Carbon capture: looking beyond the short term

If ever we needed a perspective wider than that of political advantage, the current debate over carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the time.

The COP 23 conference in Germany, a followup to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, brought the issue of global warming to the forefront of public debate once again. But real progress has been difficult.

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Canada pledged at the conference to join about 20 other countries in a declaration that we would stop using coal to generate power by 2030. Canada contributes less than one per cent of global emissions from coal.

The biggest coal-burning nations – Russia, China, Germany, the US and India – did not join the coalition.

While coal produces twice the emissions of a natural gas plant of similar vintage, it is also cheap and readily available in many countries. That’s why it will not soon disappear, despite the pledges of Canada and other nations that don’t use it very much.

What’s the best way to reduce coal emissions from power plants? For developing countries, the economics of using coal make sense. For these countries, carbon capture will help them meet their environmental targets.

What does that have to do with Saskatchewan? It affects the debate on coal and carbon capture in two ways: first, by putting the merits of carbon capture in a new light and second, by showing us the positive global implications of continuing to use and develop CCS.

Let’s not doubt the effectiveness of CCS. Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam project eliminates 90 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power generation, and 100 per cent of the sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain.

As the first project in the world of its scale, it suffered costly teething problems. But the facility is running smoothly now, and captured about 85,000 tonnes of carbon last October alone that would otherwise have been dumped into the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, coal with CCS accounts for only four per cent of Saskatchewan’s power, according to SaskPower. Coal without CCS supplies 40 per cent and natural gas 36 per cent. Wind represents only three per cent.

Is it wise to increase our dependence on imported fuel sources like natural gas to generate baseload demand? Should we rely on one source to generate 76 per cent of our electrical power, especially a commodity that is prone to wide price swings? Should we sacrifice thousands of Saskatchewan jobs in construction, maintenance, coal mining and processing?

These are important questions, because as things stand, Saskatchewan cannot rely on hydro, wind and solar to generate baseload supply. As Ontario found after pumping billions into wind and solar, renewables other than hydro are simply not dependable enough to replace nuclear, coal and natural gas generation.

Critics of CCS say it would be much cheaper to reduce emissions by replacing coal with natural gas. But even the newest gas plants generate three to four times the emissions that come from coal with CCS. And much of the natural gas Saskatchewan uses is produced by fracking, surely of more a concern to environmentalists than clean coal.

The single reason to choose gas over coal with CCS turns out to be money. And the $940 million the province spent on the CCS installation at the Boundary Dam project is a big target. But the target gets a lot smaller when we consider that the cost will be spread over 30-plus years and the price of coal will not change during that time.

And CCS is getting cheaper and more efficient with every installation built.

The money-based argument also falters on macroeconomic and on environmental considerations.

How much tax money do the thousands of mining, construction and long-term maintenance workers in Saskatchewan’s coal industry generate for provincial coffers? Retraining these people will cost millions. Social assistance will cost even more, if they are forced to use it. And that doesn’t begin to estimate the cost to businesses and communities.

On the positive side, coal-generated power with CCS is just about as clean as power from renewables. CCS has generated hundreds of well-paying, high-tech jobs in Saskatchewan, and can generate hundreds more. CCS will allow us to meet our carbon targets — in reality, we won’t meet them without it. And Canada can be a world leader in exporting CCS technology to other countries, if we don’t lose our rapidly shrinking lead because the vision of some critics stops at short-term political gain and dollar signs.

© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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