Oil Sands: Carbon Capture and Storage

Carbon storage unit surrounded by a canola field

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A clean energy technology

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a clean energy technology that aims to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from industrial facilities before they are released into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Once captured, the CO2 – a greenhouse gas (GHG) – is compressed and transported to a storage site where it is injected underground in geological formations to be safely stored for the long term. Many of the formations chosen as potential storage sites have already had fluids (such as oil) or gases (such as natural gas) trapped within them for tens-of-millions of years.

CCS could account for up to 13 percent of needed global GHG reductions by 2050 – IEA

Storage Potential in Canada

CO2  Storage Potential in Canada
Source: Natural Resources Canada

Moving ahead with implementing CCS demonstration projects is essential to advancing the technology’s maturity and to reducing costs. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), CCS could account for 13 percent of the cumulative emissions reductions needed by 2050 to limit the global increase in temperature to 2°C (IEA 2DS). Overall, this represents the capture and storage of about 6 billion tonnes (t) of CO2 emissions per year in 2050, nearly triple India’s energy sector emissions today.Footnote 1

Opportunities in the oil sands

CCS has the potential to play a significant role in Canada’s oil sands. It could help companies meet economic goals while significantly improving environmental performance. Along with opportunities to use captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery, the oil sands are located in proximity to Canada’s Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, recognized as a world-class opportunity to permanently store CO2.

A leader in CCS research, development and demonstration

Through advancements in large-scale demonstration projects, world-class research and development, and globally leading policy and regulatory work, Canada has established itself as a world leader in the field of CCS. An important component of this is advancing knowledge of storage potential. The 2012 North American Carbon Storage Atlas estimates Canada has 132 billion t of storage resources available for CCS – more than 180 times greater than Canada’s annual GHG emissions in 2013.Footnote 2

A significant amount of CCS research and development activities are already underway in Canada, including important research on economic and policy issues and next generation technologies at federal and provincial laboratories, universities and research institutes.

Large-scale demonstration projects are key examples of Canada’s leadership in CCS development, with Canada having three of the world’s 15 large-scale projects that are in operation.Footnote 3 These include the Weyburn project in Saskatchewan – one of the first large-scale efforts in the world – which was launched in 2000, followed by the adjacent Midale project in 2005. These projects involve capturing CO2 emissions from a synthetic natural gas plant in North Dakota and transporting them across the Canada-United States border. The CO2 is used to help recover oil from older wells, and it remains permanently stored in deep geological formations. Another such project is SaskPower’s Boundary Dam – the world’s first operational CCS project at a coal-fired power plant.

Canadian investments in CCS projects total about C$4.5 billion

Both federal and provincial governments in Canada are working with industry to further develop CCS technology and lower costs. Federal and provincial governments have committed more than C$1.8 billion to support CCS research, development and demonstration initiatives. With leveraged private investments, the total Canadian investment for CCS has the potential to rise to about C$4.5 billion.

Advancing CCS in the oil sands

Canada has taken important steps to advance CCS in the oil sands. On November 6, 2015, the world’s first large-scale CCS project at an oil sands upgrader, the Quest project, began commercial operations just outside of Edmonton, Alberta.

Quest – a joint venture between Shell Canada, Marathon Oil Canada and Chevron Canada – will capture and store more than 1 million t of CO2 per year from Shell’s Scotford Oil Sands Upgrader. The CO2 will be permanently stored 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) underground in a geological formation called the Basal Cambrian Sands.

In addition, the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line (ACTL) project is scheduled to begin commercial operations in 2017. This project will collect CO2 from the North West Redwater Sturgeon Refinery and sell it for injection into mature oil fields to enhance oil recovery where it will be permanently stored. The ACTL project will capture up to 1.2 million t of CO2 per year from the refinery along with another 0.6 million t per year from an Agrium fertilizer plant, but will have the capacity to transport up to 15 million t of CO2 per year.

Research and pilot-scale activities are investigating CCS applications in the oil sands in situ industry. This includes a pilot project that was completed in April 2015 by a collaboration of Cenovus Energy, Praxair and Suncor that involved capturing CO2 at a steam generation unit retrofitted to combust natural gas with oxygen; a pilot project led by Husky Energy in Saskatchewan that is capturing CO2 from a natural gas-fired, steam generation unit commonly used in oil sands applications; Cenovus Energy and its partners exploring the use of fuel cell technology that would capture CO2 while generating low-carbon electricity.