CALGARY - The individual pieces of a carbon capture and storage puzzle have been around for a while, but there's a long way to go before those fragments can be assembled at a big enough scale and cheap enough to put a worthwhile dent in greenhouse gas emissions.
"At large scale it's not been done, and we need to learn how to do it in a much more cost-effective manner," said Eddy Isaacs, executive director of the Alberta Energy Research Institute.
The technology - which got a $865-million boost from the Alberta and federal governments last week - involves separating climate-change-causing carbon dioxide from industrial emissions and injecting the gas deep underground, rather than letting it escape into the atmosphere.
Refineries, petrochemical plants and other industrial facilities have employed the "capture" part of the equation for some time, using special chemicals to scrub poisonous hydrogen sulphide and other contaminants from their emissions.
Methods of storing gasses are also well established. For instance, natural gas, used to heat most North American households during the winter, can be safely stored during the summer months when it's not needed.
Hazardous sour gas is routinely stored underground, and maturing oil fields are able to keep producing with the help of carbon injections.
"The technologies are existing at fairly large scales. It's just that they've not been arranged or configured to be specifically focused simply on carbon capture and sequestration," said Gerry Ertel, Shell Canada Ltd.'s manager of regulatory affairs.
A proposal spearheaded by Shell, along with minority partners Chevron Canada and Marathon Oil, was the beneficiary of the government funding announced last Thursday.
The Quest project would store up to 1.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from Shell's Scotford oilsands upgrader. The CO2 would be carried by pipeline to a spot nearby and then injected about 2,300 metres underground.
The companies would foot the balance of the project's $1.35-billion price tag.
Shell aims to file its regulatory application in late 2009, but a decision to go ahead with the investment could take place many years into the future.
Projects like Shell's serve as a stepping stone toward figuring out how to make the technology better, said AERI's Isaacs.
"It's learning by doing as opposed to doing paper studies," he said.
"The whole idea is to learn about the reservoir potential for CO2 storage and what kind of volumes are you actually able to deliver on a commercial scale."
Not all CCS applications are created equal. The purer the stream of carbon dioxide, the easier it is to capture.
Fertilizer and petrochemical plants produce the least contaminated emissions, but it takes more work to isolate the carbon dioxide from the coal and oilsands emissions.
Proponents of CCS in the industry and governments are quick to point out that CCS is no "silver bullet" to cure climate change, and that investments in efficiency and improvements in extraction processes are also key.
Still, the executive producer of the Sierra Club in Canada, said the big bucks earmarked for CCS would be better spent elsewhere.
Stephen Hazell figures the cost of capturing carbon using CCS would be between $75 and $115 per tonne, far above the $15 a tonne level Alberta currently charges for emissions.
"Those are out of sight costs," he said. "There's so many ways that you can reduce greenhouse gas emissions much more cheaply than carbon capture and storage."
Those could include investing in renewable forms of energy like wind and solar and rolling out a major energy efficiency program for residential, commercial and industrial buildings.
"That's where you can really reduce emissions at low cost, create lots of jobs and make people's homes more comfortable."
Governments and industry like carbon capture and storage because it allows the status quo to remain in place for the foreseeable future, Hazell said.
"We dangle the prospect of carbon capture and storage down the road so that we can get more tar sands projects approved today," he said.
"Everybody knows that we're not going to have a single molecule reduction in CO2 from carbon capture and storage for at least the next 10 years."