Putting the toothpaste back in the tube?

·5 min read

Equinor, the company behind the vast Bay du Nord project off Newfoundland’s east coast, earned close to $30 billion in net profit in 2022, putting it in league with other record-setting companies such as Exxonmobil, Shell and BP.

But the Norwegian oil giant is not just intent on extracting more carbon-rich fuels from the Earth.

It also wants to put at least some of that carbon back.

“We’re leading studies on behalf of Norwegian authorities to develop full-scale CCS (carbon capture and storage) in Norway,” the firm says on its website. “The concept includes capturing CO2 from various onshore industries, transporting it by ships and injecting and permanently storing it 1,000-2,000 metres below the seabed.”

The idea of removing carbon from the atmosphere, where its accumulation as CO2 has caused crisis-level global warming, may seem far-fetched.

But researchers have been exploring the idea for decades, and governments around the world are now taking it very seriously.

Even the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most authoritative body overseeing climate data and modelling, has devoted considerable time to assessing its possibilities and considers it an important tool in mitigating damage.

“The deployment of carbon dioxide removal to counterbalance hard-to-abate residual emissions is unavoidable if net zero CO2 or GHG (green house gas) emissions are to be achieved,” its researchers wrote in the 2022 summary for policymakers. “The scale and timing of deployment will depend on the trajectories of gross emission reductions in different sectors.”

Carbon capture and storage can take many forms.

Last November, Environment and Climate Change Minister Bernard Davis presented at the international climate conference, COP27, about opportunities to enhance the potential of oceans as a carbon sink and a carbon capture and storage solution.

“We know that without the ocean, we will not be able to meet the aggressive, but necessary, net zero targets set out before us,” his speaking notes said.

One proposition has been cultivating seaweed farms, since the average square kilometre of seaweed can sequester more than 1,000 metric tonnes of carbon.

But the most ambitious method being explored is the use of underwater caverns — including former oil wells — to store carbon captured from various industries.

Last week’s provincial budget came under fire by climate-change experts for its unprecedented public spending on new oil exploration.

That includes $13 million to revive a seismic testing program.

EnergyNL CEO Charlene Johnson told reporters after the budget that a revived seismic testing program could be used for more than just mapping possible oil wells.

“We can use that data to help determine where best to potentially store carbon, and that’s a huge play, something the federal government is interested in as well,” she said.

“Right now, our early information shows that we have the potential possibly to offset all of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in our offshore through carbon capture and storage.”

Even the IPCC, however, looks at carbon capture and storage as being a secondary measure at best when it comes to mitigating climate change.

“All global modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot, and those that limit warming to 2°C, involve rapid and deep and in most cases immediate GHG emission reductions in all sectors,” its 2022 report stated.

In fact, the panel has found carbon capture and storage tends to be the least effective and most costly means of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, which is why industries are demanding heavy government subsidies for it.

Just this month, International Petroleum Corp., the first foreign oil company to sanction a project in Canada's oilsands in more than a decade, said more financial incentives are needed if it’s going to add carbon capture and storage technology to its plant.

Angela Carter, an energy transition expert with the University of Waterloo, recently co-authored a report on Canada’s carbon capture and storage efforts for the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

“That is very much a false solution because CCS, as it’s currently being used in the oil and gas sector in Canada, 70 per cent of the time it’s used to enhance oil recovery,” she told The Telegram last week. “It’s about putting carbon into wells to re-pressurize the wells and bring them back to their earlier productivity. So this is really an oil production solution, not really a climate solution.”

Among other findings in the IISD report:

• There are seven carbon capture and storage projects currently operating in Canada, mostly in the oil and gas sector, capturing about 0.5 per cent of national emissions. CCS in oil and gas production does not address emissions from downstream uses of those fuels. (In fact, the phrase “net zero” in the Newfoundland sector only refers to emissions during production, not burning of the product itself.)

• CCS in the oil and gas sector is expensive — as much as $200 per tonne for currently operating projects — as well as energy intensive, slow to implement and unproven at scale.

• Despite this, the federal government has already committed at least $9.1 billion dollars to date, alongside $3.8 billion from the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

U.S. climatologist and author Michael Mann says carbon capture strategies often just serve as a shell game for oil companies to distract from their most damaging activities.

"There hasn't been a proof of concept that shows that you can use CCS and produce energy without producing carbon pollution,” he told the U.S. Congress last year, “and as long as there's no proof of concept for that, then obviously it's not a meaningful climate solution and it displaces meaningful climate solutions like clean energy, renewable energy."

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram