B.C. firm extracts fuel from air

It may sound like alchemy but Carbon Engineering Ltd based in Squamish captures carbon from the atmosphere and turns it back into automotive fuel.

Carbon Engineering,
Squamish, BC. Image: Google maps

It’s not just wishful thinking. Investors with deep pockets are putting money into the project, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

Co-owner of Carbon Engineering David Keith describes the technology as “direct air capture” (DAC). They’ve been running a pilot plant since 2015 and hope to build a commercial-scale operation soon. The plant has been producing a variety of fuels, such as diesel, gasoline, and Jet-A since 2017.

Carbon capture technology is not new but the price barrier has been too high to make it feasible. Previous processes have cost US$600 a tonne. Professor Keith says they have broken the price barrier:

“At Carbon Engineering, we now have the data and engineering to prove that DAC can achieve costs below US$100 (Globe and Mail, June 8, 2018).”

Former processes haven’t worked, as Saskatchewan found out. At higher cost and lower reliability, they extract CO2 and store it into the ground. Former Premier of Brad Wall had high hopes that his province could avoid a federal carbon tax by carbon capture. However, these plants are only operational 45 per cent of the time. The old technology has been tried globally and abandoned; China cancelled theirs.

Professor Keith researched his DAC technology at the University of Calgary. The process is relatively simple in theory. First CO2 is extracted from the air. Then hydrogen is created from water through electrolysis using any energy source, preferably renewable. Solar cells, for example, could create hydrogen by breaking water into its component parts. In the final stage, hydrogen and CO2 are combined to produce hydrocarbon fuels.

The novelty of Professor Keith’s technology is that it solves three problems: rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, drilling for fossil fuels, and the storage of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Of course, if you are going to extract CO2 from the air only to convert it back into fuels that will put the CO2 back in the air, that hardly seems like a solution. But at least it is not producing any more CO2. And mining the air for fuels is certainly better than fracking shale deposits.

Using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to produce automotive fuel seems counterintuitive at first. The problem with renewable energy sources that they produce energy when it’s not needed and none when is -it has to be stored somehow.  The surplus electricity could be stored in batteries for use later. Or it could be used in conjunction with other renewable sources such as hydroelectricity.

Storing renewable energy as fuel is a good idea because the engines to burn the hydrocarbons already exist. There is no need to build new vehicles with electric motors.

The fuel produced is expected to cost 25 per cent more than traditional gasoline but it would fetch premium prices.

“It’s not a magic bullet, it’s not too cheap to meter,” says Professor Keith, “but it’s something that really we think could be built out, and could be built out at relatively low technical risk. So we hope it is really a turning point.”

 

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Empty pipelines spill no oil

The Kinder Morgan pipeline should be built for the same reason as the pyramids –as a national monument.

The pyramids employed workers but served no practical purpose other than an grand burial site for the pharaohs. The humble graves of the workers would have served the pharaohs just as well.

   Composite: David Charbonneau

Construction of the People’s pipeline will employ well-paid union workers. It’s supposed to carry crude oil to Asia but that market doesn’t exist. Therefore, it will serve as a wonderful monument to the “National Interest.”

The pipeline should be built because it serves political interests. Premier Notley’s hopes to be re-elected depend on completion of the pipeline. In her letter to Maclean’s, she said:

“And together, we are building this pipeline — with B.C. workers, using steel made in Saskatchewan, from ore mined in Quebec. Now, it’s time to pick those tools back up, folks. We’ve got a pipeline to build.”

While I’m less optimistic about the future of fossil fuels than Notley, I would rather see her re-elected than Jason Kenney, leader of United Conservative party of Alberta. A progressive premier with delusions about the future of oil sands is better than a retrograde one with similar delusions.

The People’s pipeline will bring the feuding NDP family members back into the fold where they can return to civility. This spat has been an embarrassment for the NDP for the new leader Jagmeet Singh.  Until recently, the NDP was one big happy family; unlike other parties, there is only one party provincially and federally.

The pipeline should be built to strengthen our federation. Prime Minister Trudeau is correct in asserting the nation’s right to move goods to market over the objections of provinces. One province should not have the ability to stop the national transport of commodities.

While the symbolism of the pipeline is strong, the financial rationale for the pipeline hinges on flawed logic. Finance Minister Morneau claims the pipeline is required to get oil to “tidewater” so it can be sold at higher prices than in the U.S.  Economist Robyn Allan is not so sure:

“The facts don’t support the argument. The economics aren’t there. This project is financially compromised and not commercially viable (Globe and Mail, June 2, 2018).”

