A Modest Disposal

When carbon emissions were temporarily reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, the global environmental transformation was dramatic. Wildlife was visible in suddenly clear waters, the haze of air pollution cleared from urban areas. Imagine what things would look like if emissions were reduced permanently — thanks to the growing carbon-management industry in Alberta, that future is a lot closer than you might think.

Daily, Enhance Energy is able to capture and store emissions using carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technology at its sequestration facility near Clive, Alberta, located 140 kilometres south of Edmonton. It is the equivalent of taking 350,000 cars off the road — for good. That’s according to Candice Paton, Enhance Energy’s executive director of Regulatory Affairs and External Relations. CCUS is an emissions reduction strategy that involves capturing, sequestering and storing carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere. Alberta is the perfect place for it.

There are a few key factors you need to successfully pivot from creating to capturing carbon emissions. First, the land. “Those same sorts of geological characteristics that made this a great place for oil and gas also make it a great place to store carbon,” says Paton.

To put it simply, the rock formations underneath much of Alberta were able to naturally store oil and gas deposits for millions of years. Those same rock formations can permanently safeguard carbon waste.

Image courtesy of Enhance Energy

Second, the infrastructure, both existing and new. As Kimberley Worthington, executive director of Central Alberta Economic Partnership explains, much of what’s being used in Alberta’s oil and gas industry, from wells to pump jacks, can be repurposed for CCUS. “It’s environmentally sustainable, and it also creates a competitive advantage when it comes to the carbon-capture industry because we already have that infrastructure here.”

There’s also been significant investment in a critical system of infrastructure, the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line (ACTL) Project, a large-scale CCUS system dedicated to capturing, transporting and storing man-made carbon emissions. The ACTL Project is already permanently sequestering about 1.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year into the geology in central Alberta. And, according to Paton, the pipeline is at only about 10 per cent capacity at the moment, meaning there’s still ample room to grow.

The final factor behind Alberta’s success in the carbon-capture industry is the unique labour force we already have. “Because of our oil and gas industry, the skills and knowledge and experience with our subsurface is second to none in the world,” says Paton. “We’ve got the right people with the right expertise to shift from pulling hydrocarbons out of the ground to putting carbon back in the ground.”

This thriving industry has already seen an influx of proposed projects, such as the Shell Polaris Carbon Capture Project in Strathcona County, a municipality located east of Edmonton, Alberta’s capital city, which aims to capture and store carbon from the Shell Scotford Complex.

Image courtesy of Enhance Energy

A variety of blue hydrogen projects are also in the works, a process that involves splitting natural gas into hydrogen and carbon dioxide so the latter can be captured and stored through CCUS. The investment in these projects is an exciting sign of things to come, says Sean McRitchie, Strathcona County’s director of economic development and tourism. “Whether it’s hydrogen or other intermediaries like ethane, methane, propane, you’re going to see an industry transitioning away from the traditional fuel products for combustible engines into a much cleaner space.”

“I always tell [friends] about how exciting and encouraging it is when I go out to see our project [the ACTL-connected sequestration facility at Clive] and I can put my hand on that pipeline and actually feel carbon emissions travelling down into the geology, and I can see that evidence that they’re staying there permanently, it’s safe, it’s at scale today. It makes me really hopeful for the future,” says Paton.

In November 2021, the Alberta government announced $100 million in funding for seven CCUS projects across the province. And the CCUS sector is projected to contribute $379 million to Alberta’s GDP by 2030, as stated in the Alberta Energy Transition Study.