Suncor, Alberta’s largest energy company, this week for the first time announced an internal greenhouse gas ‘emissions intensity’ reduction target. The oil sands giant aims to cut the amount of carbon emissions per economic unit of production by 30 percent on 2014 levels by 2030.
The company has had climate plans before, but never an explicit target. Nevertheless, this is not an absolute emissions reduction. The company wants to use existing and yet-to-be-developed technologies and cleaner fuel sources to lower the amount of emissions released per barrel of oil extracted, but overall emissions will still increase.
To achieve the goal, the company will be developing energy efficiency measures at its sites, as well as moving over to lower-carbon fuels such as natural gas to power its operations and ultimately renewable energy. But it also is hopeful about what it describes as a “game-changing” advanced new mining process that would break up the long-chains of hydrocarbons into shorter ones before extraction.
Oil is composed of lots of different hydrocarbons; some with just a few carbon atoms and some with more than a hundred. But most of these are not very useful as fuel or in the chemical industry, so they need to be broken up, or ‘cracked’ to use the term chemists use, in refineries to make them lighter and more useful. Such processes are themselves very energy intensive, so if more of the heavy hydrocarbon chain can be left in the ground, this requires less processing, reduces energy requirements and thus cuts emissions at the refining stage.
“There will undoubtedly be critics who’ll say it’s too little over too long a timeframe and that our goal should be to get off hydrocarbons entirely,” general manager Fiona Jones said as the target was unveiled via the company’s annual sustainability report. But she argues that there is still a need for “responsibly developed oil.”
Suncor was also one of the lonely four big petroleum firms to stand alongside New Democrat Premier Rachel Notley when she unveiled the province’s climate strategy last November. Canadian Natural Resources (the third largest Canadian petroleum company as of 2015), Cenovus (sixth largest) and Shell Canada also back the premier’s plan, but much of the rest of the province’s energy sector is not so enamoured.
So how are the other three doing?
Canadian Natural has an ‘Environmental Excellence Program’, focused on minimising biodiversity loss via tailings management in the oil sands as well as decommissioning and reclamation work, but there is no quantitative greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction commitment or discussion of emissions intensity.
Cenovus meanwhile makes explicit mention of its desire to reduce GHG emissions intensity via use of less energy per barrel of oil, and is experimenting with pilot carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects in Brooks, Alberta, and Weyburn, Saskatchewan. But again, there is no enumerated reduction target.
And Shell for its part is focused on its larger-scale Quest CCS project near Edmonton. Quest is the parent company’s flagship CCS effort, and is also financially backed by the Alberta and Canadian governments. But Shell’s emissions target is a qualitative one: “To have life-cycle GHG intensity no greater than the average crude oil refined in the US.”
The Climate Examiner speaks to BC-based Carbon Engineering about the technology, the business and the policies that could make direct air capture, synfuels and carbon sequestration work.