Last week, 19 leading energy companies announced they are forming, and funding, the Alberta Saline Aquifer Project to examine the possibility of capturing carbon dioxide they produce and sequestering it underground.
The acronym for this project is ASAP, which is fitting considering we are running out of time when it comes to figuring out how to cut our carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.
Obviously, in an ideal world we would be looking at more carbon neutral technologies (solar, wind, tidal, hydro, etc.) to meet our energy needs and weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, which are difficult on our carbon budget. However, we don’t live in an ideal world, and while we work on alternative energy sources, carbon sequestration is a promising technology to help make fossil fuel energy greener.
A saline aquifer is an underground layer of permeable rock, gravel, sand, silt or clay that contains salty water. It is estimated that most of North America is underlain by large saline aquifers, meaning they are likely to be in close proximity to any energy plant that wants to sequester its carbon dioxide. Many oil-drilling operations already know the location of saline aquifers because they have located them incidentally during oil exploration. In the case of the ASAP project, wells that were formerly used by these energy companies to extract oil can be used to inject carbon dioxide using oil extraction technologies, but in reverse.
Carbon dioxide will be scrubbed from plant emissions and compressed into a liquid before being injected and will, in essence, carbonate the salty water. This technology is already being used in Europe where a Norwegian oil company has been injecting carbon dioxide into the North Sea since 1996.
The key question, of course, is will the carbon dioxide leak out? The answer from research to date appears to be it won’t, at least not in quantities that need concern us.
The next question is — what kind of legacy are we leaving for future generations? Saline aquifers appear to have enough capacity to store our carbon dioxide, if produced at the current rate, for more than 400 years. We certainly would hope we will NOT be producing carbon dioxide at the current rate for the next 400 years and, in 400 years, technology will be advanced enough to figure out what to do with these carbonated aquifers.
There is certainly some poetic beauty about taking oil from the Earth, using it for energy, capturing the carbon dioxide and putting it back into the ground. However, the oil industry tends to be driven by dollars and cents, not poetic beauty (for some reason).
As it stands now, Norwegian oil companies have a financial incentive to sequester carbon dioxide to avoid paying carbon dioxide taxes.
Canadian oil companies do not and, therefore, it would be financially viable to use this technology only if provincial or federal governments ever decided to give financial incentives for each tonne of carbon dioxide pumped underground.