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CCS: alarm bells ring at Weyburn

Focus on leak from world’s largest carbon-capture plant; allegations could undermine Alberta plans for CCS

A team of scientists is being assembled to investigate allegations by a Saskatchewan farming couple that animals have died and their water supply has bubbled and foamed as a result of carbon dioxide (CO2) leaking from the world’s largest carbon capture and storage (CCS) project.

The IPAC-CO2 study team, which will involve Carbon Management Canada, a network of 22 universities engaged in carbon-emissions research, should complete its probe in “months, not years,” says IPAC-CO2 chief executive Carmen Dybwad.

The allegations, which have caused a media storm in Canada, are a blow to Alberta’s government, which has put CCS at the forefront of its strategy to contain growing CO2 emissions from the oil sands.

With production set to rise from 1.5m b/d to 3.5m b/d by 2025, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (Capp), emissions will grow almost threefold, says the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank.

A report into the allegations in Weyburn by Petro-Find GeoChem, a Saskatchewan consultant, commissioned by property owners Cameron and Jane Kerr, said CO2 concentrations averaged 23,000 parts per million (ppm) and ran as high as 110,600 ppm in some areas.

Cenovus Energy and the Saskatchewan government say many studies of land above the Weyburn oilfield have failed to link any contamination with the CCS project, which is also being closely monitored by various organisations, including the International Energy Agency (IEA).

But the cloud over the enhanced oil-recovery (EOR) venture is spreading to Alberta, where the government’s CCS plans involve funding of C$2bn ($2bn) to bring four proposals into commercial operation by 2015.

Alberta premier Ed Stelmach vows his government will not allow CO2 to be stored underground without clear proof that the practice is safe.

He says Alberta’s plans to become a global leader in CCS research is under close scrutiny by scientists who are examining geological formations and assessing how carbon reacts when stored under different pressures, temperatures and depths.

Stelmach says any CCS projects will be “done safely and responsibly” and that “none will proceed until there has been a full investigation, a full review”.

For now, Cenovus and the Saskatchewan government say there is no evidence that the Kerr’s farm problems are linked to Weyburn, where pure CO2, shipped by pipeline from a North Dakota gasification plant, is injected to rebuild pressure in the ageing oilfield. Cenovus says it is “more than happy to have people looking into this issue.”

So far, 17m tonnes has been injected, in hopes of recovering 130m barrels of oil. The Saskatchewan government has touted the prospect of using EOR to exploit 30bn barrels beyond what is accessible through conventional vertical wells. Alberta, too, reckons carbon injection will breathe life into mature conventional oil deposits in its section of the Western Canadian Sedimentary basin.

The province and Shell each contributed C$5m and the Canadian government added C$4m to create IPAC-CO2 Research in 2009 to provide independent performance assessments of CCS projects such as Weyburn.

The IEA has also started a C$42m monitoring project at Weyburn to study the environmental impacts of long-term CO2 storage.

Separately, the Saskatchewan-based Petroleum Technical Research Alliance has been involved in an C$85m study over the past 11 years of CO2 storage at Weyburn and Midale. In preliminary findings, it doubted there could ever be a “catastrophic” release of CO2 at Weyburn, but said less than 3% of the CO2 could find its way to the surface over 5,000 years.

Dybwad says IPAC-CO2 believes CCS is a safe method of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, but more research is needed. She says that although using alternative fuels might be safer and more efficient, fossil fuels will likely be consumed “for a very long time, so we need to ensure that is done responsibly.”

A spokesman for Ecojustice (formerly the Sierra Legal Defence Fund) says an independent body – not IPAC-CO2 – should be hired to conduct a study and “give us a definitive answer”.

At its climate meeting in Cancun, in December, the UN put CCS under the umbrella of the clean-development mechanism, which allows developers to advance the technology in exchange for credits towards meeting their country’s Kyoto emissions targets.

Environmentalists complain that Alberta’s CCS strategy commits money that could better be spent on renewable energy. Others maintain that the oil sands’ emissions – which now account for just 5% of Canada’s total and less than 0.1% of the world’s, according to Capp – are too low to justify CCS projects that would be better placed next to coal-fired generators, the largest source of the province’s emissions.

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