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Quebec eyed as prime spot to suck carbon from atmosphere

A Quebec-based company is hoping to become a leader in direct air capture, where carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere. But questions remain about whether the technology is the best use of limited public funds and resources as the world seeks to reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

Direct air capture is seeing big investment, but big question marks remain

Orca in Iceland

One day early next month, in the shadow of Iceland's mountain peaks, high-powered fans are expected to begin to pull in air from the surrounding countryside.

Carbon dioxide will be isolated, converted to liquid and pumped underground, where it will, over time, solidify into rock.

The plant, known as Mammoth, is set to be the largest direct air capture and storage facility in the world, designed to bring in up to 36,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. It runs on renewable energy from a nearby geothermal power plant.

Climeworks, the company behind the project, views the launch as another stepping stone for the technology, which proponents say could play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the years ahead.

"You only learn from building. You only scale from building," Daniel Nathan, the company's chief project development officer, said in an interview from Copenhagen.

Direct air capture (DAC) — which involves removing carbon from the atmosphere, rather than at the source of production, such as oilsands facilities — has attracted hundreds of millions in financing in Canada and around the world.

In Canada, the sector is still in its early stages. Deep Sky, a project developer based in Montreal, is aiming to establish carbon removal projects starting in Quebec, where access to cheap hydroelectric power is a draw for the energy-intensive technology.

But questions remain about whether direct air capture is the best use of limited public funds and resources as the world seeks to reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

Quebec company looks to be big player

According to the International Energy Agency, DAC projects should not be seen as "alternative to cutting emissions or an excuse for delayed action, but they can be an important part of the suite of technology options used to achieve climate goals." The IEA said the United States is a world leader in terms of funding and support for DAC.

Over the past year, Deep Sky has announced a number of planned pilot projects and has secured $75 million in funding, from a number of private firms as well as Investissement Québec, a provincial funding agency.

Damien Steel, the company's CEO and a former venture capitalist, envisions a global "multi trillion dollar" industry in the not-so-distant future. The goal for Deep Sky is to build a plant to capture and store carbon in Quebec within the next three years, potentially in the valley of the St. Lawrence River. Steel also wants to establish plants in western Canada.

"We need to build an industry that's multiple times the size of the oil and gas industry," he said. "What Saudi Arabia is to the oil and gas industry Canada could be to carbon removal."

First, though, the company plans to test out 10 direct air capture technologies from startups to determine which one is best suited for Quebec's humid summers and frigid winters.

"Most of these companies today are literally kids in a garage. I've been to the garage, the garage goes up, there's a DAC unit sitting inside," he said.

"What we need to do is we need to help these companies figure out how to scale, how to scale manufacturing, how to do it in an energy efficient way and how to mass produce these things."

Government incentives key to growing industry

Na'im Merchant, executive director of Carbon Removal Canada, a project launched by the non-profit Clean Prosperity Foundation, said Canada has an opportunity to be a leader in the industry.

His organization estimates that building out and operating direct air capture facilities in Canada could create 89,000 permanent jobs by 2050.

"Canada is probably the best place in the world to do many types of carbon removal and many types of direct air capture,' he said, citing the geology, renewable power availability and experienced energy workers.

"We just need the policy environment to help kick start this industry so that we can start seeing carbon removal projects."

The federal government announced a tax credit that would give projects a refundable investment tax credit of up to 60 per cent direct air capture projects. (Steel said the program is crucial for the future Deep Sky).

Still, Merchant said that incentive pales in comparison to what is being offered in the United States, where a number of direct air capture projects are planned.

"If you're a direct air capture company building your first plant, you're probably going to build that plant in the United States unfortunately," he said.

Carbon Engineering, founded by Harvard professor David Keith in Calgary in 2009, was bought last year by U.S. oil company Occidental Petroleum.

It is helping build what would be the largest direct air capture facility in the world in Texas, slated to capture 500,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere a year by 2025. Carbon Engineering also still operates an innovation centre in Squamish, B.C.

Capturing emissions, but cutting them too

Experts debate whether direct air capture is the best approach to reducing the level of carbon in the atmosphere, given the high cost and amount of electricity required.

"It may not be the lowest hanging fruit at this point," said Naoko Ellis, a chemical engineering professor at the University of British Columbia.

A range of other possibilities are being explored, fromocean carbon removal, which Deep Sky also plans to test, to growing plants to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Filtering out carbon dioxide at an emissions source — such as a factory, power plant or oilsands facility — is also an emerging technology.

Pathways Alliance, which represents the six largest oilsands companies, is trying to secure approval for a $16.5 billion pipeline that would carry carbon sequestered from eight oil sands facilities.

Ellis said direct air capture could play a role in sectors such as aviation and the manufacturing of concrete, where emissions will be more difficult to reduce.

"We can't live without concrete," she said, as an example. "Those industries do need to decarbonize as well."

Holly Buck, assistant professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Buffalo in New York, said clear policies will be needed to prioritize those sectors when it comes to direct air capture.

"Without that, you can imagine you're wasting all of your carbon removal capacity on something like private jets," she said.

A small part of the solution

Even champions of direct air capture acknowledge it is only a small part of the solution. For context, last year, global energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide reached a new high of 37.4 billion tonnes.

Mammoth, if fully operational, would remove about 30 seconds worth of 2023's total emissions.

Nathan acknowledged that the technology is, at this point, far from having a significant impact.

"It obviously doesn't meet the need to remove gigatons of CO2," he said.

But, he stressed, Climeworks and other companies are making progress. There are plans for an even larger plant soon, following Mammoth and the previous plant, Orca.

"Mammoth isn't just celebrating that something is working and it's bigger," he said.

"It is also celebrating that it's 10 times bigger than the previous and then the next one being built is 10 times bigger."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Benjamin Shingler

Journalist

Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal, covering climate policy, health and social issues. He previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.

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