The fantasy is that Asia will pay more for the goop than it could be sold for in North America. However, in recent years, heavy crude has consistently sold for significantly less in Asia than the U.S.  Refineries in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi are ready; they have been re-engineered to process the heavy crude of the oil sands.

Just one per cent of the oil in the existing pipeline flows to Asia. Another pipeline won’t change that fraction. Most oil goes to California and Washington State where it is refined and sold back to Canada as expensive automotive fuel.

The financial reality is that TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. is a better bet in getting crude oil to market. The off again/on again pipeline is breathing new life under the Trump administration.

The pipeline should be built and remain empty. Everyone will be happy, workers and environmentalists alike.

More reasons for reduced guilt while flying

I feel less guilty flying on vacation now that I’ve compared flying with driving by car. Both contribute to global warming about the same.

image: alternet

Comparisons between the two are tricky because there are many factors like the efficiency of the car and how many are traveling. And the distance the plane flies: more fuel is used on takeoff so longer flights are more efficient. The University of Oslo has weighed these factors and concludes: “With only one passenger in the car, corresponding to 20-25% occupancy, the climate impact is at the level of an average air trip (Yale Climate Connections).”

My burden of guilt might be reduced even further. Canadian airlines are looking at using renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. (Globe and Mail, July 25, 2107)”.

Air Canada has flown eight times on biofuels, most recently from Edmonton to San Francisco on May 2, 2018. The flight reduced carbon emissions by over ten tonnes, a 20% reduction in net carbon emissions. This is equivalent to taking 26 cars off the road for a month according to Air Canada. They are careful to say that the growth of biofuels can’t come at the expense of food crops. That should be easy because some land that is unsuitable for food may be fine for biofuels.

Even more arable land will come available because of global warming caused by people (gulp) going on vacation and spewing CO2 into the atmosphere.

Air Canada has also improved fuel efficiency by 43 per cent since 1990 and they hope to be carbon-neutral by 2020. “These efforts and other green initiatives to increase efficiency and reduce waste were recognized by Air Transport World which earlier this year named Air Canada the Eco-Airline of the Year for 2018,” they say.

Planes are becoming more efficient. That, combined with cleaner burning biofuels can reduce air pollution. According to NASA, a mixture of 50% aviation biofuel can cut air pollution caused up to 70%.

If I flew on a plane that used solar, electric or hydrogen fuels, that would be even better. But for now those sources don’t have the power necessary to launch commercial airplanes.

I could also buy carbon offsets to pay for my sins of emissions. WestJet has teamed up with Carbon Zero. Their calculator shows that my return trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, generates 0.65 Tonnes of CO2. For an additional $14.69 I can contribute to an equal reduction of greenhouse gases. They offer two projects. One is diversion of organic waste from a Toronto landfill which prevents methane from escaping into the atmosphere. That’s good: methane is an even worse greenhouse gas than CO2.

However, while I may feel a little better, carbon offsets are a drop in the bucket. Offsets nowhere match the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere.

In addition, carbon offsets only appeal to people who worry about such things. For those who don’t think that humans contribute to global warming, offsets may look like a scam.

No guilt would better than reduced guilt but I can console myself, somewhat, by comparing myself with those who don’t give it a fleeting second thought.

The first Canadians

We arrived in North America, in what is now Canada, 16,000 years ago. Within a few thousand years, three quarters of the continent’s large animals were gone.

   image: sciencemag.org

By “we,” I don’t mean we European colonizers, I mean we Homo sapiens.

There were no indigenous people when we arrived. Not like 70,000 years ago when we came to Europe from Africa. Then, the indigenous people of Europe were the Neanderthals. We probably treated them much in the way that Europeans treated the indigenous people of North America -as savages.

Am I equating indigenous people of North America to the indigenous people of Europe? Yes. We are all humans, says Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens:

“Yet the real meaning of the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo,’ and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens.”

We encountered other humans as we spread around the globe, probably with the same disdain. We dismiss other humans who look slightly different as inferior; it’s a convenient way of subjugating “others” and appropriating their land and resources.

The extent to which Neanderthals were human is indicated in our DNA. Shortly after arriving in Europe, the Neanderthals disappeared. There are two possible explanations: either sapiens and Neanderthals interbred to become one species or the Neanderthals died off, or we killed them. If we interbred, we are not “pure sapiens” but carry DNA of those other humans that we encountered –Denisovans from Siberia, Homo Erectus in East Asia.

