Alberta is panicking right now, fearing the worst when the U.S. makes its next decision on the Keystone Pipeline. If the new American secretary of state’s recent legislative past is an indicator, Keystone, which will carry Alberta bitumen to the U.S. gulf coast, will receive extra attention on the question of whether the proposed pipeline fits with the president’s stated climate change goals. After all, the most recent U.S. senate effort to reduce emissions of man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) was called the KGL Bill. The “K” stands for Kerry, as in John Kerry, who is now secretary of state. And the KGL Bill died an embarrassing death, in 2010. Will the new secretary of state use the Keystone issue to redress that failure, and help his boss keep an important—and so far unkept—environmental promise? Alberta worries he will.
Oil sands operation, Alberta Canada. This is Alberta’s cash cow and hope for the future, but that future is bleak because Alberta’s biggest customer, the United States of America, has singled Alberta oil out as “dirty.” The only way Alberta can clean it up is to use nuclear energy.
Alberta’s panic is underlined by the recent revelation that the province is considering upping its much touted and totally ineffectual $15 per ton “levy” on industrial CO2 to $40. This is the centrepiece of Alberta’s new climate goal: a 40 percent reduction in CO2.
Considering where most of Alberta’s CO2 emissions come from, a 40 percent reduction is huge. The two biggest category sources in Alberta’s official Greenhouse Gas inventory are power generation and the oil sands, which in 2008 emitted 55 million tons of CO2 and 41 million tons, respectively. (You can download Environment Canada’s National Inventory Report 1990-2008: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada here; Alberta-specific information is on p. 118, or p. 119 of the PDF).
Alberta has been trying, in a PR kind of way, to reduce CO2 from power generation, which the province thinks is easier technologically than from the oil sands. This effort has focused mostly on carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. Not surprisingly it has been a flop. The chemistry of the process is difficult: it involves separating CO2 from nitrogen (Alberta’s power plants are mostly coal-fired, and all use air, which is mostly nitrogen, as the source of combustion oxygen). That separation is inefficient and expensive.
The only ongoing CCS project in Alberta is Shell’s Quest project, which is not a power generation application but hydrogen generation for a bitumen upgrader (see article). The process separation of CO2 is far more favourable in the Shell project; this makes the project less uneconomic. A CO2 levy of $40 per tonne would improve the economics even more.
However, process CO2 from hydrogen manufacturing is not the main source of oil sands CO2. The main source by far is from heat generation: heat is produced by burning natural gas. And capturing CO2 from that is as difficult and uneconomic as it is in coal-fired power generation. That is because, as in coal generation, heat generation by burning natural gas uses air as the oxygen source.
There is only one source of viable zero-carbon heat on this planet. That is nuclear fission. Alberta has pretended to objectively look at nuclear before, only to pull the plug in the face of uninformed opposition from environmentalists and self-styled energy experts.
But the province should take a second look. And if that is not enough, a third one. Ontario nuclear plants are, right this second, generating enough energy to power the entire province of Alberta, without emitting a gram of CO2. Nuclear should be powering Alberta too, and powering the oil sands. Table 1 on the left hand sidebar shows Ontario’s grid electricity sources from the last hour. And Table 2 gives an idea of the sheer amount of CO2 that comes from gas-fired power generators every day; gas-fired power is supposed to be clean. Nuclear, as you can see, emits zero CO2.
Alberta could achieve bigger reductions than 40 percent, if it embraced nuclear. So the question is, how badly does it want American business?