Stories this week:
- First steps towards ‘NAFTA for climate’
- Mining giant bankrolls Saskatchewan CCS research centre
- Scientists: Focus on ‘deep time’ climate effects
- UBC board rejects fossil fuels divestment
- Hydro could power oil sands, but at a hefty price
First steps towards ‘NAFTA for climate’
Canada, the United States and Mexico signed a trilateral agreement on the sharing of energy data last week, a pact that opens the door to a more comprehensive continental treaty on climate change action and clean energy.
Canada’s natural resources minister Jim Carr and the energy secretaries of the US and Mexico, Ernest Moniz and Pedro Joaquín Coldwell, met in Winnipeg on Thursday and Friday, where they signed a memorandum of understanding that will see the three countries share information and collaborate in six areas: low-carbon electricity grids, clean-energy modelling, energy efficiency, promotion of carbon capture and storage (CCS), climate adaptation, and reduction of emissions from oil and gas, with a particular emphasis on methane emissions and black carbon (soot).
Reduction of black carbon has been a key diplomatic effort of US secretary of state John Kerry in his role as current chair of the Arctic Council, the multinational circumpolar body that includes Canada, the Nordic countries and Russia.
In addition, a 2014 collaboration between the three countries placing North American energy infrastructure data on a single online platform has largely been completed, with a first suite of maps and other tools now available. The ultimate aim is continental energy integration under a low-carbon framework.
The three countries have been seeking a tripartite approach to energy issues since last May, when a working group on clean-energy cooperation was established. But since the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, the scale of ambition has been advanced. Moniz told reporters that Washington welcomed the "revived relationship" and "the change of government here in Canada.”
Already, bilateral agreements between a number of Canadian provinces and northern states in the US have expanded in recent years in anticipation of US President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which forces power companies to reduce their carbon emissions and look to new clean energy options. As a result, last year saw record sales of Canadian hydroelectric electricity to the US. A 2015 study by the North American Electric Reliability Council predicted that Canadian clean electricity exports to the US could triple by 2030 as a result of Obama’s strategy.
The Winnipeg pow-wow came the same week as the US Supreme Court issued a stay to the Clean Power Plan to allow time to hear arguments from states and industry groups. However, the sudden death of arch-conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday means the court’s conservatives no longer have a majority. The potential appointment of a more liberal judge by Obama to replace Scalia may prevent the power plan from being struck down by the court. The future of the Clean Power Plan has significant ramifications for the country’s climate diplomacy, given that it is the main emissions reduction tool yet put forward by the US, the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter.
Mining giant bankrolls Saskatchewan CCS research centre
The world’s largest mining company is to partner with Saskatchewan’s energy utility to build a carbon capture and storage (CCS) research centre at the University of Regina.
BHP Billiton, the Anglo-Australian multinational, announced last week that it is to contribute $20 million over five years to create the institution. SaskPower, the public energy provider is to offer its expertise in CCS development via providing seconded staff to the new centre.
SaskPower is behind the first ever commercial-scale CCS project, at Boundary Dam, which aims to scrub carbon emissions from coal-fired electricity production and then pump the carbon dioxide (CO2) deep underground.
BHP Billiton for its part is engaged in potash mining in the province, and internationally, it is one of the largest producers of coal and iron ore, the main precursor to steel. Steel and cement manufacturing are amongst the main sources of greenhouse gases in industrial processing, and most of the CO2 released is a product of the chemical transformation itself rather than just the use of fossil fuels to fire the process. This means that the replacement of fossil fuels with clean alternatives is not sufficient to eliminate emissions from the sector. Other than replacement of steel and cement with other materials such as wood, CCS remains the best mitigation bet for these sectors.
The research centre announcement comes amid a raft of bad news for CCS. In January, researchers warned that budget-constrained governments around the world are steadily scaling down their ambition for the technology. This followed controversy last October when leaked internal memos about the Boundary Dam facility revealed that that the provincial government and the energy utility had been reluctant to report the $1.5 billion plant’s underperformance.
