The Saskatchewan government’s reluctance to disclose poor performance by the world’s first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) plant has blown up into a major political scandal in the prairie province, with ramifications worldwide for the controversial carbon-scrubbing technology.
In late October a series of leaked internal memos from the energy utility that runs the CCS project at Boundary Dam, SaskPower, revealed that the $1.5 billion plant had only produced 400,000 tonnes of captured carbon dioxide (CO2) over the course of this year, equivalent to just 40 percent of its million-tonne capacity. As a result of its under-performance, SaskPower was forced to pay out $12 million in penalties to energy firm Cenovus, the owner of the coal-fired power plant to which the CCS structures are attached.
The leaks kicked off a series of tussles in the provincial legislature, with Premier Brad Wall of the conservative Saskatchewan Party, conceding that the government had not been as forthcoming as it should have been. Wall has defended the project however, arguing that results so far amount to teething problems, and that the amount of CO2 captured is increasing from month to month.
In the last week however, the scandal blew up again in the legislature, as a freshly revealed chart that the local press have described as being “buried” on the SaskPower website showed that the plant has not captured emissions at the same rate as in 2014, undermining government claims of improvement.
The chart shows that peak performance occurred last November, and since mid-January, the best capture rate does not breach 65 percent of capacity. Worse still, the plant has been shut down due to mechanical concerns for half of the year so far.
Both the utility and the government remain optimistic that the plant will reach its capacity by the end of 2016.
“We’re very confident we’ll achieve full-load performance. Are we going to be able to sustain that? We don’t know,” Marsh told reporters.
The scandal comes as oil giant Shell this past week opened the world’s first ever oil-sands CCS plant, across the border in Alberta, this time scrubbing CO2 from a bitumen upgrader rather than from a coal-fired power plant.
Shell says that the $1.35 billion project, named ‘Quest’, has the ability to reduce carbon emissions from the upgrader by 35 percent. Since testing began in September, the project has removed some 200,000 tonnes of CO2 that would otherwise have been emitted, and pumped it through a network of pipes to be sequestered in wells deep underground.
Most of the cost of setting up the effort has come via public funding. The Quest project has received $745 million in subsidies from the Alberta government and another $120 million from the federal government. Meanwhile, Shell has said that the pilot project would only make commercial sense if carbon is priced at $60 to $80 a tonne, far higher than the $15 per tonne carbon tax imposed on large emitters in the province.
Climate watchers will be paying close attention to the success or failure of these early commercial CCS projects because the bulk of scenarios that envisage the world staying below the guardrail of 2°C of warming above pre-industrial levels, developed by UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change researchers, assume widespread adoption of CCS technology in the near future.
If these assumptions about CCS prove to be unfounded, then the other options on the table for emissions mitigation will have to take on a considerably larger burden.
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