Carbon Capture and Storage: Next Steps 

"We have certainly moved from this being a research issue to a much more substantive issue of getting the technology deployed." - Brent Lakeman, Alberta Research Council

The oil and gas industry has never been daunted by technological challenges. Over the decades, it has developed remarkable engineering and technology to extract resources from the ocean floor, Alberta’s oil sands and all manner of places in between.

Red: CO2 pipeline; Yellow: natural gas pipeline; Black: oil pipeline - CCS Next StepsCourtesy: Alberta Research Council

Now, the energy industry, other industrial operators and governments around the world are facing a very large and very expensive challenge — developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems to reduce CO2 emissions.

“We have certainly moved from this being a research issue to a much more substantive issue of getting the technology deployed,” says Brent Lakeman, Manager, Carbon and Energy Management at the Alberta Research Council.

“The global community has recognized the necessity of advancing large fully-integrated projects over the next few years – with a goal of seeing these fully operational with results being shared across a range of sectors by the year 2020” says Lakeman.

The oil and gas industry has a head start on some of the technology that’s needed for CCS. “We’ve got a lot of practical understanding of these systems from our natural gas processing experience in Alberta, stripping off the sour gas and injecting it into the ground,” says Lakeman. “We’re using technology that we’ve been familiar with, and which has been safely deployed, for quite some time. It’s a case of pulling it all together and taking a much larger step forward,” he says.

There are a few projects underway in which captured pure CO2 is being injected into mature reservoirs in a process called enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The CO2 mixes with the oil left in the reservoir, making it less viscous and able to be pumped to the surface.

“If you’re a big oil sands upgrader, it’s great to send your CO2 to an oil operator, but you may need a longer term commitment than what is available in EOR,” says Lakeman. “They may have to start looking at deep saline aquifers which will give them additional storage capacity.” He says deep saline aquifers can store hundreds and hundreds of years worth of greenhouse gas emissions from major industrial facilities.

Large scale CCS projects are very expensive - costing billions of dollars. As governments around the world work on new frameworks for developing carbon capture and storage, Lakeman predicts we’ll see costs come down, possibly as much as 50 per cent, as the technology develops.

“We’ve seen that experience with things like SO2 management in the U.S. with utilities,” says Lakeman. “Some of the costs were very large at one point, but over time, once people got more experience and innovation came forward we could see those costs being reduced.”

In the meantime, he says it’s important to proceed on CCS. “Innovation is a very organic process,” says Lakeman. “You need to throw the balls in the air and put the great minds together on this and see where we get to. We can’t afford to want to wait ten or 15 years, hoping others will develop the technology for us. Alberta has a real opportunity to build on its natural advantages and get some experience now.”

In 2008, the province of Alberta committed two billion dollars toward carbon capture and storage projects. Four projects were selected from the dozens submitted, and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by five million tonnes annually beginning in 2015. The four projects are the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line, Quest Project, Swan Hills Synfuels, and Project Pioneer.