouse-gas reduction targets in the near term. However, its use should be conditional upon a commitment to also implement long-term solutions, such as a scale-up of energy efficiency and renewable-energy technologies, and the development of a strong regulatory framework that addresses the issues of leaks, monitoring, and long-term liability.
Stopping the flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is critical. CCS can help us meet our global-warming emissions targets; but at best, it is a bridge between now and the inevitable renewable-energy system of the future. The real solution — a transition away from fossil fuels — should be the primary focus of our creativity, our research dollars and our technology developments. CCS if necessary, but not necessarily CCS.
Karen Campbell is staff counsel and director of strategy for the Pembina Institute.