Canada's Carbon Capture Plan Falls Short

Following British Columbia’s novel carbon-tax, an imperfect but positive step in regulating carbon, Canada’s national environment minister, John Baird, unveiled a far less impressive attempt to clean up the nation’s most polluting industries, namely coal-fired power plants and the growing tar sand refineries of Western Canada. The new regulations, which will mandate carbon capture-technology on coal power plants and tar sand refineries, have the appearance of command-and-control carbon policy but in actuality command industry to do very little and promise no control on carbon emissions.

CCS canada

The problem is that the new regulations do not actually put a definite cap on carbon emissions. Instead, they mandate an increasing rate of carbon efficiency. This means companies may emit more carbon each year so long as they are emitting less carbon per barrel of oil produced. The regulations requiring future tar sand companies and coal power plants to capture and store carbon emissions takes effect in 2012. Many critics fear companies will rush to start operations before the deadline, as if $100+ a barrel oil prices weren’t enough incentive.

Of concern in this whole debate is the fact that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is still an unproven pipe dream, a tidbit that hasn’t been widely discussed amid all of the media coverage. An optimistically myopic op-ed in The Globe and Mail thinks that quick federal funding will remedy any technical problems: “By 2015, we would have “kicked the tires,” by trying out CCS at full industrial scale.” But according to James Hansen, a NASA climate change expert, we’ll just be getting the tires on by 2015.

Friday’s panel discussion at Berkley’s Energy Symposium entitled “Carbon Capture & Sequestration: A Viable Alternative?” didn’t build our confidence. The panel seemed to agree that yes, CCS is absolutely necessary to mitigate climate change. However, when it came to answering the titular question no one could be pinned to say ‘yes, CCS is indeed viable.’

Many fear the new Canadian regulations will cause a bonanza of tar sand development between now and the 2012 cutoff date. “This is little more than a ‘get your shovels in the ground now’ call to the oil industry,” Dale Marshall of the David Suzuki Foundation told Oil Change International.

However, a federal court decision last week could set a tough precedent for those hoping to play in Canada’s oily sandbox. Imperial Oil’s $7 billion Kearl tar sand project was sent back to a review panel by a court order citing greenhouse gas emissions concerns. Building future carbon policy around an unproven technology is obviously risky, but CCS is the lucrative tar sands’ only hope.

Graphic from The Globe and Mail.

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