And this week, engineers with Penn State University reported that when CO2 is stored underground—a method known as geological sequestration—it can escape via multiple pathways as a result of chemical reactions between the CO2 and water, rocks and cement in the abandoned wells where it is sequestered. They experimented with injecting into “host rocks” limestone and sandstone alongside cement and in the presence of saltwater, to simulate typical conditions of an abandoned well, the most common sites for captured carbon to be stored. The two types of host rocks were chosen because they are widely found underground.
Carbon dioxide dissolved in saltwater makes it more acidic, which in turn allows the water to erode the limestone and cement. The researchers found that over eight days, the limestone lost three percent of its mass and became 24 times more permeable, making it much more likely that the CO2 could escape. The sandstone however lost very little mass. They reported their findings in the International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control, a scientific journal focussed on CCS engineering.
Despite these potential roadblocks, Saskatchewan is placing most of its chips on CCS, while other Canadian provinces’ climate strategies are predominately looking to carbon taxation or trading.
Scientists: Focus on ‘deep time’ climate effects
Even if humanity manages to keep within moderate climate change scenarios, tens of metres of sea-level rise are likely to stick around for a very, very long time indeed—tens or even hundreds of thousands of years—researchers have concluded.
When talking about the consequences of climate change, we tend focus on the rest of this century, on what temperatures, sea-levels or ocean acidity will be like in 2100. But this sort of time frame was originally driven by the limits of our past computational abilities, according to an important new paper appearing in Nature Climate Change from some 22 authors, including a co-founder of PICS, climate modelling specialist and BC Green Party MLA, Andrew Weaver. And what was once an unavoidable emphasis on this near-term frame, according to the researchers has now created “a misleading impression in the public arena, that human-caused climate change is a 21st Century problem.” People may erroneously believe that long-term changes are not as important or even that changes can be reversed after this point, according to the researchers.
To correct for this, scientists from seven countries collaborated on computer models of climate, ice-sheet and sea-level models back-projecting 20,000 years to when the last Age Ice ended and looking forward another 10,000 years into the future. These ‘deep-time’ researchers considered four global carbon emissions scenarios of temperature increases between 2°C and 7.5°C above pre-industrial times, when human activities first started contributing to climate change. They found that in over the long term, sea levels would rise by 25-52 metres. The bulk of this is due to melting Antarctic ice sheets, and the levels would stay up there for the long-haul because persistently high temperatures would not permit the ice sheets to reform.
Unlike some small islands and very low-lying countries, most of Canada is not particularly vulnerable to this deep-time sea rise, according to the University of Victoria’s Michael Eby, one of the report co-authors. While seas are rising, the earth itself is also deforming as a result of “rebound” from the last glaciation, and some land areas actually get pushed up. Canada happens to be one of the few lucky places, along with Greenland and Scandinavia. Much of the country will enjoy a net bump up of some 20 metres.
Eby however says our sense of relief should be tempered by the knowledge that Vancouver is the big exception to this, and Victoria, Halifax and some of Montreal and Quebec City could also be vulnerable. Vancouver, Victoria and Halifax may in fact experience slightly more sea level rise than the global average. He also warns that while overall, rebound more than compensates for sea rise, the two effects don’t necessarily occur simultaneously. Nevertheless, he adds: “Since large amounts of sea-level rise will take hundreds to thousands of years, we will have time to move.”
Because the findings show that even the currently agreed targets would still produce profound climate impacts that would “extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far”, and so emissions reductions are not enough. The researchers say the implication of their findings is that we need to reverse course and develop technologies that enable net-negative carbon emissions.
UBC board rejects fossil fuels divestment
The hot button issue of divestment in back the spotlight, with the University of British Columbia’s board of governors this week voting against selling off all its holdings in the fossil fuel sector, opting instead to establish a low-carbon investment fund.
On Monday, a majority of the board backed a motion from its finance committee recommending against divesting its $1.4 billion endowment of fossil-fuel securities, but for the establishment of a Sustainable Future Fund with seed money of $10 million. The new vehicle is restricted to a two percent investment in the fossil fuel sector, but otherwise must purchase stocks and bonds in only “environmentally, socially and corporately responsible” firms.
Referenda on the question held by both faculty and students at the university have produced large majorities in favour of divestment from oil, gas and coal companies. Two of the three student members on the board opposed the motion while one abstained.
