To paraphrase a famous observation, “Everybody talks about climate change, but nobody does much about it.” Indeed, media reports and scientific publications may be thick with discussion of this extraordinary environmental phenomenon but practical proposals for directly dealing with it are thin on the ground while full-scale initiatives are even more scarce.

It is worth noting that one of the most significant of these initiatives in the world is taking place where many Canadians would be least likely to expect it — the oil sands in northeastern Alberta. The process for turning the region’s hydrocarbon-rich soils into useable fuel stock is one of this country’s primary sources of CO2 emissions, the notorious culprit in the climate change story. Shell Canada, a leading player in the development of this resource, is poised to capture as much as a million tonnes of these emissions annually at an ambitious installation that has been more than five years in preparation and is currently under construction.

This compressor, located at Shell Canada’s Scotford Manufacturing Centre, is the heart of the company’s Quest project, which will enable CO2 captured from the site’s oil sands upgrader to travel by pipeline to injection wells for permanent storage. Photo credit: Shell Canada

The project, called Quest, will use technology known as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) for reducing the CO2 emissions from Shell’s oil sands mining operations, specifically the upgrader that turns bitumen into synthetic oil. The strategy is simple: divert CO2 before it escapes into the atmosphere and direct it into stable geological formations for permanent storage. It is not, as Shell readily acknowledges, any kind of stand-alone solution to climate change. Removing a million tonnes of CO2 may represent the equivalent of taking 175,000 cars off the road, but that barely makes a dent in the billions and billions of tonnes of CO2 cranked out by the world’s engines and factories. Nevertheless, in the years to come, CCS could be expected to become a standard part of the environmental infrastructure found at major industrial facilities, where this step should ultimately become as familiar as nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulphur oxide (SOx) scrubbers on smokestacks to address acid rain or the mitigation of chlorofluorocarbons to address atmospheric ozone decay.

Quest represents the first commercial-scale application of CCS onto an existing, operating upgrader, a retrofit that employs familiar technology such as compressors, pipeline components and well monitoring equipment, which have been used by the oil and gas sector for decades. The new feature is a tower where flue gases interact with alkanolamines, solvents that react strongly and quickly with CO2, stripping it out for ready diversion into a separate stream. From there it will be compressed and piped to a nearby well, where it will be injected deep underground for permanent storage. 

The Scotford Upgrader, part of Shell Canada’s Scotford Manufacturing Centre near Edmonton, turns bitumen mined from the oil sands into synthetic oil ready for refining.

The Scotford Upgrader, part of Shell Canada’s Scotford Manufacturing Centre near Edmonton, turns bitumen mined from the oil sands into synthetic oil ready for refining. Photo credit: Shell Canada

The efficiency of this process represents a trade-off between the size of the facility and the amount of energy it requires. Quest is attempting to identify that balance in a practical way.  “One of the things that Quest is trying to do is be very cost effective,” says Anita Spence, who has been Shell’s Quest project manager since 2010. “We recognize that early projects might not get 100 percent of that right, but we’re really trying to set the stage.”

Cost looms large over this work. Shell does not indicate the project’s overall budget but the province of Alberta is providing $745 million to support the building of Quest and its first 10 years of operation, while the federal government is contributing another $120 million. Both levels of government have flagged CCS as an important part of their plans to reduce CO2 emissions, although the technology is regarded by some critics as an overpriced and inadequate approach to climate change. “It’s not a panacea, it’s a science experiment,” complained Jim Prentice this past July, as he was campaigning to become leader of the provincial Progressive Conservative (PC) party and possibly Alberta’s next premier. Prentice did not entirely dismiss the concept of CCS but he questioned the value of making large public investments in a technology that was not progressing as quickly as many observers had been expecting.

Among those observers has been Greenpeace, which unequivocally rejected CCS in a 2008 report entitled False Hope. This assessment casts the notion of storing CO2 as an expensive, energy-intensive and potentially dangerous diversion from a far better objective — reducing dependence on carbon-based fuels. “It’s the equivalent of trying to build a better typewriter,” says Keith Stewart, Greenpeace Canada’s climate and energy specialist. “The problem is how we get off oil, rather than capturing a portion of the emission stream associated with oil,” Stewart says. 

The world’s major oil companies have voiced their appreciation of the call to migrate the global economy to lower carbon forms of energy but even the most optimistic proponents see that migration taking decades to complete. In the meantime, the demand for current forms of energy continues to grow, leading Shell to defend its investment in CCS as an example of how to manage the transition at large-scale industrial facilities that are not about to shut down anytime soon.

