When people talk about carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, no matter where they are in the world, it’s likely you’ll hear them mention Canada in the same breath. And if you’re asking yourself just how often people talk about CCS technology, well, you just might be surprised.

Canada has been breaking a whole lot of new ground in this field over the past decade, and it’s got people talking. At the Quest CCS project near Edmonton, AB, people are coming from all over the world to see what it’s all about. “We’ve just recently had CEOs visit from companies in Norway and Ireland, China, Italy, and Taiwan” says Tim Wiwchar, former Quest project lead with Shell Canada. “We’ve also had visits from the US Department of Energy.”

Learning about Quest, it’s not hard to see what’s got everyone so interested. Since the facility began operation in late 2015, it has captured and safely stored over one million tonnes of CO2. The CO2 is captured at the point of production, in this case the Scotford bitumen upgrader, then compressed into a liquid, transported through a specialized pipeline, and injected into underground geological reservoirs for permanent storage. In this way, CCS projects like Quest substantially reduce the carbon footprint of existing operations. The immediacy is key. The reality of climate change demands sustainable solutions that can work with the infrastructure we currently have.

No blueprints to follow

When planning this project, there was not even a mould to break. Nothing like Quest had ever been built in an oil sands context before, anywhere in the world. It was a massive and ambitious project, requiring a confluence of governmental support and corporate initiative. “There was a lot of pressure being put on the oil sands regarding carbon intensity,” says Wiwchar. “We at Shell had already started taking a serious look at CCS as a way to reduce our carbon footprint. At the same time, the provincial government in Alberta was putting together a $2 billion fund for CCS demonstration. That really got the momentum going.”

From the outset, any intellectual property or data generated by Quest has been publicly available, in collaboration with the governments of Alberta and Canada, to help bring down future costs of CCS and encourage wider use of the technology around the world. This means that others can take the detailed engineering plans, valued at C$100 million, to help build future CCS facilities.

For a pioneering project of its scale, especially one that was being integrated into an active facility, the construction went remarkably smoothly, coming in both ahead of schedule and under budget — a virtual unheard of combination. Still, Shell is confident that if similar facilities were built again, they could save another 20 to 30 percent by leveraging what was  learned on the Quest project. And that’s using the same technology. New technologies are in the works that could cut costs even further.

As the cost of CCS is coming down, the price on carbon emissions is simultaneously going up. Convergence is imminent and inevitable, meaning that future projects following in Quest’s footsteps could be less reliant on government funding. “The Quest project was sanctioned at a $15 per ton carbon price in Alberta,” says Wiwchar. “We’re now at $30 per ton provincially, and federally they have recently announced that by 2022 the price could hit $50 per ton. At Shell, when we evaluate things like CCS, we do look at what the immediate carbon price is, but we are always testing with a longer view as to where it’s going.”

The right idea, the right time, and absolutely the right place

The Canadian Prairies, as it turns out, are a perfect crucible for CCS innovation. “Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba have excellent reservoir properties where we can store carbon in what is known as the basal Cambrian sandstone,” says Wiwchar. “If you go back two million years, this was a prehistoric ocean. It’s very salty rock 2.3 kilometres down, and it covers an area roughly 1,500 kilometres by 1,000 kilometres. So there’s a lot of room.”

In addition to having the right geology, the Prairies also have the right people. People who, while maybe cautious, can recognize when a new idea is a good one and get behind it. “We want this technology to flourish,” says Wiwchar, “but you need public buy-in for that to happen. You can have a great technology, but if the public is not confident in it, it’s not going to go anywhere.”
And so in 2008, seven years before they even began injecting captured carbon, the Quest project began its outreach to the local community. To build confidence and trust, they knew that transparency must be paramount. “We didn’t just tell them that the project was low risk,” says Wiwchar. “We walked them through various aspects and scenarios, and were honest with them about all of it. And at the end of the day, the farmers came to their own conclusion that, yeah, it’s safe. And they said: Go build it.”

That’s the attitude that has made Canada a world leader in carbon capture and storage technology. And today, in full commercial operation, Quest is happy to be sharing the fruits of this trailblazing effort with its international visitors. “There are still a lot of people who don’t even know this technology exists,” says Wiwchar. “We need to take every opportunity to show the world that carbon capture and storage is real, it’s ready, and it’s very effective.”

Quest was built by the Athabasca Oil Sands Project joint-venture owners Shell Canada Energy (60 percent), Chevron Canada Limited (20 percent) and Marathon Oil Canada Corporation (20 percent).

In March 2017 Shell announced the proposed sale of the majority of its oil sands assets in Canada. If the proposed sale goes through, it is envisaged that Shell would remain as operator of the Quest CCS project and Scotford upgrader.