The glee with which some climate-change activists have welcomed the paralyzing pause our economy is now going through is nothing short of unseemly. People say COVID-19 will change everything. No, it will change some things. But once the pause is over, we’re likely to return to basics as we’ve known them, especially in resource politics. Which means that in trying to restore production, Canada’s resource sector will continue to face opposition from activists. Nor of course will COVID-19 change the basic chemistry that burning fossil fuels will always produce carbon dioxide. But in its post-COVID-19 re-emergence, Canada’s oil and gas industry needs to let the world know it is making giant strides in making oil and gas greener.
As has often been argued on this page, the biggest contribution Canada can make towards global emission reduction is to send our energy to countries that currently power their economies with coal. This single initiative would outweigh anything else we could do to reduce carbon use while allowing our valuable natural resources to continue to be used responsibly. But another part of the story is how the Canadian industry is working to find ways of reducing the carbon-intensity of what it does. In recent years, multimillion-dollar investments have helped reduce its carbon footprint dramatically.
Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), set up by oilsands producers, is a leading example of open collaboration that brings researchers from around the world together to work on improving the industry’s environmental performance. COSIA has seen $1.4 billion invested into 1,026 technologies in its four environmental priority areas: land, GHGs, tailings and water.
Between 2009 and 2017, it helped reduce the GHG-intensity of oilsands operations by 21 per cent. This was done by improving energy efficiency; recovering waste heat for reuse; reducing flaring, improving venting and reducing fugitive emissions; developing new extraction technology; and assessing and deploying technologies for carbon capture and storage. By some estimates, new and planned clean technologies may bring further emission reductions of as much as 30 per cent in the next five years.
Among other things, COSIA has explored the use of molten carbonate fuel cells (MCFC) to capture carbon dioxide from natural gas-fired processing units during electricity generation. Combining MCFCs and “once-through” steam generators to cogenerate steam and electricity at in situ facilities will produce lower GHG-intensive steam and electricity while capturing CO2. Any excess electricity can be sold into the Alberta power grid while water from combustion can replace water from conventional sources.
A $20-million carbon conversion competition currently has 10 finalists driving innovation that could potentially launch an entirely new commercial industry — converting waste carbon from coal, oil and gas production into commercially valuable products. A surprising outcome has one of the teams producing vodka by chemically converting CO2 into ethanol. At the moment this eco-friendly product, which apparently really does taste like vodka, goes for $65 per bottle. Like many eco-products, it’s premium-priced. But the production cycle for each bottle reportedly eats up a pound of carbon.
The “COSIA in Space” program is looking into satellite technology. Its small satellite, fondly named “Claire,” can measure GHG emissions from industrial facilities. The data it produces may help build fact-based strategies to curb global emissions.
Special interest groups do have a role to play in energy evolution. They can ignite ideas and encourage responsible change. But they can’t be allowed to drive the agenda or to amp up public emotions with limited or biased information.
Green oil is a thing. Canada’s fossil fuel industry excels in environmental initiatives. We are a respected world leader. Canadians can be confident that fossil fuel and climate change can work together. It would be amazing to see an environmental group step up with capital and work with industry to find climate-change solutions.
Larry Clausen is executive vice president of Cohn & Wolfe West.