The money that was set aside for clean energy initiatives in the federal Conservative government’s 2011 budget is finally beginning to trickle out, and while it’s a welcome boost for 55 project proponents — including 15 pre-commercial demonstration projects — the timing of this $82-million announcement is suspect. After all, Canada has been criticized for its weak environmental performance as it awaits approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project. “There needs to be more progress,” said David Jacobson, U.S. Ambassador to Canada, after President Obama’s State of the Union address in February. Basically, the U.S. position is that if Canada (and Alberta) doesn’t start pulling its weigh on environmental efforts it will make the decision to approve a pipeline project that much more difficult for the Obama administration. Since then, the Harper Conservatives — and oil sands proponents, including Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — have been on the defensive, making regular trips to Washington, D.C., to “educate” the Americans about how much Canada is doing on the environmental file. This would include weaning ourselves off coal, which of course is not what’s happening in Alberta or anywhere else in Canada except Ontario. But whatever, that has never stopped this federal government from repackaging the efforts of others to look like their own, or throwing money at something in the 11th hour to rework perceptions and ultimately get their way, despite the reality. Rather than confront the problem of climate change head on, my federal government shamefully responds to criticism by bad-mouthing the likes of NASA scientist James Hansen and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, dismissing both as misinformed on the matter. Uh, yeah… right.
All that said, I’m impressed with the diversity of projects being funded with this $82 million. They include:
- A commercial demonstration of a system that manages electric-vehicle charging stations in Quebec;
- Demonstration of a wind-biomass-battery system in the north of Quebec where there’s heavy reliance on diesel;
- Integration of wind energy in diesel-based generation systems to power remote mining operations;
- The study of Very Low Head hydro turbines, a promising technology that opens up hydroelectric generation opportunities across Canada;
- A project to tap low-temperature geothermal energy for power production;
- Advancing efficiency and reducing the cost of in-stream tidal energy;
- Development and testing of prototypes of “plug and play” building-integrated solar PV and thermal systems;
- A project to recover energy from refrigeration waste heat;
- Advancing a process that takes syngas made from the gasification of municipal solid waste and turns it into drop-in jet and diesel fuel;
- Researching and developing a super-efficient air-source heat pump that can provide heating in very cold climates and cooling during summers at low cost;
- An inventory and analysis of recoverable waste heat sources from industrial processes in Alberta;
- Development of a pre-commercial thermoacoustic engine that is super efficient and can be used for co-generation applications.
In addition to the above-mentioned projects, there is a big emphasis on technologies that help reduce the environmental footprint of the oil sands, as well as coal-fired power production in provinces that are heavy coal users, such as Alberta and Nova Scotia. Indeed, roughly a quarter of the funds has been earmarked for projects aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of fossil-fuel production and use (or perpetuating the production and use of fossil fuels, depending on how you view it). I have mixed feelings about this. One part of me says, “Great, we really need to reduce emissions and water contamination/consumption related to the oil sands and burning coal.” The other part of me says, “Oh great, more window dressing. This will make it look like the federal government is doing something without actually doing something, as these technologies are unlikely to have an impact anytime soon. We’re screwed.”
Two projects in Nova Scotia that are being funded will focus on scoping out ideal sites for geological sequestration of CO2 and coming up with a monitoring and verification standard to make sure CO2 injected underground isn’t leaking out — i.e. will stay underground. Money is also being given to a Quebec company called CO2 Solutions, which I’ve written about many times over the years. This company, demonstrating biomimicry in action, has developed an enzyme that can extract CO2 from industrial effluent emissions. It will use the new funding to support a pilot-scale facility that can capture 90 per cent of C02 from an oil sands in situ production and upgrading operation. “This is expected to result in cost savings of at least 25 per cent compared to conventional carbon capture technology,” according to the government funding announcement.
One project will look at whether impurities in CO2 have an impact on the capture, transport and underground storage of CO2, while another will study geological sites in the Athabasca area (i.e. where the oil sands are located) that are ideal for underground storage of CO2. Funding will also be used to investigate the use of non-aqueous solvents to extract bitumen, thereby reducing the energy needed to create steam (i.e. reducing water needs and the proliferation of toxic tailing ponds). Efforts to improve the efficiency of steam-assisted gravity drainage processes and reduce the environmental impacts of tailing ponds are also being funded. On the water front, one project will explore the ability to use non-potable, briny water to create steam for oil sands production, while another will demonstrate a technology that can clean up and recycle the waste water used during oil sands production. In total, about $21 million will go toward all of these projects, designed to help “dirty” energy become — or look — much cleaner.
