After writing about the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot ChatGPT being available for public testing, I decided to use it as a research tool for this story about the contentious issue of carbon capture and storage.
The goal was to ask ChatGPT a series of questions and compile the answers into a story with as little effort as possible on my end. My questions targeted:
- The pros and cons of carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS)
- The economic viability of CCUS
- Successful examples of CCUS projects
- The economic benefits of Alberta’s oilsands
I hope you enjoy the resulting collaborative effort with ChatGPT. The italicized paragraphs are output from ChatGPT. The paragraphs not italicized are my thoughts.
Pros and cons of carbon capture
The Pathways Alliance consists of six of the largest oilsands companies in Alberta, which together are responsible for 95 per cent of production. The consortium has ambitious plans to spend nearly $25 billion to improve efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technology is the cornerstone of the Pathway Alliance’s goals for net-zero emissions by 2050.
What people are reading
CCUS is a technology that captures carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel production and processing facilities, transports the CO2 via pipeline to storage sites and stores it in underground geological formations like salt caverns or depleted oil and gas reservoirs.
Capturing and storing CO2 is important for addressing climate change but can also be used for enhanced oil recovery when the CO2 is injected into a reservoir to extend an oilfield’s productive life.
Using captured CO2 to recover more oil is counterproductive from a climate change point of view if that oil is then burned and, as a result, CO2 is released into the atmosphere. However, captured CO2 may also be used to produce chemicals and building materials like concrete and enhance the yields of biological processes.
CCUS is expensive, not widely used and has underperformed in its expected capabilities. The technology also requires a significant amount of energy to operate, and there are concerns about the long-term safety and security of stored CO2.
A case study in economic viability
Alberta’s Quest CCUS project has been in operation since November 2015 and is reported to capture over one million tonnes of CO2 per year. Quest is located at Shell’s Scotford upgrader plant where oilsands bitumen is converted into products like gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, propane and butane.
Quest’s total reported project costs were close to $1 billion by the time of completion, with the province of Alberta funding over $550 million. From 2016 through 2021, Alberta also contributed nearly $30 million of the operating costs per year, which reached more than $50 million in 2021. Quest produced revenue from CO2 offset credits in the range of $32 million to $75 million per year, enough to cover the operating costs.
Given the high project costs and significant government subsidies, is CCUS a wise investment in Alberta’s future? The oil and gas industry is banking on CCUS to foster continued public and political support in the midst of a worsening climate crisis. Regardless, the economic benefits of oil and gas will always help maintain a strong base of support.
The economic benefits of Alberta’s oilsands
The oilsands industry employs thousands of people in Alberta, from engineers and geologists to truck drivers and heavy equipment operators. These jobs provide a significant source of income for many families in the province and contribute to the local economy through the spending of wages. In 2022, the oil and gas industry directly employed nearly 140,000 people in Alberta.
In addition to job creation, the oilsands also generate significant tax revenue for the Alberta government. In the 2021-22 fiscal year, the oil and gas industry paid a record $68 billion in royalties, leases and taxes to the Alberta government, which uses the funds for public services such as health care and education. This revenue also helps balance the provincial budget, allowing for greater investment in infrastructure and social programs.
Canada is a net exporter of oil, and the oilsands are a significant contributor to this. Oilsands exports generate significant foreign exchange revenue for the country, which helps to reduce the trade deficit and strengthen the economy.
The oilsands also provide a reliable source of energy for Canada and North America. Canada is the largest supplier of oil to the United States, which reduces the need for the U.S. to import oil from other countries. This is particularly important during times of high oil prices and geopolitical instability in oil-producing countries.
Finally, the oilsands have a positive impact on the Canadian dollar. The Canadian dollar is often referred to as a "petrodollar" because of the country's significant oil exports. When the price of oil increases, our dollar tends to appreciate in value. This makes imported goods and services cheaper for Canadians, which can help stimulate economic growth.
These economic benefits are clear and compelling, but it is now well understood that future generations will pay dearly for the indirect costs of the benefits we receive today. Investment in CCUS and other infrastructure projects to support the oilsands will slow the transition to cleaner energy sources and increase the future costs of weather-related disasters, food and water shortages and social unrest.
Capital expenditures in Alberta’s oilsands peaked at over $30 billion in 2014 and then declined steadily to $7 billion by 2020. The Pathways Alliance is committing to spend more than $20 billion towards CCUS projects by 2030, and this will create momentum for investing billions in new infrastructure despite a desire by pension funds, banks and the general public to divert investments away from fossil fuel projects.
The case against investing in CCUS
Currently, CCS is considered as not economically viable without government subsidies, or a carbon pricing mechanism such as a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system that would put a price on carbon emissions and make CCS more competitive.
There is cause for debate over investing in CCUS technology. For example, investment in our renewable energy sector might pay greater long-term dividends for society. The Travers solar project is Alberta’s largest to date and cost $700 million, with not a penny coming from the Alberta government. Travers will generate many gigawatt hours of electricity per year while offsetting 624,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases, including CO2 and methane.
A $24-billion investment in solar generation could build 34 Travers-size solar facilities and eliminate 21 million tonnes of greenhouse gases annually. This is in line with the amount of CO2 expected to be sequestered by the Pathways Alliance plan. However, CCUS does not prevent the release of other pollutants, such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.
Oilsands energy products also emit an enormous amount of greenhouse gases when they’re burned, regardless of any successful implementation of CCUS. If reducing carbon emissions is a societal priority, then investing in solar should pre-empt investing in CCUS. We also have to consider our Paris Agreement commitments and if it is morally acceptable to ignore our promise to other nations.
