Breaking Bread

Alberta Oil May 2010

A prominent climate scientist stood before a standing room-only crowd at the University of Calgary in March and proclaimed, “There is no practical way for emissions reductions to reduce global temperatures this century.” Ken Caldeira, who heads a research facility in the department of global ecology at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science, delivered the message as the star of a distinguished speaker event held by the U of C’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy (ISEEE). He reckons the needed balance is just not evident – the planet is warming too fast for any greenhouse gas reduction efforts to stop the change.

Caldeira’s specialty is the study of geological engineering techniques for direct and intentional intervention in the world’s climate systems to reduce risk. He has used scientific modeling techniques to examine several options proposed for creating the mirror effect known as albedo on a large scale, in order to reflect the sun’s heat back into outer space rather than let it be trapped in the atmosphere. Alternatives include space reflectors, injecting aerosols into the stratosphere, cloud albedo (using seed nuclei or particles to encourage water vapor condensation) and land surface albedo (such as covering deserts with plastic or painting everyone’s roof white).

But Caldeira does not yet advocate any of the options. He maintains that geo-engineering should not be a substitute for emissions reduction programs, but will perhaps be a supplement in the not-too-distant future. Apart from technological obstacles, there are too many moral and political considerations, not to mention unexpected risks.

Warnings like Caldeira’s bleak predictions are having an effect. They fueled December’s United Nations climate change conference, which attracted tens of thousands of participants from hundreds of countries and generated several tonnes of reports. The shortest document was the final result, the Copenhagen Accord. Participating countries officially “took note” of the agreement but nothing legally binding was produced. However, progress was made on setting cleanup targets. Canada’s clarified commitment includes co-ordinating emissions reduction efforts with the United States, which, like China, agreed for the first time to participate in a global carbon reduction campaign.

Bruce Carson, executive director of the Canada School of Energy and the Environment (CSEE) and an adviser to various Ottawa agencies, says the hope last year was to arrive in the Danish capital with a completed Canada-U.S. plan in hand. “What happened in the meantime is we were working on the clean energy dialogue and also working on the major economies forum with Jim Prentice, the national environment minister, and that’s what morphed into the Copenhagen meeting,” Carson says.

“What I think is that some of the things that were agreed upon at this forum formed the backbone of the Copenhagen Accord,” says Carson, who is a longtime associate and former adviser of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “Things like adaptation and technology transfer; and the recognition that the main developing countries had to accept some type of target.”

To further Canada’s participation in the process, the federal government has unveiled Carbon Management Canada (CMC). Carson was named its first chairman, and explains its affinities with the CSEE. “It is a separate corporation like the Canada School,” he says. “The Canada School is working towards technological change for carbon reduction, so the CMC fits nicely within its mandate. There’s a great synergy between what we are doing and what CMC is doing; there’s a nice crossover. I can support CMC with the contacts I have in industry.”

CMC has been defined as a nationwide and multi-partnered organization for conducting interdisciplinary research in carbon management for Canada. The initiative to create it was led by the University of Calgary’s ISEEE in conjunction with the CSEE. The carbon agency’s mandate pledges, “In partnership with industry and government, CMC’s vision is to develop the insights and technologies necessary to reduce Canada’s annual GHG emissions by 350 million tonnes (Mt) CO2-equivalent per year from the 1,100 Mt CO2-equivalent annual ‘business-as-usual’ forecast to 2050 – or approximately 40 per cent of the national GHG reduction targets.” Canada’s stated national targets are to reduce the country’s GHG emissions by 17 per cent by 2020, and 60 to 70 per cent by 2050.

The need for CMC was building long before the Copenhagen festival of climate change concern. Research in carbon management has been underway in several Canadian universities and corporations for years. The number of Canadian researchers working on practical solutions has been growing from one year to the next.

But many of these efforts have been in separate institutional and academic “silos” without co-ordination across the country. In the absence of formal collaboration among research groups and scientists, it was recognized that duplication and redundancy slows advancement and can waste precious research funding. The idea is for CMC to provide focus, structure and support for better research and development collaborations across Canada.

