Svante conservatively estimates global capacity for 10,000 such plants, a level at which its customers could capture about 10 Gt per year. Svante and Husky Energy have operated a demonstration plant in Saskatchewan since 2018, with the 30 tonnes a day of captured CO2 used to enhance oil recovery.
Lafarge Canada, a cement company that has a demonstration project with Svante in Richmond, B.C., now also sells a range of sustainable concrete for high-performance building and circular construction and recycling practices. The concrete generates anywhere from 30 to 100 per cent fewer carbon emissions than standard concrete, showing how material choices can be a route to meaningful reductions.
Elsewhere lurk other eye-openers: in his CarbMin Lab at the University of British Columbia, for example, Greg Dipple is perfecting a method for using ultramafic rock — highly reactive to CO2 — to scrub the gas from the air and turn it into rock. In particular, he’s investigating how mine tailings might achieve this. “We research how to accelerate carbon mineralization, determine where to apply it most effectively and develop the technology to implement it,” he summarizes in a YouTube presentation.
Like Guetre, Dipple says that not only do we need to reduce current emissions to net zero, but dig into the excess CO2 already in the atmosphere. In a real-time experiment, you can watch as the air in a small chamber set on ultramafic mine tailings drops from 400 ppm CO2 to 300 ppm in two minutes, then continues downward to 230 ppm within four minutes — an instantaneous reduction of CO2 of about 40 per cent. “The CO2 is absorbed by the tailings and converted into a solid carbonate mineral, safely trapped and stored. … Some mines with ultramafic tailings are already offsetting 10 to 15 per cent of their emissions through carbon mineralization,” says Dipple. “This is a scalable idea, and it’s already happening.”
Past, present, future
In September, the Pembina Institute, an energy think-tank, released a report on the gap between Canadian oilsands companies’ climate pledges and actions. It wasn’t flattering. Despite free cash flow in Canadian oil and gas companies of an estimated $152 billion in 2022, the highest profits ever, none of it appears destined for climate action touted by the Pathways Alliance, an industry group representing 95 per cent of oilsands production that last year announced a three-phase plan to get their operations to net-zero emissions by 2050. Since then, no significant decarbonization investment decisions have been made by members, a situation Pembina finds worrisome.
Weeks before the report, I’d spoken with senior author Jan Gorski, director of Pembina’s oil and gas program, about Canada’s carbon-capture capacity and challenges. The report’s press release parsed the sentiments he’d expressed to me. “It is time for the oilsands companies to turn their words into actions,” he said. “Our research shows [they] have all the funds and technology at their disposal to get started now. Those that make rapid and deep cuts to their emissions will be best placed to compete in a near future where governments and consumers will have increasingly high expectations about the emissions present in every supply chain.”
During a recent Twitter Live event, when asked whether there was a drop-dead date for the Pathways Alliance to invest in carbon capture, Gorski said, “Hard to say if there’s a specific date, but this is the decade in which action must take place…. If you work backward on the CCUS thing there isn’t a significant amount of time. But we need to see the details of those projects, their proposed timelines and the investment in the next couple of years.” He noted the significant movement on this from other industrial sectors and the expected competition for a knowledgeable workforce. “There’s an advantage to being a first mover.”
In late September 2022, federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault signalled the government’s own expectation that oilsands companies show their stated commitment to climate action by investing some of their record profits in emissions reduction and decarbonization plans. But while Big Oil mulls proposed carbon-capture tax credits with money-making in mind, critics look for a strategy to manage the industry’s decline. In January 2022, over 400 academics signed a letter calling on government to scrap the credit idea, arguing it’s a de facto subsidy that will shunt more taxpayer money into industry pockets — despite Canada’s stated commitment to phase these out. When I ask Sven Biggs whether Canada’s approach to carbon capture sits on the spectrum at good, bad or its usual mediocre middle, he stops me immediately. “Let’s first address the question of what the most appropriate use is for the tech,” he says. “This projection from industry that CCUS can be a silver bullet to make them carbon neutral skips right past that. You don’t have to scratch too deep to see this just isn’t true, yet they continue to push this narrative to justify continued extraction. The cleanest and safest way to reduce emissions is still to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.”
Others aren’t as diplomatic. Despite its potential, carbon capture has been labelled a “scam” by many North American climate thinkers — including Green Party MP Elizabeth May. Even Carbon Engineering founder David Keith has expressed dismay with this trajectory. “This topic is becoming so visible and so many people are pouring in, and a lot of it is just nonsense,” he told the MIT Technology Review in 2021, referencing confusing discourse from industry that distracts from available cost-effective actions needed to cut emissions.
In the end, potential problems with carbon capture may be eclipsed by its promise and by policy. While squaring a circle has proved mathematically impossible, using a range of effective carbon-capture technologies in the right places, and at the right scale, to support a global net-zero economy could be only an order of magnitude away. “The playing field tipped in 2018 when the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] said we can’t avoid 1.5 C of warming just by reducing emissions, that we’d have to sequester carbon as well,” says Lori Guetre. “So it’s all hands on deck now.”