Any future energy solution must balance the economic needs of Canada with the scientific certainty that greenhouse gas emissions have to decline significantly or our climate will become inhospitable to human life. Can we choose the easy path to prosperity when there is a high degree of risk that humanity will eventually become participants in the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event?
There are clearly alternative paths to prosperity where the world chooses cleaner sources of energy. CCUS may support the goal to reduce CO2 emissions in the short term, but long term, it threatens to delay the energy transition that will save us all.
The collaborative exercise wasn’t that much of a time-saver, despite ChatGPT quickly providing accurate summaries in response to my queries. One thing I found was that ChatGPT’s answers were typically overviews of a subject, whereas I tend to look for specific examples to support my argument.
The following is a summary of my research queries and how they helped create the piece above:
Question 1: Please provide a summary of the pros and cons of carbon capture and storage.
ChatGPT’s essay on the pros and cons of carbon capture was correct, but not particularly interesting or illuminating. I decided to use the Pathways Alliance as an introduction, reword the pros and cons from the bulleted list provided by ChatGPT, and include some of my own thoughts. I also decided to do my own research on Shell’s Quest carbon capture project to paint a better picture of the costs and capabilities of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS).
Question 2: Is carbon capture and storage economically viable?
ChatGPT provided a very good assessment and pointed out the additional energy costs, the need for CO2 pipelines and the high cost of plant retrofits. It also listed potential revenues from carbon credits and the sale of CO2 for industrial use. I chose to focus on the economics of the Quest project and not to use ChatGPT’s response in the interest of keeping the article shorter.
Question 3: Provide some examples of successful CCUS projects.
ChatGPT cited four projects from around the world, including the Boundary Dam CCUS project in Saskatchewan, where CO2 is captured from a coal-burning electricity generator. I decided to do my own research on Quest because it was more relevant to the Alberta oilsands industry.
Question 4: Describe the economic benefits of the Alberta oilsands.
ChatGPT provided a comprehensive overview, and in this case, I was looking for a general overview. I copied ChatGPT’s response into my article, but added some of my own research and links on employment and government revenue figures.
For my case against investing in CCUS, I did my own research on the Travers solar project to demonstrate how investment in renewable energy could potentially be more advantageous than CCUS. I didn’t pose any questions to ChatGPT because I’d already formed my argument.
Rob Miller is a retired systems engineer, formerly with General Dynamics Canada, who now volunteers with the Calgary Climate Hub and writes on behalf of Eco-Elders for Climate Action.
Editor's note: This op-ed was updated to correct an error in the ChatGPT description of the benefits of a higher Canadian dollar. A higher dollar doesn’t make Canadian goods and services cheaper for foreign buyers. In fact, the opposite is true. However, a high dollar does make imported goods cheaper for Canadians, which can encourage greater spending and stimulate the economy. The error was also pointed out to ChatGPT and it has acknowledged the mistake.
The scope 3 emissions, those
The scope 3 emissions, those created when the products are burned, should be the nail in the coffin of both CCUS and the tar sands. The way the pathways alliance uses the term 'net zero' does not account for scope 3 emissions. I recently read that scope 3 emissions are presently about 80% of the companies' emissions. So ignoring scope 3 is big mistake and a bad case of head-in-the-sand thinking.
The quotes from ChatGPT in
The quotes from ChatGPT in this piece give the impression that it reads only the corporate press. Is there some way to influence it to look at alternative sources?
I was thinking ChatGPT wasn't
I was thinking ChatGPT wasn't very impressive, since it seems to just grab some sources and parrot a paraphrase. But then I realized that we do consider mediocre undergrad students intelligent, so that ability would be real AI . . .
Chat GPT wrote “When the
Chat GPT wrote “When the price of oil increases, our dollar tends to appreciate in value. This makes Canadian goods and services cheaper for foreign buyers, which can help boost exports and stimulate economic growth.”
If the Canadian dollar appreciates surely that makes goods and services more expensive for foreign buyers etc. Has Chat GPT got this completely wrong?
Having just finished a
Having just finished a critique of AI systems, WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION....which looks at the negative side effects of AI systems in education, policing, job application personality tests, etc....I've had my initial intuition confirmed. There is no such thing as Artificial Intelligence. As Kathy O'Neil makes clear.......machines are efficient, especially when given access to massive data....but they can't do fairness, or weigh in on ethical issues.
In this, they may be proxies for the human intelligences that design them. For some kinds of thinking, ethics is irrelevant....unless you're creating a spin that argues oil can be ethical.....because its Canadian men extracting it.
Rebel Media type thinking aside, we all need to do our own research, as has this author. If Carbon Capture and Storage succeeds in delaying the Just Transition....buying time for new bitumen/fracking projects into the coming decades, then it has done the devil's own work.
We're out of time boys and girls. This author's research on the comparative cost of solar versus carbon capture is the take away. What's more, we need a distributed grid.......with electric production capability everywhere........not just in central solar farms.
The climate constrained future is here... every day brings new destruction to someone from extreme weather. The polar vortex advances as I write. We TRANSITION NOW...and begin the decline in the age of fossil fools.........or we bear the blame for all the climate victims to come.
Some of them will be our close kin and fond relations. But AI has none of those, so it can compute with the total absence of human conscience, or consciousness. For what its worth.
The Chst Bot suggested 68
The Chst Bot suggested 68 billion paid to the Alberta government in 20/21. That was almost equal to the entire budget. i have serious doubts about that figure