The new agency already includes energy, environmental and social sciences researchers from 21 universities in eight provinces, and from Natural Resources Canada and the National Research Council. As well, 13 private corporations, seven non-governmental organizations and industry associations, and four governments have established affiliations with Carson’s council.

CMC is well-endowed at birth. “The funding that went to CMC is $25 million from the federal government,” Carson says. Alberta will match the federal contribution with a $25 million provincial grant announced by Premier Ed Stelmach in mid-April. “Perhaps the biggest challenge our energy sector faces is the need to manage greenhouse gas emissions while remaining competitive,” Stelmach said in unveiling the grant.

Heading up that new committee is Steven Larter, CMC’s inaugural scientific director who’s also Canada Research Chair in Petroleum Geology and a U of C professor. “CMC will be kicking off its first round of projects in May,” he predicts. “We’re looking at proposals, tweaking proposals and getting proposals reviewed, but currently there are no funded projects.”

Even before Alberta’s commitment, Larter reported that the new agency had $45 million for projects, with plans to raise another $12 million to $15 million from industry. Research projects will fit generally into one of four themes.

“One is cost effective recovery and processing: that is, reducing the price of carbon capture, making recovery processes and generation more efficient. The second theme is secure carbon storage – the technological aspect of being able to dispose of CO2 and other carbons at large volumes and high rates –
and having the public be comfortable with it.”

The third theme Larter describes is a more fundamental research area: looking at bringing in advances from fields such as biology, chemistry and materials science into the other themes. One example is a technique that Larter works on while wearing his other scholarly and business hats: using advanced biological methods for oil and gas recovery. Several of these have been researched over the past decade and that continues.

“And the fourth theme is perhaps in many ways the really important one,” says Larter. “It’s the social science – the policy, the business environment. How do you increase innovation in the energy sector? How do you convince people that you can safely bury gigatonnes of CO2 under their feet?”

Larter predicts, “More money will likely go to the technology side because that is traditionally more expensive, but at least 50 percent is social science and perception – there is a lot of resistance in the world to CCS [carbon capture and storage]. There’s a new term now: NUMBY – Not Under My Backyard. That is creeping in and it’s a big issue; these solutions may come but people resist.” CMC will fund research into this cultural side of handling emissions reductions.

Larter says CMC is trying to avoid creating only a traditional scientific research project “where you have a professor and some graduate students. Rather, we are trying to have big projects with lots of participants across Canada. It’s about trying to defragment the research base and make it more focused and efficient.” Governments and industry will be engaged. “And then we hope we will end up with spinout companies to deploy the new technologies in the field,” he adds.

Larter describes industry interest and participation as paramount. CMC will be up against the biggest hurdle that engagement with industry poses for scholars and inventors: adoption of innovation. “How do you get the energy industry to be more innovative?” he asks. “We have long been looking at innovation models and found, for instance, the patent system to be more of a barrier than a stimulant. We are looking at truly revolutionary technologies here. The solutions that are around today, if they were deployed on scale, would have a major dent in emissions. It’s just persuading people to go ahead and do it.”

Improvements to a spreading method of tapping deeply buried oil sands deposits, steam- assisted gravity drainage, or SAGD, is an example of an area liable to interest industry that could attract CMC funding. “We’ve been looking at the energy efficiency of SAGD. The best players are maybe 30 per cent efficient in terms of the amount of energy needed to mobilize the bitumen and the average is less than that,” observes Larter. “SAGD might be the ideal process for the ideal reservoir. But Alberta reservoirs are geologically complex.”

Larter says researchers hope to raise efficiencies to 50 or 60 per cent. “We are going to be looking at something completely different,” he predicts. “The whole way we’ve been exploring for and producing oil and gas; I think there will be big changes.”

There are two sides to environmental gains in fossil fuels. One is reducing emissions by making the oil and gas recovery process more efficient. The other is to cut carbon waste as a byproduct of consuming the energy products.

“There are limited efficiency gains to be made in terms of recovery,” says Larter. “Let’s say we doubled it or tripled it. We are still only talking about that 20 per cent or so of emissions that comes from energy recovery. The big hit is still in using it – that’s the thing you’ve got to fix.” Even if wasteful exhaust from producing energy were reduced to zero, he reckons about 80 per cent of current carbon emissions would continue from consumer sources such as cars. 

