The Next Industrial Revolution
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, November 22, 2008

Seeking the Liberal Party leadership, Stephane Dion tempted us with ideas about how green technologies might spark another industrial revolution; instead we got the green shift. This was disappointing because whatever its failings and wherever you stand on the causes of climate change, innovations are necessary if only to address problems around depleting, costlier or less environmentally friendly sources of energy such as coal and oil sands extraction.

In this more modest regard and contrary to what the ‘dirty’ oil brigade would have us believe, Alberta is creating something of a revolution of its own. At a cost of $2 billion, the government has made the world’s largest single financial commitment to cutting edge technology that will capture and store greenhouse gases from Northern Alberta oilsands reserves second in size only to those of Saudi Arabia.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that the technology known as carbon capture and storage (CCS) can reduce the world’s large-scale greenhouse gas emissions created by electricity generation and industrial activity by 55% in this century. Others cite reductions of up to 100% in individual industrial applications. Not surprisingly, a director of the International Energy Agency has called CCS “the most important technology in bringing about cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Arguably then, the world’s most important climate change initiative, more important even than Kyoto, was the formation of the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum. Created in 2003, its 21 developed and emerging nations include Canada, the U.S., Russia, China, India and the European Commission who together produce 75% of the world’s CO2. Of the 20 projects it has approved, Canada in partnership with other countries leads in 7, 2 of which – the Alberta Enhanced Coal-Bed Methane Recovery Project and the Weyburn-Midale C02 monitoring and Storage Project - are located in Canada. Now, the CCS oil sands project plus another slated for SaskPower’s Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant will make that 9 out of 22. Eventually other facilities, like Transalta Utilities, will upgrade their CCS capabilities too.

In Europe, the Middle East, Australia and the U.S., CCS initiatives are also advancing.

Simply put, CCS technology siphons carbon dioxide into chasms deep undergound, under the sea or into absorbtive materials. Like most cutting edge technologies, it is not without its problems. Expense and the amount of energy needed for it to function are two. Safety is the third. One stark example of this problem is how a naturally occurring CO2 leak suffocated 1,700 in Cameroon in 1986. Today, CO2 storage sites are being located far from lines of volcanic and earthquake activity that precipitated the Cameroon catastrophe though this is unlikely to assuage the NIMBY syndrome that will surely accompany CCS project development once knowledge of the dangers sink in. By then, with climate change armageddon having thoroughly captured the zeitgeist, there’ll likely be no turning back.

In any case, CCS provides the foundation on which Canada’s Climate Change Pact with the United States’ next President, Barack Obama, will be built. Having himself called for the creation of 5 CCS coal-fired plant facilities in the U.S., Obama will appreciate the leadership role Canada has played in developing CCS technology. New Environment Minister Jim Prentice is therefore well positioned to enter into discussions on climate change issues with the U.S.

As for the next industrial revolution, don’t hold your breath. At best CCS is part of a transition that buys time. The use of technologies that morphed in the 19th century from coal-and-wood-fired steam to the West’s mass production economies fired by oil, steel, electricity and the internal combustion engine demonstrate how industrialisation today remains a function of harnessing and deploying the usual energy suspects – coal and oil.

That said, the International Energy Agency tells us that at current rates of consumption, a 40 year supply of oil remains. Coal, on the other hand will be abundant in Canada for a 1000 years. CCS technology ostensibly addresses problems in both areas, placing Alberta well ahead of the curve.

The question now is whether North America’s manufacturing, automotive and housing industries can do their part. The current financial meltdown suggests economies predicated on housing starts and automobile sales are due for a makeover. So far few are seizing the opportunity to rethink them.

This transition could be very bumpy.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.

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