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Shell’s Alberta hydrogen plant emits more carbon dioxide than it captures

Shell's facility at SWcotford is now capturing carbon and storing the greenhouse gas. SOURCE Shell Canada Limited
Shell's facility at SWcotford is now capturing carbon and storing the greenhouse gas. SOURCE Shell Canada Limited

Royal Dutch Shell’s Quest Carbon Capture facility near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, has captured 5 million tonnes of carbon since it started operation in 2015. There’s just one little problem. The hydrogen plant has emitted 7.5 million tonnes of carbon in that time, including methane.

A new report put out by Global Witness, an international NGO established in 1993, with offices in London and Washington, D.C., found that just 48 percent of the plant’s carbon emissions are captured, falling woefully short of the 90 percent carbon capture rate promised by the industry for fossil hydrogen projects.

This rate drops to only 39 percent when including other greenhouse gas emissions from Shell’s project.

The Quest plant is a facility designed to create blue hydrogen—a much-hyped new kind of fuel—from natural gas, with an accompanying carbon capture and storage (CCS) mechanism to store carbon emissions from the process underground.

Data used in the report was pulled from reports submitted by Shell to the Alberta government, as well as data crunched by the Pembina Institute. 

“We think this really isn’t sustainable, it’s not climate-friendly, and it shows that governments across the world, not just in Canada, mustn’t support fossil hydrogen,” report author Dominic Eagleton told CTV News Edmonton. “They should boost more genuinely sustainable alternatives to fossil hydrogen, such as renewables.”

Eagleton calls the 2.5-million tonne difference a “wake-up call for the world.”

First retail hydrogen fuelling station in Canada. Vancouver, British Columbia. Source – Shell New Energies/Photographer-Brian Buchsdruecker

The public gets a slightly different report than the government

According to Gizmodo, Shell is required to report how well its CCS facility is performing to the Canadian government. And the figures tell a slightly less rose-colored story than the one that Shell is telling the public. 

Figures show that about 80 percent of the emissions from making the new hydrogen fuel from natural gas are being captured. However, these emissions only account for 60 percent of the plant’s actual emissions.

Other carbon emissions from the plant, Global Witness found, come from a waste stream that’s a byproduct of this process—and which Shell is not required to report. 

This means that the CCS portion of the facility only captures 80 percent of 60 percent of the plant’s emissions—math that works out to just under 50 percent of Quest’s overall emissions.

“We do think Shell is misleading the public in that sense and only giving us one side of the story,” Eagleton told Vice.

The Global Witness report claims this omission makes the plant’s footprint even dirtier. CCS systems are notoriously energy-intensive, and the energy the Quest system expends in the process of capturing and storing the emissions isn’t included in the figures Shell reports to the government. 

The Quest operation was designed to capture the emissions from Shell’s Scotford Upgrader, which turns oil sands bitumen into synthetic crude that can be refined into fuel and other products. 

The extraction of oil from the tar sands of Alberta is the most carbon-intensive extraction method on Earth, according to the Financial Times. And Canada’s oil sands is also the third-largest deposit of oil in the world. 

According to Jalopnik, from 2015 (the year the Quest CCS plant went into production) to 2019, emissions from oil sands extraction rose an incredible 140 percent. Alberta manages about 3.5 million barrels of oil a day from the sands, much of it heading south to Canada’s best customer—the U.S.

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Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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