The Greenpeace report also pointed to environmental problems that might be caused by injecting large amounts of CO2 into porous rock, such as the acidification of aquifers. By way of confirming the safe, permanent storage of CO2 as a project priority, Shell engaged Stiftelsen Det Norske Veritas (DNV), a Norwegian risk management firm, to conduct an independent, external review of Quest when it was still in the planning stages. This assessment examined the project’s selection of target rock formations that were up to five kilometres deep — well below any groundwater and physically isolated from nearby aquifers by layers of cap rock. DNV’s ensuing report awarded what was touted as the world’s first certificate of fitness for a CCS project, marking another milestone for Shell in establishing this technology for wider use in industry. “In my mind it was a very brave move by Shell to open the books to a third party review by a very reputable firm that does a lot of risk assessment work,” says Rick Chalaturnyk, a University of Alberta professor of geotechnical engineering who was amongst the academics who took part in this review. As a specialist in the storage of CO2 in porous strata, Chalaturnyk has been working on various aspects of CCS for the last 15 years. Despite the doubts of Greenpeace and the prospective premier, he argues, the idea remains viable for many of the world’s largest carbon emitters. “This is not going away,” he says, pointing to the Gorgon gas project being built in northwestern Australia, which will have a CCS capacity substantially larger than Quest. “Norway has led the way with its Sleipner Project since 1996 and approvals are under way for large projects in the UK, United States and the Netherlands.”

Chalaturnyk reiterates that this is just one part of a portfolio of climate change measures that many industries will adopt. Local collection of CO2 will not resolve global climate change by itself, but he anticipates the life-cycle management of carbon emissions will be incorporated into preferred environmental practices, just as other pollutants have been. “Alberta went through a regulatory framework assurance review, which looked at all of the language needed to manage this process,” he says, referring to an elaborate regime of carbon credits and technical protocols for injecting CO2 underground. “When you put all those things together, Alberta becomes the perfect environment to implement this, because the rules are clear.”

Quest project manager Spence likewise describes an “Alberta Advantage” for this work, which has tapped into the province’s considerable technical expertise and engineering capabilities  established through many years of oil sands development. She highlights the extensive “high load” network of roads that can accommodate heavy vehicles requiring clearance of up to nine metres, which allowed huge components such as a multi-storey amine stripper to be built more efficiently at a dedicated facility off-site, then shipped in one piece for much easier installation at the upgrader site. The company selected the multinational engineering firm KBR Canada to carry out this module work at its yard in Edmonton, with each completed part making its way to Shell’s Scotford Manufacturing Centre located 40 kilometres northeast of the city in the heavy industry corridor known provincially as the Heartland.

The Scotford Refinery, which opened in 1984, is among the most modern and efficient in North America, capable of turning out 100,000 barrels per day of diesel, gasoline, jet fuel and propane, as well as valuable by-products such as benzene. Over the past 15 years, the facilities have expanded to include an upgrader that receives heavy oil mined from the Athabasca Oil Sands Project (AOSP) near Fort McMurray, about 400 kilometres further north.

AOSP is a joint venture between Shell Canada, which owns 60 percent, while Chevron Canada Ltd. and Marathon Oil Canada Corp. each own 20 percent. Giant shovels dig into the sand at two mines; the excavated material is treated with warm water to separate the bitumen from any surrounding sand and clay. After being diluted with a solvent, this bitumen is carried by pipeline to the Scotford upgrader, where it becomes synthetic oil ready to go into the adjacent refinery. 

According to Shell, once Quest begins operation in 2015, emissions from the upgrader should fall by 35 percent. The collected gas will be compressed and shipped through a 60-kilometre pipeline to three wells that have been drilled into a porous rock formation called the Basal Cambrian Sands, where the CO2 will be injected to a depth of around 2,000 metres. From then on, Shell plans to take stock of the day-to-day business of monitoring and maintaining this system, which should reveal in detail just what it takes for an industrial enterprise to confront climate change as part of its regular operations. And if that sounds like too mundane an achievement, the managing director of the Pembina Institute insists that this kind of success will be nothing short of extraordinary. “It’s very easy for projects like this to run into opposition,” Chris Severson-Baker says from Calgary. Public opposition must sometimes be appeased, Severson-Baker notes, while even more strident opponents within a firm may balk at the daunting expense of CCS. Not surprisingly, several CCS undertakings in Canada have derailed over the past decade. Severson-Baker credits the staying power of Quest to the considerable effort by the provincial government to prevent the project from fading into obscurity. “They put really good people on it and they made sure that it actually happened,” he says. “They developed a regulatory framework and started to implement that framework. Even to get it to this stage is noteworthy. Alberta has been recognized globally for understanding the challenge and actually being able to do a project.”