The head of a Canadian company recognized in a $20-million global pollution challenge sponsored by oilsands giants is offering a remedy to climate tax deniers: just take a look at his business.
“People think about taking action on the environment, specifically climate, as being costly,” said Robert Niven. “But like our company, there are opportunities where it’s quite the opposite: you can make quite a lot of commercial gain, to benefit the environment."
Niven is the CEO of Halifax-based CarbonCure, which takes carbon pollution captured by industrial emitters and injects it into freshly mixed concrete. The company says this creates a more durable product, which in turn lowers the operating cost of concrete producers.
The firm has retrofitted close to 100 facilities across North America, it said, and is attracting interest from Europe, India, the Middle East and China. It has also attracted political interest, at the provincial level in Alberta and at the federal level under both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former prime minister Stephen Harper.
This week, CarbonCure became one of 10 finalists in a race called the Carbon XPRIZE, which aims to develop new technologies that convert harmful carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change into useful products. The prize is sponsored mostly by a group of energy firms in Alberta’s oilsands, and a U.S.-based power company.
The finalist designation means the company will soon be testing its technology at a coal-fired power plant in Gillette, Wyo., nicknamed “the energy capital of the nation” due to its coal industry, in order to demonstrate that it can scale up its technology to 10 times the size of what it showed in the semifinals.
“The public, and some of the business communities, may think taking action on climate could mean a price on carbon (that) could increase their costs of operation,” said Niven.
“On the other hand, sometimes individuals believe that...products that are climate-friendly may be inferior. Both of these could not be further from the truth.”
Converting captured carbon into useful products isn't a new idea, but it's gaining ground, especially in Canada. There are three other Canadian finalists in the challenge: Montreal-based Carbicrete, Calgary-based Carbon Upcycling Technologies and the University of Toronto’s Team CERT.
“Solutions exist, and those solutions are viable, profitable, being used, and can be replicated,” said Niven.
Technologies like this have the potential to reduce this pollution by a staggering 15 per cent worldwide over the next 12 years, according to the U.S.-based Global CO2 Initiative.
Almost 274,000 Canadians had green jobs in 2016, according to Statistics Canada, with an average annual salary of $92,000, much higher than the average worker.
Experts say companies that are greener will better thrive in a global marketplace where there's a price on pollution. A March 2018 report by the Smart Prosperity Leaders' Initiative, which brought together businesses, labour leaders, and NGOs, said this global shift to a clean tech economy is already underway.
The shift is being driven by unprecedented and growing environmental challenges like climate change, as well as accelerating technological change, the report stated.
"We believe this is a crucial moment — a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Canada to set a course to prosper in the emerging low-carbon economy, while boosting its environmental performance," reads the report.
"Low-carbon and resource-efficient solutions are in growing demand in every field, and a booming global market awaits. But we must act now — from civil society and universities, to corporate boardrooms and the halls of government at every level — to secure our place among the emerging leaders in this new wave of clean innovation."
Alberta's plan to embrace a low-carbon world
The energy firms sponsoring the Carbon XPRIZE, collectively called Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), are mostly headquartered in Calgary, the energy capital of Alberta and home to the world’s third-largest reserves of crude oil after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
COSIA recognizes that energy that comes from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas "account for a majority of global carbon dioxide emissions" which are "a leading contributor to climate change." The world needs "solutions" to this challenge, the energy firms admit.
Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley has tried to embrace this shift to a low-carbon economy in several ways.
Most economists say that the most straightforward way of cracking down on carbon pollution means putting a price on that pollution. The Alberta NDP brought in a carbon pricing regime on large industrial carbon polluters, called Carbon Competitiveness Incentives, on Jan. 1 this year, phasing it in over three years. Alberta also has a hard cap on its emissions.
The program, which the province said it consulted with industry on, was designed specifically to "ensure our industries thrive in a carbon competitive global market." The government expects it to cut harmful planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions by 20 million tonnes by 2020, moving up to 50 million tonnes by 2030.
The NDP government is also trying to find ways to spark green innovation with its climate change fund, Emissions Reduction Alberta. That fund awarded CarbonCure up to $3 million last year to help commercialize its technology, as well as other companies such as McGill University's MBE Group who developed a sunlight-powered carbon dioxide transformation system.
In addition, Alberta has taken steps to diversify the province's fossil fuel sector away from its reliance on oil and gas production. This reliance could become a major liability, a research network at the University of Alberta has argued, as some oilsands energy giants have not fully disclosed how much carbon pollution they expect to create out of their own assets.
Alberta introduced "energy diversification" legislation last month that would commit up to $2 billion for new programs supporting the petrochemicals sector, which makes products like plastics, asphalt and pharmaceuticals, in a bid to try and shift the industry. It has also promised $1 billion in oilsands bitumen upgrading.
It also launched a program to give cash back on new energy efficient products like lightbulbs and programmable thermostats to lower energy use, and started a green energy program with low renewable electricity pricing that attracted roughly $1 billion of private-sector investment.
"Climate change is real. It is caused by burning carbon. And unless Alberta has a plan to tackle it, our economy will be put in serious jeopardy," Notley wrote on Twitter in December.
