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Jamshed Merchant: Canada's experience shows 'carbon capture' works

MINNEAPOLIS -- In Estevan, Saskatchewan, about 10 miles north of the Canada-U.S. border, something remarkable is happening. At Boundary Dam, a long-established coal-fired power station, SaskPower engineers are finishing a retrofit of a newly refu...

MINNEAPOLIS -- In Estevan, Saskatchewan, about 10 miles north of the Canada-U.S. border, something remarkable is happening.

At Boundary Dam, a long-established coal-fired power station, SaskPower engineers are finishing a retrofit of a newly refurbished unit (Boundary Dam 3) with state-of-the-art carbon capture technology.

When the plant resumes full regular operations next year, the rebuilt unit will continue to burn coal -- but with about 90 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions.

As Canada's Consul General in the Upper Midwest, I traveled to Saskatchewan in September with a group of American stakeholders, including North Dakota legislators, policy experts and an MIT scientist. We visited both Boundary Dam 3 and some of the cutting-edge Carbon Capture and Storage research projects taking place in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS involves trapping CO2 at its emission source and then storing it in such a way that it does not enter the atmosphere. Among its many benefits, CCS is a more environmentally sustainable way to use coal for the production of electricity.

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As I saw on my visit, CCS is capable of changing the equation on CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Implemented with the joint support of Canada's federal government and the province of Saskatchewan with a contribution of well over $1 billion, Boundary Dam 3 is the world's first commercial-scale power plant with a fully integrated post-combustion CCS system.

It will reduce CO2 emissions by capturing 1 million tons of CO2 per year. That's like taking 250,000 cars off the road.

Starting in 2014, some of SaskPower's captured CO2 will be injected deep underground as part of a storage monitoring project. Most, however, will be pumped into nearby oil fields, where it provides an economic and environmental win-win: the CO2 is used to coax additional oil from existing fields (part of the same geological basin as the Bakken in North Dakota), while permanently storing the CO2 in the oil field where it cannot be released.

Saskatchewan already is a leader in CO2 -enhanced oil recovery. In a partnership with Dakota Gasification, Cenovus and Apache in Saskatchewan buy nearly 3 million tons of CO2 per year from North Dakota via pipeline.

Is it surprising that Canada is leading the way with a model that gives coal a commercially viable, low-carbon future? Not at all. Canada's tangible commitments to environmental sustainability in the energy sector are among the strongest in the world.

In Canada, 77 percent of our power comes from non-emitting sources.

In electricity generation, Canada already has established regulatory limits on carbon emissions from coal plants. No new plants can be built without CCS technology to meet the regulatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and old ones must be retired at the end of their planned lives, unless they adopt the CCS technology.

Here in the United States, similar rules are at the discussion stage.

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Does Canada's leadership matter to America? Yes. Canada is the United States' No. 1 source of all forms of energy imports, including oil. And in contrast to America's other energy suppliers, Canada is one of the few major producers of crude oil taking concrete action to reduce CO2 emissions.

Canadian uranium mines in northern Saskatchewan annually supply the fuel for 4 percent to 5 percent of all the electricity generated in the United States. Canada also supplies clean, renewable hydroelectric power to the United States in large quantities; the rivers of northern Manitoba power an estimate of more than 15 percent of Minnesota's homes and businesses.

Further development of this resource will let the grid make better use of wind power in North Dakota, too.

What I saw in Saskatchewan last month proved to me that Canada's leadership in the energy sector is preparing us well for the future. Canada has long been the leading clean energy supplier to the United States. We are now making CCS technology a practical reality and hope that U.S. stakeholders will benefit from our experience.

Today, legacy coal plants remain a very significant source of CO2 emissions. A paradigm shift for coal power would go a long way to helping both our countries meet our common CO2 reduction goals.

The Boundary Dam 3 project in Estevan shows that Carbon Capture and Storage, used in tandem with enhanced oil recovery, can be commercially viable and environmentally sustainable. And that's good news for Canadians and Americans alike.

Merchant is Canadian consul general for the Upper Midwest.

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