Larter has a radical yet common-sense approach to that. “The only way you solve that is to centralize energy generation,” he says. “Burn the oil in one place, capture the CO2 and bury it in the ground. As soon as you send it out to the filling station, you’ve lost the game. So I think it’s electric cars, it’s electric trains.”
The “halfway house” to this is fuel switching from coal and oil to methane, he says. “That halves your emissions. You move away from transport fuels to natural gas and electricity and you’ve got centralized power.”

A centralized energy production operation creates a location where waste exhaust is concentrated and can be reduced, as opposed to mobile small sources like cars. “Centrally is where you can capture the CO2 and store it; that’s the idea. The power companies are interested in it, but at the end of the day government will have to put the lever on incentives to make it happen,” says Larter. “We are talking of two per cent of GDP, about what Canadians spend on Christmas. So it’s certainly doable.”

Turning the energy marketplace around is a big target for CMC research to aim for, and one that it’s up to shooting for. But can the new agency make a contribution to defining Canada’s emissions targets internationally? Perhaps, Carson says. “It’s in its early days yet, but for the dialogue in Pittsburgh we have been asked to send a representative. And there is certainly a recognition at Natural Resources Canada that CMC is an organization that may actually be able to begin to deliver the kind of scientific change that’s needed for the reduction of carbon.

I can’t speak for them but they recognize how useful this will be going forward.”

He foresees CMC’s role as mainly looking at the science required to hit targets rather than establishing them. Will CMC play a part in co-ordinating emissions reduction efforts of the provinces? “No, it’s mainly a scientific tool to aid in meeting targets, but as we go along that may evolve,” says Carson. “Eventually we might see CMC meeting with some of the policy-makers but at this point we are just getting our feet under it.”

Carson hints there may also be representation on CMC’s board from environmental advocacy groups. The Pembina Institute’s executive director, Marlo Raynolds, has been offered a seat on the board of directors. “There will certainly be input from the NGO community.”

CMC is coming together rapidly as a more effective carbon control package than dispersed, isolated academic efforts. The research agenda promises to go a long way to make material reductions of Canada’s GHG emissions. But what if the research advances don’t go far enough to reduce emissions to a point where global warming can be reversed? What if Caldeira is right? What if drastic remodeling of the planet is needed? Could his sort of research be on CMC’s horizon?

For Larter, the answer is a cautious yes. “Certainly we’re planning on a small program in air capture of CO2,” he says, “but currently that’s the only one.” His take on geo-engineering is that it is something to keep in mind. “It’s like a solution of last resort – the lifeboat – and we may well need it,” he says. “So a small amount of money will be spent on that. Until recently, geoengineering was thought of as a crazy fringe element and hardly mainstream science. But the Royal Society in Britain [of which Larter is a fellow] recently came out with a paper on it. Scientists are thinking, yes, it is technically feasible but it’s expensive and we really don’t want to do it but may have to by the end of the century.”

Larter reckons there is still hope. A big dent can be made in CO2 emissions with large efficiency gains and carbon capture and storage. “And you can do it in a cost-effective way,” he says. “However, the day may come. We may be looking at potential mass extinctions by the end of the century, but for now we are totally disconnected from that.”

He refers to plate tectonics, the science of continental drift on the mobile crust of the planet, to illustrate why people can become complacent with doing something about greenhouse gas emissions. “Plates move slowly and pressures build up slowly and if that’s all that happened, they wouldn’t get much attention. But a magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Los Angeles or San Francisco brings forward the idea that it’s pretty significant so I better change my building codes.”

The problem with climate change, he says, is that the warming effect is very slow and resulting changes like melting ice caps may only make sea levels rise a centimeter a year. The result is that all the painful effects like coastal flooding are going to be felt by future generations, yet all the expense to slow or stop the trend will be felt today. “With earthquakes, you are going to experience probably two in your lifetime so there’s an incentive to do something about it.”

Caldeira’s message about geo-engineering reflects just that reality about dealing with long-range, slow and often subtle changes. The big job is one for future generations to shoulder, if and when developments show it is necessary. The projects that Carter and Larter envision for Carbon Management Canada are aimed at helping to ensure that that planetary emergency never arrives.

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