‘We're climate tax deniers’
One thing Notley hasn't been able to do, however, is succeed in her efforts to persuade a large and determined coalition of stakeholders in B.C. to accept construction of the Texas-based Kinder Morgan's controversial Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion — and that's creating political blowback against her entire carbon pricing plan.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has confirmed in an interview with National Observer that federal climate action required buy-in from Notley's government in Alberta in the form of its carbon pricing and emissions cap. In return for this support, Trudeau approved the Trans Mountain expansion.
But on Sunday, following relentless protests in Burnaby, British Columbia, and B.C. Premier John Horgan's NDP government's staunch opposition to the project, Kinder Morgan suspended all non-essential spending on the pipeline project, and threatened to cancel it if a plan wasn't in motion by the end of May.
Jason Kenney, leader of the Alberta opposition United Conservative Party (UCP), quickly blamed Notley's government for the fiasco, questioning the importance of Notley's carbon pollution pricing if it doesn't result in a pipeline.
"Part of the problem is that we have an NDP government here in Edmonton, that has fumbled the ball from day one," he said on April 8. He said the Notley government was aligned "philosophically" with the B.C. and federal NDP parties, "all of whom are fundamentally hostile to Canada's hydrocarbon-based energy."
The opposition leader, who was a member of Stephen Harper's cabinet, has long promised to get rid of Notley's carbon pricing if he wins the province’s 2019 election. Kenney has accused the premier of misleading Albertans on what he referred to as a “job-killing carbon tax.”
“We're not climate deniers; we're climate tax deniers,” he told the Alberta legislature on March 13.
At the heart of Kenney’s complaint is his concern that the oil industry in Alberta is "under massive attack." He believes that the federal government, Horgan's B.C. government and environmental activists are all collectively trying to hurt the industry.
"This is about a deliberate, decade-long campaign by highly, and in many cases foreign-funded, special interest groups with their political allies to attack Canada's vital economic interests," he said on the evening of Kinder Morgan's decision to suspend Trans Mountain spending.
And he has argued that Notley's policies are scaring away investment, and its effects aren’t being felt by the polluters it’s supposed to target.
Canada’s main oil and gas lobby group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, has similarly argued that the federal government should focus its efforts on getting its fossil fuels to markets abroad, and has raised concerns about competitiveness in the wake if shrinking oilsands investment.
Their argument was bolstered by internal federal government report that said the Trudeau Liberals' policies could be a “regulatory burden” for oil and gas companies, Maclean's reported April 11. The government said the issue is “short-term” and it continues to examine investment barriers.
Kenney has said he's open to ditching the Carbon Competitiveness Incentives and going back to an older provincial rule on carbon taxes, called the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation. Eco-advocacy group Environmental Defence has said that rule only encourages the reduction of pollution intensity, allowing absolute emissions to grow.
Meanwhile, Kenney has a partner against the federal carbon pricing strategy in Doug Ford, leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, who has said he wants to work with Kenney against carbon pricing.
Ford is preparing to go to battle at the polls on June 7, and has put the Ontario's green regime under the microscope, calling its renewable energy legislation a “scam” and carbon pricing a "job-killer."
'It isn’t as though we can stick our heads in the sand'
Niven of CarbonCure said he understands there’s a “natural opposition” to the concept of taxation. But he and others in his field believe green products have a better value proposition, attract better investment and yield higher returns.
“Really what this is doing is this is stimulus for companies to innovate, become more efficient with resources, which includes energy," he said.
“It’s inevitable — we are going to need to become more efficient with resources, especially energy," he explained. "It isn’t as though we can stick our heads in the sand and expect this problem to go away.”
CarbonCure works on a software-as-a-service model: concrete producers pay a licensing fee on a monthly basis to use the technology and the service. Niven said this allows producers not to pay upfront capital costs for equipment.
“The savings that we provide these producers exceeds the amount to use the technology and purchase the CO2,” he said.
When the carbon dioxide is injected, it reacts with the calcium in cement, converting it to a mineral and permanently trapping the pollution. Injecting carbon dioxide also allows for less cement or other materials to be used, it says, lowering emissions further.
There is pollution generated, the company admits, when the necessary materials needed to create the concrete are manufactured and transported to the site. But they say that far less carbon pollution, or about a 10th, is produced when making the concrete, than what is injected into the concrete.
The clean technology has been catching the eye of politicians and bureaucrats for years. In 2011, the Harper government invested more than a million dollars in the firm through Sustainable Development Technology Canada.
Harper's natural resources minister at the time, Joe Oliver, said the government was "committed to supporting clean energy technology in Canada as an effective measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create high-quality jobs for Canadians."
A few years later, in 2014, CarbonCure received another contribution from Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency under the Harper government.
The company's most vocal supporter yet may be Trudeau's Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who has tweeted about CarbonCure 21 times over the last year, across both her personal and ministerial Twitter accounts. She labelled the firm a “Canadian success story” in a press release issued after she visited a San Jose, Calif. facility where the technology was in use.
Bank of England Governor Mark Carney and other economists say the future belongs to companies like CarbonCure, as the world moves away from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy.
Even the former Harper government, which had a strong political base of support in oil-rich Alberta, made a commitment, along with other G7 countries, to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century.