Canada OK’s Carbon Capture Solution for Crude Oil Extraction

Extracting crude oil from sand unleashes massive amounts of carbon dioxide, so officials have decided to catch it and store it.
The steam generating facility at an oil sands operation at the Cenovus Foster Creek SAGD in Alberta, Canada. (Todd Korol / Reuters)
Sep 6, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

“In a bid to make oil sands production less polluting, Royal Dutch Shell announced on Wednesday that it would go forward with the first carbon capture and storage project ever tried in the fields of western Canada,” reports The New York Times.

“The project, which is scheduled to begin operations by 2015, is intended to capture and permanently store underground more than a million tons of carbon dioxide a year, which Shell estimated was equivalent to taking 175,000 cars off the road. Carbon capture projects have lost favor in recent years because of concerns about their heavy costs, which have typically been subsidized by governments.”

Canada’s Alberta Energy website explains that, “Alberta’s oil reserves play an important role in the Canadian and global economy, supplying stable, reliable energy to the world. Alberta's oil sands have been described by Time Magazine as ‘Canada's greatest buried energy treasure.’ But what is oil sand exactly?”

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“Oil sand is a naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay or other minerals, water and bitumen, which is a heavy and extremely viscous oil that must be treated before it can be used by refineries to produce usable fuels such as gasoline and diesel.”

A 2006 CBS News report on the Alberta reserves said, “There's an oil boom going on right now. Not in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or any of those places, but 600 miles north of Montana. In Alberta, Canada, in a town called Fort McMurray where, in the dead of winter, the temperature sometimes zooms up to zero. The oilmen up there aren't digging holes in the sand and hoping for a spout. They're digging up dirt—dirt that is saturated with oil. They're called oil sands, and if you've never heard of them then you're in for a big surprise because the reserves are so vast in the province of Alberta that they will help solve America's energy needs for the next century.”

Which brings us back to the carbon dioxide problem. National Geographic noted that, “The U.S. imports more oil from Canada than from any other nation, about 19 percent of its total foreign supply, and around half of that now comes from the oil sands . . . But clawing and cooking a barrel of crude from the oil sands emits as much as three times more carbon dioxide than letting one gush from the ground in Saudi Arabia.”

Environmentalists have been opposed to oil sands development, but the Shell carbon capture and storage initiative has some of them rethinking their position.

The Times quoted Ed Whittingham, executive director of the Pembina Institute, an influential Canadian environmental group as saying, “We see it as one tool in the tool kit that we need to tackle climate change,” said. “We have been critical of oil sands but we are supportive of C.C.S.,” he added, using shorthand for carbon capture and storage.”

“But Kate Colarulli, deputy director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Oil campaign, said the project would not change her opposition to the pipeline. ‘It’s a lot of taxpayer money spent on greenwashing,’ she said. ‘The truth is there is an environmental Armageddon happening in northern Alberta. There are also questions about whether these gases can be safely stored underground.’”

And considering that we’re talking about storing a million tons of carbon dioxide a year, Colarulli does seems to raise a point that would seem to need further investigation. 

Do you think the Royal Dutch Shell carbon capture project sounds like a good idea, or an environmental disaster waiting to happen?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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