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Clean coal, green oil: How Saskpower is greenwashing carbon capture

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There is little doubt that Saskatchewan is in dire need of a concerted and aggressive climate change strategy. Of Canada's provinces, Saskatchewan has seen the greatest rise in GHG emissions since 1990 (72 per cent) and now accounts for over 10 per cent of the country's total. With just three per cent of the Canadian population, Saskatchewan is now the largest per capita emitter in the country. With little in the way of a comprehensive provincial strategy to combat climate change, the Saskatchewan government has regularly touted its investment in SaskPower's Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology as a "pioneering" and "leading edge means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the province (GHGs)."

Given that the Saskatchewan government appears to have staked so much of its GHG mitigation plans solely on the promise of carbon capture, it is all the more important to understand how the leadership of SaskPower views the future of this technology and its role in mitigating GHG emissions. Saskpower's Carbon Capture and Storage Symposium in Regina on October 5 provided employees with a glimpse of this future. Unfortunately, what this glimpse revealed is that SaskPower's leadership seems to be pursuing conflicting and often contradictory goals when it comes to the application of carbon capture technology as an actual climate mitigation strategy. Here's what I learned at the symposium:

  • Although they tout "clean coal" as an environmentally beneficial technology, Saskpower's leadership does not appear primarily motivated by concern for the environment or climate. This was made patently clear when they discussed the future for "clean coal" in the province and their plans to build a capture facility for units 4 and 5 of Boundary Dam. Planning and design for the current capture plant on unit 3 began before the new federal regulations on coal-fired electricity were passed. Thus, not knowing how stringent the regulations would be, the crown corporation built the unit 3 capture plant to capture at the high rate of 90 per cent of emissions. However, the 2012 regulations only require coal-fired plants to bring their carbon emissions down to levels that match natural gas-fired plants (or 420 tonnes/GWh), and, significantly, they require this standard on each unit. Saskpower is currently hoping that the federal government will allow a Saskatchewan substitute for the federal regulations that would allow plants to meet the regulations by averaging their emissions across units so that some units could produce more emissions than the regulatory cap as long as the discrepancy is made up by units that produce well under the cap. This would then allow Saskpower to apply the significant difference between its current capture facility on unit 3 and the regulatory cap to capture plants for units 4 and 5, bringing down the production costs for the new units. In essence, Saskpower is doing everything it can to only meet the bare minimum of the regulations, and it wants to use its highly successful capture rate on unit 3 as a means to reduce how much carbon will be captured on subsequent units.
  • Saskpower's leadership appears wedded to the coal industry, and its whole strategy revolves not around what might be the best electricity mix for the province and the environment, but on self-preservation and the maintenance of the coal industry. One of the speakers engaged in scare-mongering when he warned the Saskpower employees in the audience that their jobs and even the corporation itself might be at stake if they can't make clean coal work. He implored them to become "ambassadors of clean coal," and to go home and tell 10 people about the wonders of CCS. He talked about a brand new natural gas fired plant that will be built in the Swift Current region and whose construction and operation is currently being bid on by private power companies and by Saskpower. He warned that Saskpower might not get the contract, nor is it guaranteed to receive any future natural gas-fired plant contracts. Given the uncertain role of Saskpower in new natural gas-fired plants, he argued that the best bet for Saskpower is to bring its coal-fired fleet into regulatory compliance through carbon capture. Another speaker delved into the business case for CCS and commented that socio-economic considerations were also taken into account, for example, he argued that we need to consider whether we want a coal industry in Saskatchewan. According to him, stats about employment and royalties from the coal and oil and gas industries (which also benefits from CCS) factored into the decision to pursue "clean coal."
  • Saskpower is positively giddy about increasing Saskatchewan's oil production, apparently unaware that this goal is in direct conflict with the aims of mitigating GHGs. Nearly every speaker at the forum emphasized the graph above that showed oil production in the Weyburn oil field and the success that Cenovus has had producing more oil through carbon dioxide flooding. Not only does Saskpower's business case rely on oil companies paying for the captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery, but the people in charge of the project see increased oil production as a marker of success. One speaker even made the argument that Saskpower is enabling "green oil" production since the oil coming out of Weyburn's field is relatively clean (I think he meant light) and is less energy intensive to produce than other oil projects. If more CCS units are built, Saskpower will need more buyers for their CO2, meaning more "green oil" will be produced. When I inquired about the emissions produced from the Weyburn oil field, the presenter indicated that that would be part of a life-cycle assessment, and not of concern to Saskpower.
  • As a Crown corporation, Saskpower can do more than a private company. Multiple speakers at the symposium emphasized that as a crown corporation, rather than a private company, Saskpower was able to shoulder the significant capital costs of the CCS project because it didn't have to work for the short term interests of shareholders, but rather for the long term interests of the consumers of electricity. That's why private power companies in Alberta abandoned CCS, but Saskpower was able to push forward. I couldn't agree more that we should harness the benefits of our publicly owned crowns. Imagine what we could do with this same level of commitment, but to principles of environmental and social justice. We could shoulder significant capital costs in order to build a system that transitioned away from coal and produced jobs in local communities across the province through renewable energies that are truly green, and not just greenwashed.

Dr. Emily Eaton is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Regina.

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