DNA analysis reveals interbreeding. Europeans and those from the Middle East carry one to four per cent of Neanderthal genes. Melanesians and Australian Aboriginals carry six per cent of Denisovan genes. We humans are probably all one species, just as Spaniels and Chihuahuas are all dogs.

To the chagrin of racists, the only pure members of our species are found in Africa. The rest of us are just bastards.

When we walked into North America 16,000 years ago across the Bering Strait, we had no idea that we were walking into a new world. In just a few thousand years we traveled all the way to the island of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. Along the way, we exterminated many species.

“According to current estimates, in that short interval, North America lost thirty-four out of forty-seven genera of large animals,” says Harari, “South America lost fifty out of sixty.”

After flourishing for 30 million years, sabre-toothed cats were gone as well as giant sloths that weighed up to eight tons. Gone were giant beavers, horses, camels and mammoths.

We arrived in Australia with the same disastrous results. Within a few thousand years, out of twenty-four species of large Australian animals, most of them marsupials, twenty-three became extinct.

The unsettling fact is that we were not good stewards of the land, not as first people and certainly not as European colonizers.

We sapiens are remarkable humans in other respects. We inhabit every corner of the earth. But I can’t help but feel that it’s going to end badly.

Maybe a new version of humans will rise, breed with us, and do a better job at living in harmony with the planet.

Fracking is a threat to B.C. dams

There are environmental reasons to stop fracking in B.C. There are political reasons to continue.

In addition to the environmental reasons to stop fracking, there is a risk to B.C. dams. The list continues to grow: the contamination of groundwater, the disturbance of natural environments with roads and drilling rigs, the disposal of toxic water, and now the danger of earthquakes. Especially around dams, reservoirs, and tailings ponds.

earthquake

Freedom of information documents obtained by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reveals the concerns of BC Hydro officials.

BC Hydro became alarmed in 2009 when drilling started on lands near Peace Canyon Dam, downstream from the W.A.C. Bennett Dam; a dam which holds the world’s seventh-largest hydro reservoir by water volume.

Ray Stewart wrote, “BC Hydro believes there are immediate and future potential risks to BC Hydro’s reservoir, dam and power-generation infrastructure as a result of this coal-bed methane project.” He warned that earthquakes caused by fracking “may be greater than the original design criteria for the dam.”

His concerns are well-founded. Fracking is taking place in the Montney Basin which underlies much of the Peace River region, an area rich in shale gas. And fracking is proven to cause earthquakes.

Stewart also warned that fracking could “reactivate” ancient faults in the region, which could potentially set the stage for earthquakes. He also warned of “hydrogeologic impacts” on hydro reservoirs from fracking. He worried that the land might sink or that dried-out coal seams might ignite.

The land could sink and the coal dry out because the cavities that result from the extraction of gas. It occurs after water under pressure fractures the shale and is pumped out. The gas follows the pumped out water. The cavities are one thing, the toxic water is another.

To get rid of the toxic water, it’s pumped back into the earth below the area that’s been fracked. The pressure created triggers earthquakes.

Regulators have been slow to react. BC Hydro would like to stop the drilling within five kilometres of dam sites but regulators have not ruled it out, citing only “understandings” with drillers.

Even BC Hydro’s deputy CEO, Chris O’Riley, seems to be in denial. “Fracking by itself cannot generate large magnitude earthquakes.” That’s not what the U.S. Geological Survey found. While B.C.’s fracking is in its infancy, the USGS has been studying the alarming rise of fracking-induced earthquakes in Texas and Oklahoma for decades.

The USGS says that magnitude 6 fracking-induced earthquakes could occur which can damage even well-built structures. “But we can’t rule out quakes of magnitude 7 and above,” says Mark Petersen, chief of the National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project (Scientific American, July, 2016).

The political reason for fracking is that it’s the only plan we have. Premier Clark campaigned on her plan to liquefy natural gas plan and won — a plan to drill and export LNG and to power it with the Site C dam.

She’s likely to campaign on the same strategy again in the upcoming B.C. election. Even though LNG markets have dried up and the power from Site C won’t be needed for decades, it’s the only game in town.

It will be interesting to see what job-creation strategies other parties have as the campaign heats up.

Alberta to overtake BC on carbon reduction

Alberta is about to take the lead in reducing greenhouse gases says the non-partisan group Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission. In a recent report, they compared the four provinces that have a carbon price and concluded that Alberta will have the most stringent policy by 2020.

