How CCUS tackles climate change

Alberta carbon trunk line

How can Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) help tackle climate change?

Climate experts agree that in order to limit the average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius or less by the middle of the century in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be reduced to net zero by 2050. 

Leading global organizations, such as the International Energy Agency (IEA), have confirmed that certain technologies, including Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) will play a critically important role in reducing emissions and thus tackling climate change.

What is CCUS?

Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) is a technology that captures carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from industrial processes before it enters the atmosphere, and then enables either permanent storage or utilization of that carbon. This innovative technology will help the oil sands industry achieve net zero emissions from production by 2050 in line Canada’s climate goals

What is the difference between CCS and CCUS?

CCS stands for Carbon Capture and Storage (sometimes labelled Carbon Capture and Sequestration), which is about capturing carbon dioxide and storing it safely underground (sequestration). 

CCUS stands for Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage, which is about utilizing the captured carbon dioxide by converting the carbon component into valuable products, such as plastics, concrete or biofuel (rather than storing it).

What steps are involved in CCUS?

  • Capture: CO2 is separated from other emissions produced in industrial processes by a variety of chemical means. One of the more common processes is amine-based CO2 absorption systems, which use organic compounds called amines that are derived from ammonia to separate the CO2.
  • Transport: A high concentration of CO2 is required, around 95 per cent purity, so that it can be compressed and transported by pipeline or truck to a designated storage location.
  • Storage: The CO2 is injected into geological (rock) formations deep underground for permanent and safe storage. In the oil industry, for example, it can be injected into depleted reservoirs that are no longer producing oil. Not every reservoir is geologically suitable for storage, or sequestration as it’s commonly called. Geologists make safety a top priority when selecting storage locations. They make sure that the rock which held the oil safely below ground for millions of years will do the same for the injected CO2.
  • Monitoring: Storage sites are subject to stringent government regulations and are continually monitored – above and below ground – to ensure they comply to the highest safety standards. Storage is a precise science backed by decades of research. It enables companies to confidently replicate the conditions by which Nature stored oil permanently underground after it was formed from trapped organic matter. Oil sands companies have extensive experience in this area.

Where is the carbon stored?

Storage sites include depleted oil and gas reservoirs and saline aquifers (permeable rock formations that contain groundwater that is too salty to be usable). Typically, the carbon is stored one kilometre or more underground below impermeable cap rock where it can be contained with the least risk of migration.

Is CCUS safe?

Carbon capture and storage is a proven technology that has been deployed around the world for more than 45 years. It is being used to reduce emissions in sectors ranging from cement to steel. In 2021 alone, the IEA notes that global storage capacity increased worldwide by 32 per cent. Geological storage of CO2 uses the same forces and processes that have trapped oil and gas beneath the earth’s surface for millions of years. 

Which countries have CCUS projects?

According to the IEA, there are 64 commercial CCS facilities in the world: 38 in North and South America, 13 in Europe, 10 in the Asia Pacific region, and three in the Middle East. Plans for 100 new CCS facilities were announced in 2021.

Does Canada have CCUS projects?

The Canada Energy Regulator lists Canada’s two major operating CCS projects as SaskPower’s Boundary Dam in Estevan, Saskatchewan, and Shell’s Quest project near Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. In both cases the captured carbon is permanently stored.

Are oil sands companies involved in CCUS?

The Quest Carbon Capture and Storage facility is owned and operated by a number of energy companies. (Canadian Natural has Quest majority ownership of 70%; Chevron Canada owns 20% and Shell Canada 10%). The facility is demonstrating that large-scale CO2 capture is a safe and effective measure to reduce CO2 emissions from industrial sources.

Between 2015 and 2021, the Quest facility captured and safely stored six million tonnes of CO2 and at a lower cost than anticipated. This number is equal to the annual emissions from about 30 million cars. Lessons learned from Quest have been shared widely through COSIA with other members, creating a foundation for other CCS innovation in this technology path.

Canadian Natural has advanced several other CCS initiatives over the years. The company is the fifth-largest industry owner of CCS capacity in the world and the largest in Canada. In fact, Canada is recognized worldwide as a leader in CCS technologies and countries elsewhere are looking to the lessons learned in Canada’s oil sands.

The Pathways Alliance 

In June 2022, Canada’s major oil sands producers announced the combination of three existing industry groups, all focused on responsible development, into a single organization called the Pathways Alliance. The new organization incorporates the Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero Alliance, launched in 2021, Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and the Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA).

The Pathways Alliance has an ambitious plan to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in line with Canada’s climate goals. Carbon capture technology is the anchor of the Pathways Alliance vision. Its emissions reduction plan includes a trunkline connected to a carbon sequestration hub that offers a connection for other sectors to use for emissions reductions.

This proposed CCUS project is similar to those that exist in Norway, the Netherlands, U.K. and U.S., which all involve significant collaboration between industry and government. The Pathways Alliance recognizes there is no single solution to achieving net zero emissions. Therefore, its plan incorporates a number of parallel approaches to address emissions.

How does Canada safely transport captured carbon dioxide?

The Quest project and adjacent Scotford carbon capture facility has its own dedicated pipeline. In June 2021, the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line (ACTL) went into operation. A large-scale CCUS system and the world’s largest capacity pipeline for CO2, the ACTL was designed as the backbone infrastructure to transport CO2 from other industrial facilities and support a lower carbon economy in Alberta, 

At full capacity, the pipeline can transport up to 14.6 million tonnes of CO2 per year, which represents approximately 20 per cent of all current oil sands emissions. That figure is equal to the impact of capturing the CO2 from more than 2.6 million cars in Alberta.

How much is all this going to cost?

Despite the importance of CCUS in achieving a clean energy transition, the high cost of carbon capture and storage has slowed widespread global deployment. However, proponents argue the fact that the technology is proven in large-scale industrial facilities and its potential to play such an important role in addressing climate change means that deployment should outweigh economic implications. 

The Pathways Alliance is an example of how industry and government are joining forces to share CCS deployment costs and progress this key technology farther and faster.

What is carbon dioxide?

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a gas made up of one carbon and two oxygen molecules that occurs naturally in the atmosphere in trace amounts. It is one of the most important gases on earth because plants use it in photosynthesis, a process by which green plants and some other organisms use sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water. Photosynthesis is necessary for life on earth because humans and animals depend on plants for food.

CO2 emissions come from a variety of natural sources, such as the degradation of plants and forest fires. But humans both emit and cause CO2 emissions. The air we exhale every day contains CO2, but it is also released or emitted in large amounts by industrial activities, including agriculture, transportation and the combustion of coal, oil, natural gas and related products like petroleum – things used every day to heat and power our homes and fuel our cars. 

These human activities have increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. And since CO2 is very effective at trapping heat close to the earth’s surface, preventing it from escaping, this has led to a rise in the earth’s temperature (global warming) and climate change.

Carbon capture technologies reduce on-site emissions at source and is a critical part the Pathways Alliance plan to achieve its goal of net-zero emissions by capturing and storing the majority of the CO2 produced.

Find out more about Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS), check out these blogs:
•    What you need to know about carbon capture
•    Cleaning up carbon dioxide
•    Rounding up CO2: a circular economy