Backgrounder by Joelle Seal
As voters head to the polls, economy and environment are often posed as conflicting priorities for Saskatchewan. With an economy that relies heavily on natural resource development, policies that may mitigate climate change, such as a carbon tax, can be seen as detrimental to our economy. The current economic downturn makes the possibility of more economic hardship a frightening prospect for many Saskatchewan voters.
This raises questions as to how to balance the priorities of economy and environment. What solutions to climate change are both economically and environmentally efficient? How can Saskatchewan meet its environmental responsibilities while having a strong economy?
The Sask Party government has committed its efforts to technology and innovation, investing in carbon capture and storage technology, or CCS, at the Boundary Dam 3 coal power plant. While the Sask Party’s leader Brad Wall proudly says this technology is world-leading and innovative, NDP leader Cam Broten criticizes the investment as an expensive boondoggle paid for by the taxpayer, and says the government lacked transparency regarding the plant’s cost and efficiency.
While both parties agree more energy from renewable sources is needed, the parties differ in their proposals for solutions that strike a balance between economy and environment. The Sask Party aims to move to 50 per cent renewable power for electricity generation by 2030, while the NDP aims for 60 per cent by 2030. While the NDP plans to implement a Saskatchewan Green Innovation Technology Fund if they win the vote, the Sask Party has delayed its plans to levy a tax against high emitters, which would be put into a fund to further green technology, due to current economic pressures.
“It’s about an expansion to renewable energy, and good green jobs which benefits the economy all throughout Saskatchewan,” said Broten during the heated leader debate aired on CBC March 23. While Broten argued that more green energy will be economically efficient in and of itself with the new green market created, Wall argued for cleaning up coal through technology like CCS to provide a base power to back up wind power during the transition towards more renewable energy sources.
On a SaskPower website about Boundary Dam 3, commonly called BD3, Wall argues that “there is only one way we can square this circle of slashing greenhouse gases, while ensuring economic growth continues, and a big part of that, absolutely, is CCS.”
In Saskatchewan, coal is used to produce almost 50 per cent of electricity, and produces 70 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions. As the first-ever commercial scale plant of its kind, the BD3 CCS technology is aimed to reduce the CO2 emitted from the process of burning coal. The technology extracts the CO2, filters and compresses it for storage and sale.The majority of the CO2 captured is sold and transported to a nearby Weyburn oilfield to be used for enhanced oil recovery, while the rest is sent to the Aquistore facility to be stored and monitored permanently. It is argued that this technology is an economically efficient solution because it allows use of coal with fewer emissions, and there are other revenue streams from the process.
BD3 was purported by SaskPower and government to be capable of reducing CO2 emissions by 90 per cent, and capturing up to 1,000,000 tonnes of CO2 every year, the equivalent of taking 250,000 cars off our roads. However, the first year of operation fell far short of these aspirations, capturing only 40 per cent of its targets, with 400,000 tonnes of CO2 captured. Given the $1.5 billion price tag, this inefficiency in its first year raised the eyebrows of many taxpayers.
Despite a problematic first year, according to a status update in February on the SaskPower website, the plant is on target to meet its goal of capturing 800,000 tonnes of CO2 this year. BD3 captured 48,798.6 tonnes of CO2 in February while 67 per cent online. For the first two months of the year, the facility was online 85 per cent of the time.
Given that this is the first commercial plant, it essentially has become the testing ground of the technology at this scale. The problems BD3 faced in its first year should have been anticipated or expected, and the public should have been informed that it would take time to reach optimum efficiency.
According to the Sask Party, over 1,000 new coal-fired plants are being built around the world, and it is important that this coal be clean coal by utilizing CCS technology. However, with such an expensive price-tag, there are many obstacles to this technology being implemented globally. Few would be willing to invest in the technology without some economic incentive or further governmental regulation on emissions.
The Clean Energy Technologies Research Institute (CETRI), an internationally recognized carbon capture technology research facility at the University of Regina, sees moving to a larger pre-commercial scale as the next step for their technologies to ensure they can work on this scale.
BHP Billiton, one of the world’s largest coal mining companies, partnered with SaskPower by investing $25 million in establishing a Carbon Capture Knowledge Centre based in Regina. The Centre would aim to utilize information from BD3 to make the technology commercially viable. It remains to be seen how long it will be before this technology can efficiently be used at a scale to have a global impact on emission levels, and how this technology will be used while governments promise to transition to more renewable energy sources.