Canadians support carbon pricing -poll, April, 2016

Canadians support carbon pricing -poll, April, 2016

By stringent, they mean the most effective overall plan in reducing greenhouse gases in which carbon pricing is just one of five methods. Commission chair, Professor Chris Ragan, explains:

“When comparing provincial carbon pricing policies, it is useful to use metrics that take into account the various design details, such as coverage and trade that differ from policy to policy. That way we are comparing policies on a more level playing field.”

Of the five ways, carbon pricing is still the most important. For that reason, Alberta and British Columbia both have more stringent carbon pricing than Ontario and Quebec who use the cap-and-trade approach. Supporters of this approach argue that pricing alone through taxes is a misleading; that cap-and-trade will work.

The advantage of carbon pricing is that it is simple –it’s a direct tax applied at the gas pump. The cap-and-trade system uses market forces to determine the price of carbon by first setting a cap on the amount of carbon that any industry can emit and then allowing industries to buy and sell unused allowances. If one industry gets under the cap, they can sell the remainder to those who go over.

Watch out, you provinces without carbon pricing. The federal government is holding a big stick: if you don’t implement carbon pricing, the feds will. Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said all governments will have to increase the stringency of their climate policies, including carbon pricing, in order for Canada to meet its international commitments.

Provinces aren’t used to federal leadership. In the past, the feds have been notoriously negligent in reducing greenhouse gases. As a result, Canada has become a international slacker in the fight to confront the global threat of climate change. Under the Chrétien Liberals, promises were made but never kept. Under the Harper Conservatives, no promises were made and provinces did as they pleased.

Several premiers have voiced opposition to any federal price on carbon – including Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall, Quebec’s Philippe Couillard and Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, reports the Globe and Mail (July 27, 2016) and the commission’s report is timely. “Its report informs talks between Ottawa, the provinces and the territories as they attempt to reach a pan-Canadian climate strategy this fall. Officials are working through the summer on a series of policy issues, including efforts to forge a minimum national carbon price.”

While B.C. can take some pride in being the first province to implement carbon pricing, that lead is in jeopardy. With a B.C. election in less than a year, Premier Clark will have to walk the line between satisfying the business community that opposes higher carbon taxes and the progressive community who wants B.C. to keep the lead in the carbon-reduction.

Bumble bees deliver fungus control

Bumblebees deliver what fungicides can’t. That’s important because the use of fungicides has led to resistant strains. One fungus, botrytis, is devastating strawberries. It destroys a crop by leaving a grey mould over the berries and costs the farmer hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Busy Bumbler

Busy Bumbler

A small Canadian company, Bee Vectoring Technologies, is employing bees to deliver a beneficial fungus that displaces the harmful one. Once the good fungus, clonostachys, sets up shop the bad one is crowded out. A trial of the technology is now underway in a strawberry crop in North Carolina as reported in the Globe and Mail (May 3, 2016).

John Sutton, a retired plant pathologist, started work on the beneficial fungus in 1988. The problem was how to get the good fungus deep into the blossom that produces the fruit. Fortunately, that’s just what bees do. “They’re really good delivery vehicles,” said Dr. Sutton, “I mean, they’re better than FedEx.”

It took years for Dr. Sutton and his colleagues to isolate the most effective variety of clonostachys and generate it in large quantities. Because it’s a natural organism, it can’t be patented but the delivery system can. Because bees don’t naturally carry fungus around, a delivery system was devised in which bees walk through trays of good fungus. It clings to the bee’s legs and then they deliver it to the blossoms.

For farmers who are used to chemical solutions to fungal problems, the system requires some getting used to. “All this sounded good on paper,” said Colorado-based consultant Greg Faust who is helping Bee Vectoring market their system. “Now we’re putting it up against the tests and it’s performing quite well.” For farmers who aren’t used to handling bees, it’s a new mindset.

It may be a new mindset for farmers but the system will resonate with consumers who want for fewer chemicals. It’s a marketer’s dream. What could be more endearing than the image of bees carrying good fungus to blossoms and kicking out the bad ones?

The system shows promise in protecting other crops as well, such as sunflowers which are attacked by another bad fungus called sclerotina for which there is no effective control.

As often happens, good Canadian ideas languish because of lack of financial support. The little Canadian company went public last year and is trying to raise capital. It hopes to have their system approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the next 18 months.

“The clock is ticking now,” said Michael Collinson, CEO of Bee Vectoring. He is busy flying to sites in the U.S. Mexico, Croatia and Spain to promote the system. A European competitor is promoting a similar system so it’s important that they get to market soon.