UPDATED: Questions over ‘spin’ of SaskPower’s early carbon capture failures

REGINA – Saskatchewan’s Opposition NDP is accusing SaskPower and the Sask. Party government of not being up-front about problems at the $1.5-billion Boundary Dam carbon capture and storage facility.

It follows news earlier this week that the megaproject near Estevan may cost taxpayers $27 million in contractual penalties and revenue shortfalls by the end of 2015 because it’s operating at less than half speed.

NDP leader Cam Broten and SaskPower critic Cathy Sproule used Wednesday’s question period to ask the government about internal briefing memos suggesting the year-old carbon capture project is only financially sound if carbon dioxide (CO2) sales are successful.

“What we saw today is a joke,” Broten said. “It’s offensive to the people of the province who deserve accountability … this government is not being clear about what is going on.”

SaskPower has admitted it will likely only sell half of the 800,000 tonnes of CO2 expected in 2015 because of efficiency problems. After ministerial notes were made public earlier this week, CEO Mike Marsh conceded the Crown paid a $12-million penalty to an Alberta-based oil company because it couldn’t meet targets.

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Mixed messages

In a February 11, 2015, news release, SaskPower said the plant was “on target” to meet its goal of capturing one million tonnes of CO2 in 2015.

But a memo prepared just six days later for Bill Boyd, the minister responsible for SaskPower, said the facility had only “been operating at approximately 45 per cent capacity” since its launch on October 2, 2014.

The NDP also pointed to tweets by Premier Brad Wall, saying the carbon capture facility was “fully operational and making history” on October 1, 2014, and a SaskPower tweet calling the unit ten times cleaner than any other coal power on the planet, which the Opposition says wouldn’t be possible at less than 50 per cent efficiency.

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Wall was also quoted by reporters on August 26, 2015, saying Boundary Dam is “capturing 90 per cent of the CO2.”

The premier didn’t dispute the different messages when asked Wednesday.

“At the time of the press release, when we wanted to make the announcement, the facility was at optimal efficiency.”

Wall did say the unit needs to improve. “We’ve got to get to the point where it’s running all the time … We’re going to get there.”

When presented with several internal documents suggesting the carbon capture facility wasn’t meeting performance targets, Marsh admitted Monday the plant was running at less than half its projected capacity.

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Adrian Raaber / Global News

SaskPower’s president of Carbon Capture and Storage Initiatives, Mike Monea, questions the numbers being reported – saying the technology works.

“When a chemical plant starts up, it doesn’t run all the time,” Monea said.

He clarified to explain that when the plant is up and running, it’s working efficiently, capturing CO2 at a rate of 90 per cent, but because of mechanical issues, it’s only turned on 40 per cent of the time.

Why wouldn’t SaskPower explain that to the public? Monea said “there’s always perfection in hindsight.”

“It does a disservice to what this great province and SaskPower have done to build this world-first plant.”

Both Boyd and Marsh initially said the Crown had been transparent about the revenue shortfall in 2014, citing SaskPower’s 2014 annual report.

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When asked about it appearing in only one sentence of the 144-page document, Boyd admitted there could have been more disclosure.

The plant is currently down for repairs, with improved performance expected sometime in November.

SaskPower says the project is now on target to be fully operational by the end of 2016.

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