In his explanation for the decision, the finance committee chair Greg Peet, said the argument for divestment had not made a sufficiently “compelling case” that this would have a meaningful impact on greenhouse gas emissions mitigation and that while abandoning some investments is permitted, “the universal exclusion of a legally-operating industry that provides irreplaceable goods and services is not.” The fund’s fiduciary responsibility to endowment donors was also cited, although commentators have noted the falling value of these investments in the face of tumbling oil and gas prices.
Ahead of the UBC decision, campus advocacy group Divest UBC had issued a letter requesting a “undertake an open, transparent and evidence-based consideration of divestment.” Protest action against the decision and its process is now being planned on campus.
In 2015, PICS researchers investigated the evidence, exploring the effectiveness of divestment as an emissions mitigation strategy. The resulting white paper concluded that substituting renewable energy company investments for those in fossil fuels would reduce UBC’s endowment’s “carbon shadow”, or exposure to greenhouse gas production, by three percent. This is because so many products and services in the economy use fossil fuels in some way in their production and transportation chain.
“Divestment will likely have limited quantitative success in directly reducing GHG emissions or a fund’s immediate exposure to unburnable carbon,” the authors concluded, although such a strategy may “gain momentum as a symbolic gesture.”
UBC joins the University of Calgary, Dalhousie University and McGill University in deciding against divestment. Corcordia has also established a small green investment fund totalling $5 million carved out of its much larger $130 million endowment.
The University of Victoria, where PICS is headquartered, is under similar pressure from divestment campaigners. However, governance of its endowment is unlike that at most other post-secondary institutions in that it is run by a legally separate foundation that is governed independently of the university. It has become a signatory to the UN Principles for Responsible Investing and is set to consider offering donors the option of having any new donations invested in a fossil-free fund. Otherwise, the foundation’s position is not to divest from the sector.
Hydro could power oil sands, but at a hefty price
Hydropower could be used to power Alberta’s oil sands instead of natural gas-fired electricity, but would probably not be viable without a price on carbon, according to a new study.
The Canadian Energy Research Institute has released the results of an analysis of different hydropower options in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba that could be used to supply electricity to bitumen extraction from oil sands.
The options considered include two different long-distance electricity transmission technologies that would connect Alberta to British Columbia’s proposed Site C dam or to a hydro project on the Slave River in northeastern Alberta. They also include a connection to Manitoba’s potential Conawapa hydro power site and a reinforcement of the existing BC-Alberta grid links to allow more hydro electricity to flow east from BC.
Each of these six hydro power options can deliver sufficient electricity to satisfy the demand of in-situ bitumen extraction operations with production capacity of 0.5 million barrels per day (BPD) to 1.1 million BPD.
But the cost of delivering hydroelectricity to the oil sands would range from $81 to $162 per megawatt hour, compared with just $57 per megawatt hour for gas-fired cogeneration.
Thus without a price being imposed on greenhouse-gas emissions, either through a direct tax or indirectly through carbon trading, the likelihood of hydro power options reducing the cost of oil-sands operations is low.
The study found that reinforcing the grid interconnections between BC and Alberta would be the least expensive option, while transporting hydro power from Manitoba’s potential new site would be the best choice because it is in the advanced planning stage and Manitoba Hydro has already completed feasibility assessments. Furthermore, the Conawapa project site is on the Nelson River, which has already been impacted by six upstream hydroelectric dams, thus additional development minimizes further environmental impacts. The main strike against transmitting electricity from Site C is the high forecast for electricity demand growth in BC, which could reduce the amount of electricity that available for export to Alberta.
Such interconnections are not a new concept in Canada, though the idea has never amounted to much. But in an op-ed for the Edmonton Journal, Trevor McLeod, director of the Centre for Natural Resources Policy in Calgary, argued now might be the time to look more seriously at the possibility.
“Alberta has announced intentions to replace coal-fired electrical plants with renewable generation and Saskatchewan is increasing renewables, too,” he wrote. “By 2030, 30 per cent of Alberta’s emissions are to come from renewables. Saskatchewan is aiming to produce half of its power from renewable sources by 2030.”
Alberta announced its Climate Leadership Plan last November. According to the plan, the province will phase out all pollution from coal by 2030 and will implement a province-wide carbon tax in 2017