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Local man heads carbon-capture committee

The province has tapped a St. Albert businessman to help draft the rules for carbon capture in Alberta. Don Thompson, president of the Oilsands Developers Group and St.

The province has tapped a St. Albert businessman to help draft the rules for carbon capture in Alberta.

Don Thompson, president of the Oilsands Developers Group and St. Albert resident, was picked last week to co-chair the province's expert panel on carbon capture and storage (CCS) regulation. The panel, which features six of the top minds in carbon capture, has been asked to set up rules for the technology's use in Alberta.

It makes sense for Alberta to invest in carbon-capture, says Thompson, who was executive director of the Alberta CCS Development Council. "We have these very large facilities that are amenable to the capture of carbon," he says — coal-fired power plants and oilsands upgraders — and lots of porous rock to hold it.

Alberta already has a detailed set of rules for acid gas injection, he notes, which is similar to carbon dioxide. His group's job over the next year will be to fill in the gaps.

The province has stacked its review panel with a lot of qualified people, says Ben Rostron, professor of earth and atmospheric science at the University of Alberta and a member of the carbon-capture and storage project at Weyburn, Sask.

Carbon capture has proven itself technically through years of study, Rostron says, but can still be quite expensive. "I think the biggest challenge to carbon-capture right now is on the public perception side," he says — people aren't convinced it's safe.

One question the panel won't address is the matter of investing public funds in this technology, says Jason Unger, a lawyer with the Environmental Law Centre in Edmonton. Alberta has vowed to invest some $2 billion into carbon-capture, which has yet to be done on a commercial scale.

"It's facilitating the ongoing creation of carbon through the use of public funds," he says. "There are some practical money questions that have to be asked and answered."

Legal risks

Carbon-capture and storage is one of the many technological solutions proposed for Alberta's greenhouse gas problem. About 55 per cent of Alberta's greenhouse gas emissions come from electricity, heat and fossil fuel production and extraction, according to Environment Canada, most of which involve big stationary sources like power plants. The province wants to reduce those emissions because they contribute to climate change.

Carbon-capture and storage involves compressing carbon dioxide into a liquid and injecting it deep underground, where it should stay for centuries. The province plans to meet about 70 per cent of its greenhouse gas reductions by 2050 with this technology.

Alberta's rocks have held oil and gas for millions of years, says Thompson, so they should be able to hold CO2. Alberta companies already use that rock to hold acid gas, a by-product of natural gas production.

But no one knows if those gases will stay underground as long as we want them to, Unger says. "If those storage facilities release acid gas or high levels of CO2, there's the potential for some very adverse consequences."

A Saskatchewan family recently blamed a carbon-capture project near Weyburn for contaminating water and killing animals. Researchers associated with the project have disputed the family's claim.

The province recently agreed to assume responsibility for stored CO2 after a period of time, Thompson notes, as storage companies aren't likely to last hundreds of years. "There is no other entity that's likely to be around forever than the government."

The panel now has to figure out how to make sure those storage sites stay secure, Thompson says, which could involve a sustainability fund to finance monitoring efforts. Its report is due next year.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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