The World’s Only Coal Carbon Capture Plant Is Regularly Breaking

A Canadian facility is capturing roughly 44 percent of its emissions after it shut down for part of June and July and all of August and September.
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Image: SaskPower

The longest-running and world’s only carbon capture facility attached to a coal plant reported unsettlingly low emissions reduction numbers toward the latter half of 2021, raising red flags for experts about the viability of the technology and federal investment in it.

The carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility attached to the Boundary Dam Power Station, near Estevan, Saskatchewan, 120 miles southeast of capital city Regina, reported a sharp drop in captured emissions at the end of last year after challenges with one of its compressor motors forced the facility offline for multiple months.

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Built with the promise of diverting 90 percent of emissions from a section of Boundary Dam, the facility has had mixed results. Though capable of capturing 1 million tons of CO2 annually, it has never met this goal. As of the end of 2021, the facility is capturing roughly 44 percent of Boundary Dam’s emissions after it shut down for part of June and July and all of August and September, E&E News reported. This was the lowest capture rate the plant has seen since 2015.

The facility’s spotty success should serve as a wake-up call for U.S. policymakers throwing support behind CCS technology, said Mitch Jones, senior policy advocate at environmental watchdog group Food and Water Watch. 

“Carbon capture is too expensive, and it doesn't work,” Jones told Motherboard. 

Owned by Saskatchewan utility SaskPower, Boundary Dam was built in 1959 and remains the company’s largest coal-fired plant. In 2014, it installed a CCS attachment on one of the plant’s six units, designed to capture carbon dioxide emissions straight from the source, thereby preventing them from entering the atmosphere. The CCS facility has the ability to reduce up to 90 percent of the unit’s emissions, SaskPower’s website boasts; it cost CAD $1.5 billion in total to get going, including $240 million from the Canadian government and funding from the provincial government. It was seen as a political gamble at the time for its unknown place in a suite of climate solutions and was deemed a flat-out ‘carbon dioxide shell game’ by critics.  

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In the same year it was launched, the utility was fined CAD $12-million at the time after failing to deliver on its capture and CO2 sales promises. (Millions of dollars of the carbon dioxide Boundary Dam sequesters has been refined and sold to other fossil fuel companies for a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery, in which it is shot deep into defunct oil wells as drilling fluid to help boost withering productivity.)

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Image: Saskpower

SaskPower told E&E News that the issues it experienced with its compressor—a device that increases pressure within the facility—were “exceptional events.” 

“SaskPower is conducting in-depth analyses to understand the root cause of these new equipment issues, and are putting plans and strategies in place to manage these risks moving forward,” a spokesperson for the utility told the wire. SaskPower did not respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.

But for critics like Jones, Boundary Dam’s underwhelming performance is a foreboding sign of broader issues with CCS technology in general. In May, 2021 a team of researchers studied 263 CCS projects undertaken between 1995 and 2018 and found that the majority failed, while 78 percent of the largest projects were cancelled or put on hold. A few months later, the only other coal plant with a CCS attachment in the world, Petra Nova, shuttered after facing 367 outages in its three years of operation and falling short of its emissions reduction goals by 17 percent

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Despite its dubious effectiveness, political leaders globally are throwing their weight behind the CCS as a potential climate savior.

The $2 trillion Build Back Better Bill—President Joe Biden’s climate and social policy legislation that’s currently in precarious shape following opposition from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—included more than $12 billion in funding for carbon capture and expansion of a tax credit for these projects called 45Q. 45Q is a credit that’s historically been the subject of fervent lobbying by industry groups that represent fossil fuel companies—a 2020 probe found it had afforded millions in credits to companies that were not in compliance with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines.

Meanwhile, 2021 saw the U.S. Department of Energy commit millions in research and development dollars for a range of carbon capture projects at various points in time: $45 million in October, $12 million in June; $24 million in August. (Most of these dollars went to non-coal related projects, like natural gas plants—carbon capture technology can be applied to a range of industrial facilities.) 

To Jones, these grants represent little more than wasted time and investment. Recent failures at plants like Boundary Dam should sound alarm bells.

“Carbon capture partnered with coal has just been a boondoggle for the coal industry to receive additional subsidies, and a lifeline for continued use in the face of our worsening climate crisis,” Jones said. “It is unconscionable that this has become the go to climate policy in Washington.”