Varcoe: Major carbon capture projects in Alberta face 'serious risk' if government-industry talks remain gridlocked

It’s a pivotal moment for carbon capture developments in Alberta and Canada

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Who should be doing more heavy lifting to ensure major carbon capture and storage projects take off in Alberta after one high-profile development failed to launch?

Over the past week, the blame game has kicked into overdrive after Capital Power cancelled its planned $2.4-billion Genesee carbon capture project in the province.

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Other proposals, including the Pathways Alliance’s $16.5-billion carbon capture network and Shell Canada’s Polaris project, have yet to receive a green light from the proponents.

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Alberta Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz blames the Trudeau government for the demise of Capital Power’s project. She notes Ottawa has failed to finalize an investment tax credit for carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) projects, or ensure that carbon contracts for difference are available to help companies lock in future carbon pricing.

Federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson points out Ottawa is offering far greater incentives than Alberta is providing.

Murray Edwards, executive chair of Canadian Natural Resources — the country’s largest petroleum producer and a member of the Pathways Alliance group — said additional support will be needed.

It’s a pivotal moment for carbon capture developments in Alberta and Canada. Companies are looking for certainty to make major billion-dollar investment decisions, while governments are trying to ensure they reach their climate targets.

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“We have got a lot of parties trying to work together to find a deal that will make these projects work, but I fear the dollar values are too far apart,” said Adam Legge, president of the Business Council of Alberta.

“We’ve now seen a real tangible project have the plug pulled . . . It should be a bellwether for the government to take note and say, ‘If we don’t actually sharpen our pencils and get these other ones across the finish line, every one of the big potential opportunities and dreams for these projects in Canada are at serious risk.’ ”

In February, Wilkinson called out the Pathways Alliance, a group of major oilsands producers, to make more progress on its planned carbon capture network.

The companies said Ottawa needed to finalize its long-awaited investment tax credit and criticized the feds’ incoming emissions cap on the oil and gas sector for creating uncertainty.

Concerns amped up last week after power generator Capital Power ended its proposal for a carbon capture development at its Genesee Generating Station.

The Alberta company said the technology is viable, but the project wasn’t currently economically feasible. The power producer was reportedly previously in talks with the Canada Growth Fund about accessing the promised federal carbon contracts for difference (CCFDs).

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Capital Power's Genesee plant
Capital Power’s Genesee plant is seen near Edmonton in an Oct. 19, 2022, handout photo. An analyst says a corporate decision to mothball Canada’s largest carbon capture and storage project is likely the result of financial uncertainty and technological risks. Photo by Jimmy Jeong /The Canadian Press

“This was a business decision. It actually doesn’t trouble me, because I actually think each business will have different pathways through which they can make the reductions that they need to make,” Wilkinson said in an interview.

The Trudeau government introduced legislation last year to offer up to a 50 per cent credit for CCUS equipment. The credit is expected to be finalized next month. The Alberta government unveiled its own CCUS incentive program last year, offering grants of 12 per cent for capital spent on such initiatives.

“The federal government has committed half the capital . . . The government of Alberta, which is the resource owner in the case of oil and gas and the operator or effectively the regulator of the electricity system, has offered 12 per cent,” Wilkinson said.

“I’m not putting the decision of Capital Power at the feet of the Government of Alberta . . . What I am saying is when people say that the CCUS incentives need to be more generous, it’s the Government of Canada that has actually stepped up to the plate.”

In other words, don’t blame us.

Jonathan Wilkinson
Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson. Peter J. Thompson/National Post/File

In an interview Monday, Schulz pointed out the Liberal government still hasn’t moved the necessary legislation across the finish line, even though the tax credit was first mentioned in its budget three years ago.

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“They are dragging their feet. They announced incentives back in 2021,” Schulz said.

“In this budget, they’ve now reannounced it as they are plummeting in the polls. They still haven’t stepped up to work through their carbon contracts for difference.”

Rebecca Schulz
Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Rebecca Schulz. Gavin Young/Postmedia

The Pathways project is much larger than Capital Power’s proposal, and involves a 400-kilometre pipeline to ship captured CO2 emissions to an underground storage hub.

The first phase is expected to store up to 12 megatonnes of CO2 annually by 2030. The consortium, which includes Canadian Natural Resources and Suncor Energy, filed a regulatory application for the pipeline in March.

Suncor CEO Rich Kruger said Tuesday the project is a “key enabler” for the integrated petroleum producer to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Carbon capture and storage “has enormous potential to decarbonize the oilsands, but requires a competitive fiscal framework for the investments, in conjunction with the federal and provincial governments,” he said during the company’s annual meeting.

In an interview last week, Edwards said all levels of government and industry must work together to get the project built.

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“In Pathways, we need to get a final conclusion with the federal government and the Alberta government to kick that off,” he said.

Murray Edwards
Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. executive chairman Murray Edwards speaks at the annual shareholders meeting at the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary on Thursday, May 2, 2024. Brent Calver/Postmedia

Provincial officials said Monday they have no plans to go beyond the current level of support in its CCUS grant program.

Scott MacDougall of the Pembina Institute said Canada already has a competitive incentive package for companies wanting to invest in carbon capture and storage.

At this stage, the federal government needs to move forward on its existing investment tax credit and the planned emissions cap on the oil and gas industry, he said.

“I can’t help but wonder if there’s some negotiating tactics going on here . . . but I think the incentives are there,” MacDougall said.

As for Pathways, both Wilkinson and Edwards indicated they remain hopeful, despite the ongoing complexities. The consortium involves six companies and a carbon network that could eventually connect to more than 20 facilities.

“Nobody has closed the door,” the federal minister said. “I remain optimistic that we’re going to find a pathway to go forward.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

[email protected]

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