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The Keephills 3 power plant near Edmonton, site of the cancelled Project Pioneer

The three major companies involved in a project aimed at reducing Alberta's carbon footprint have dropped out, striking a major blow to the province's efforts to combat fierce international criticism over oil sands emissions.

TransAlta Corp. , along with partners Enbridge Inc. and Capital Power Corp. , cancelled their $1.4-billion carbon capture and storage effort Thursday, opting to pay the penalties for emissions rather than cutting them.

The project, dubbed Pioneer and tied to TransAlta's Keephills 3 coal-fired power plant, would have accounted for about 20 per cent of Alberta's total carbon dioxide emissions reduction target by 2015.

Pioneer's failure highlights the ineffectiveness of carbon pricing in Alberta, as well as problems with regulations tied to power plants. It also comes as a hit to the province's public relations campaign, which leans heavily on its $2-billion CCS technology fund and provincial carbon tax as evidence it is committed to cleaning up the environment.

Even though TransAlta's project was backed by $778.8-million in provincial and federal funding, the company said it could not justify spending the millions of dollars necessary, arguing that Canada's weak regulations for carbon pricing made it unattractive.

"What's really needed, of course, is a regulatory framework on CO2 that puts a value on that CO2," said Don Wharton, vice-president of policy and sustainability at TransAlta. "A significant value."

Alberta charges certain industrial emitters $15 a tonne of carbon that they spew out over a certain level, but this penalty is not stiff enough to make Pioneer work. But a flat tax is not the only way companies can value carbon.

The project may have been worth it if, for example, governments allowed TransAlta to extend the life of other power facilities in exchange for reducing carbon emissions from the Keephills 3 plant, Mr. Wharton said.

"All of the industry, or at least in the power sector, have been encouraging government to clarify the regulatory framework and put a price on carbon," he said. "If that's done properly, then CCS projects, as well as other emissions-reducing projects, would be more encouraged to go ahead."

Diana McQueen, Alberta's Environment and Water Minister, said the government will examine why Pioneer failed, including the role carbon pricing had in TransAlta's decision to shelve it.

"We're certainly reviewing all of those now," she said. "We will work very hard and we are determined to meet our [carbon emissions]targets. We will have to review all of those things, areas that we need to do, in order to reach our targets."

The Pioneer project, located about 70 kilometres west of Edmonton, was awarded government funding in October, 2009. It secured $342.8-million from the federal government, through its $1-billion Clean Energy Fund and its $27-million ecoENERGY Technology Initiative. Alberta committed $436-million from its CCS technology fund. It also had a $5-million (Australian) pledge from Australia's Global CCS Institute, a not-for-profit organization.

TransAlta and its partners had spent about $30-million (Canadian) on Pioneer, with $20-million of that coming from governments, Mr. Wharton said.

TransAlta planned to sell the captured carbon to oil and gas companies operating in the Pembina oil field, so the producers could use it for so-called enhanced oil recovery. The energy companies would inject the CO2 into the wells, in order to force more hydrocarbons from the ground. The CO2 would then remain trapped below the surface. But there were not enough buyers, further damaging the project's economics, Mr. Wharton said.

Three other projects in Alberta have received government funding for CCS projects: Royal Dutch Shell PLC's Quest effort; North West Upgrading Inc. and Enhance Energy Inc.'s carbon pipeline and enhanced oil recovery operations; and Swan Hills Synfuels' in-situ coal gasification project. A Shell spokesperson said the energy giant will make its final investment decision on Quest later this year; North West and Enhance expect to proceed, according to Ian MacGregor;, who is involved with both North West and Enhance; and a Swan Hills executive said his company is committed to its CCS project and will make a final investment decision later next year.

Follow Carrie Tait on Twitter: @CarrieTaitOpens in a new window

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