NewsFebruary 22, 2013

With Keystone In Limbo, Alberta Launches Carbon Contest

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

The Canadian province of Alberta is home to the country’s booming oil and gas industry, and is a key power base for Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. The rapid development of unconventional oil and gas resources, also known as “oil sands,” in Alberta has turned that province into an engine of economic growth in Canada, and has led to controversy in the U.S.

Digging equipment at an Alberta oil sands mine, pictured in 2009.
Credit: Flickr/Shell.

Domestically, Alberta is perhaps best known as the origin of the controversial Keystone-XL Pipeline, which would transport Canadian crude oil from the border all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, where it would be refined and sold for export or put to use inside the U.S.

Now Alberta is working to soften its image, in part by sponsoring a new worldwide $35 million “open innovation challenge” to create commercially available technologies that would convert carbon dioxide, which is a key planet warming greenhouse gas, into “valuable carbon-based products.” According to the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation, or CCEMC, which is a government-funded organization that is running the contest, “The goal is to significantly reduce GHG emissions by fostering the development of technologies that create new carbon-based, value-added products and markets.”

“We are seeking credible, bright ideas from around the world that will repurpose carbon and use it as a starting material, helping Alberta to create a market for carbon use,” said CCEMC Chair Eric Newell in a press release. “The approach could deliver significant reductions in greenhouse gases, complement other greenhouse gas reduction strategies, strengthen our economy and enhance Alberta’s competitiveness.”

Canada is already America’s largest foreign source of oil, dwarfing imports from Saudi Arabia. But the fact that drilling and processing for unconventional oil and gas produces more planet-warming greenhouse gases than conventional drilling processes  has helped galvanize an environmental protest movement in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere, all of which are aimed at stopping the pipeline and reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Because the Keystone pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canadian border, it is subject to approval by the State Department and ultimately by the White House. Keystone served as the rallying cry for the largest climate protest in U.S. history, which took place on Feb. 17, when an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people gathered in Washington to call on President Obama to say no to Keystone.

Using money from oil and gas activities to fund carbon-reduction technologies is nothing new. BP, Shell, and other companies have poured hundreds of millions into research and development of low emissions technologies at American universities such as MIT and Stanford, for example.

The CCEMC claims to have previously committed to fund 49 projects to date that have a combined value of nearly $1 billion. They estimate that these projects would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 8 megatonnes over a decade, enough to take more than 1.6 million cars off the road.

According to the CCEMC press release, some estimates show there are between 1.7 to 2.5 trillion barrels of bitumen in the Alberta oil sands, which help make Canada the only non-OPEC nation among the countries with the top 5 largest proven oil reserves.

“With the eyes of the world on Alberta, now is the time for us to broaden our focus – by exploring and investing in technologies that drive our climate change targets and ensures we remain a global clean energy supplier,” said Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister Diana McQueen in a press release.

Target focus areas for the contest include:

  • Technologies or processes that produce high value goods from GHGs

  • Technologies that fix captured carbon into solid or readily transportable starting materials

  • High-value materials with high carbon content that could be produced from GHGs

  • Biological processes that capture/consume carbon and convert it into a new viable product (e.g., oils from algae)

The contest is part of Alberta’s plan to cut the province’s greenhouse gas emissions by 200 megatonnes by the year 2050, and funding for the contest comes in part from fees charged to large greenhouse gas emitters in Alberta, including oil drilling operators. 

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