Alberta’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation partners with industry to clean up province’s act
Environmental technology will change the reputation of this province, courtesy of carbon penalties
No hesitation shows when the chairman of Alberta’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Corp. (CCEMC) predicts success for its budding cleanup partnerships with industry. “We are going to get real – or maybe a better word today is sustainable – greenhouse gas reductions,” Eric Newell says.
He speaks from experience, knowing the difference a technology improvement campaign can have, especially if the effort is motivated by the conviction that survival is at stake. Big business and the livelihoods of thousands of wage-earners faced destruction when he first became a Syncrude Canada executive in 1986. Then, the bitumen mega-mine was trapped in an economic black hole.
While bugs were still being worked out of complicated production lines eight years after operations started up, oil prices fell so low on glutted global markets that even the Fort McMurray plant’s premium output of fully upgraded, synthetic black gold only fetched a fraction of operating expenses. By the time Newell retired 17 years later as Syncrude’s chief executive officer – at the end of 2003, well before the wildest optimists imagined the coming surge to US$50 a barrel and more – Canada’s largest oil production site ran in the black. Expansion projects were more than doubling the plant’s capacity and making a big start on environmental improvements.
“It was really fascinating to watch how each platform developed,” Newell recalls. International technology ventures, all aimed at achieving efficiency by increasing output to spread costs thinner, turned Syncrude around.
In collaborations on developing the world’s biggest earthmoving equipment with manufacturers Caterpillar Inc. and Terex Corp. O & K, mine trucks grew nearly five-fold into agile 400-tonne behemoths filled in four scoops by office block-sized but quickly digging hydraulic shovels. A new method of starting the separation of oil from sand by “hydro-transporting” raw ore blended with water in pipelines enabled additions of remote satellite mine pits. The average operating temperature of the hot water extraction process, invented by Edmonton scientist Karl Clark in the 1920s, dropped to a bathtub 35 C from a near-boiling 80 C.
“Often the right thing to do economically is the right thing for the environment too,” Newell says. As Syncrude’s technology improved, the amount of water it used shrank by more than 50 per cent from five barrels for every barrel of oil produced to 2.3. Emissions intensity – the amount of carbon vented into the atmosphere per barrel of output – fell by 38 per cent between 1990 and 2008, setting an annual average improvement pace of two per cent.
“We’re going to find the same thing here,” Newell predicted as CCEMC embarked in the fall on selecting its initial portfolio of emissions reduction schemes. The fledgling environmental technology investment house focuses on results and stays out of climate change science debates. “We’re not an advocacy group,” he says. “Industry is paying the bills and has to find the solutions.”
Like Syncrude in the 1980s and ’90s, CCEMC today is driven by moral conviction. Alberta’s survival as Canada’s energy factory is believed to be at stake because of efforts to curtail the province’s notorious reputation of standing out as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation and as an international symbol of fossil fuels’ evil side among green evangelists. “The oil sands are probably the most secure supply in the world,” Newell says. “What’s changed is the price of getting it.” The ticket is environmental improvement. “We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to be seen to be doing something.”
Pages: 1 2