In a separate announcement, the federal government also disclosed plans to support construction of a $19-million facility in Alberta that will use algae to recycle industrial CO2 emissions, in this case emissions from an oil sands facility operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. This is great news for Toronto-based Pond Biofuels, a company I have written about extensively and which currently operates a pilot facility at St. Mary’s Cement, where it grows algae from kiln emissions. The end goal of this three-year oil sands project is to use the algae to create commercial biofuels and other bioproducts. All of this innovation is important, and funding of these projects — as well as the recent re-funding of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, an important supporter of cleantech innovation in my country — is encouraging. Yet, it’s not getting us to where we need to be. Nowhere close.
We’ve been down this capture-and-hide carbon path before. A handful of high-profile projects announced several years ago have still led nowhere, and two have already been cancelled. Yet the federal government, and Alberta, is still putting most of its eggs in the CCS basket. Indeed, they’re still heavily promoting this idea of a new pipeline network that will carry CO2 from the oil sands and other heavy emitters to sequestration sites. Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes recently touted this proposed pipeline as a “Trans-Canada highway for Carbon.” Here’s a question: If the industry and federal government can support the ambitious idea of building a cross-Canada network of CO2-carrying pipelines, why does it poo-poo the idea of a Trans-Canada power transmission corridor that could carry clean hydroelectric, wind and solar power from where it’s abundant to where it’s needed? The positioning is proof that moving toward a low-carbon world is not about can’t-do, it’s about won’t-do; it’s about protecting established industries and infrastructure and preventing a cleaner, 21st-Century alternative from emerging.
Again, the recent round of innovation funding is good news. But let’s look at the reality: Last week we sadly hit 400 parts per millions (ppm) of CO2 in our fragile atmosphere, a level never before experienced in human history. Many scientists say 350 ppm is where we should be, and certainly we shouldn’t go much past 400 ppm. We’re heading in the wrong direction, and notoriously conservative organizations like the International Energy Agency and the World Bank are now even sounding the alarm. If the federal and Alberta governments really want to prove to the Americans — and Canadians — that they’re serious about climate change, they would complement their innovation spending with a recognition that the oil sands extraction machine can’t continue its current fast pace of growth, and that some day — in 10, 20, 30 years — the oil orgy must come to a complete end. This is true of all “carbon bombs” being developed around the world, not just the oil sands. And if we are to adequately prepare for that day, we need to carefully transition to a low-carbon economy. That means taxing carbon, a policy approach now being encouraged by both the IEA and World Bank and accepted by most credible economists. That means creating a realistic vision for the country and working toward it — and by “realistic” I mean recognizing that perpetuating the growth (or current rate) of oil sands production and coal use is not an option.
This isn’t about educating people so they are “made” to know better about the oil sands’ alleged strong environmental record. This isn’t about clever public relations campaigns and slick and deceptive advertising meant to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers and voters. This isn’t about targeted funding announcements to make a government appear that it cares. This is about facing facts, and preparing for eventualities. Canada isn’t doing that, and soon enough, Mother Nature is going to spank our sorry asses.
David Biello over at Scientific American had a story in 2011 that looked at research establishing a link between methane contamination in well water and nearby hydraulic fracturing of shale rock. The research came out of Duke University and was published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The Duke researchers analyzed water samples from 60 wells located within a kilometre of active shale-gas drilling operations — specifically, the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York. They found that “average and maximum methane concentrations in drinking-water wells increased with proximity to the nearest gas well” and were at levels high enough to pose “a potential explosion hazard.”
As Biello pointed out, this “marks the first time that drinking water contamination has been definitely linked to fracking.” His story, which is old but I’ve just come across, is well worth the read. He makes clear that while a small amount of methane isn’t uncommon in most aquifers in the region, the researchers were able to distinguish between “new” methane being produced by the ongoing decay of biological material and “old” methane trapped and released from fossil rock. This was done by measuring the ratio of radioactive carbon present in the methane. Very cool.