Saskatchewan town turns carbon trap into cash

WEYBURN, SASKATCHEWAN - Carbon dioxide has breathed new life into this small southern Saskatchewan city.

The odourless, tasteless gas and major global warming ingredient is pumped in from a coal gasification plant in North Dakota to help push untapped oil reserves to the surface and extend the life of an old oil field by 25 years.

Thousands of nodding oil pump jacks dot the landscape well into the Saskatchewan horizon, many of them assisted by the cast-off gas.

"It has put Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Canada not just on the provincial or national map – it has put us on the international map," says Mayor Debra Button, who is tickled pink to be leading this boomtown of 10,000 people.

And the best part, the experts say, is that the water soluble gas doesn't appear to escape from its earthly prison, presenting opportunities to capture the pollutant in the ground.

Besides new life for an old field, the use of CO2 makes the Weyburn site, operated by EnCana Corp., the largest greenhouse gas sequestration project in the world.

As Button points out, the experimental procedure has captured the attention of world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, as they wrestle with ways to fight global warming.

"I would say modestly we are the leaders internationally in carbon capture and sequestration because of Weyburn," Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall told the Star.

According to reports, the so-called CO2 flood, along with other measures, has resulted in a 65 per cent increase in oil production, and is expected to produce at least 130 million barrels of incremental oil by extending the life of the oil field by more than two decades.

It all means that Weyburn, which calls itself the Opportunity City, is booming. Homes are pushing out into the prairies and brand new pickup trucks are a common sight.

"We are blessed," said Button, trying to put the whole thing in perspective.

"In 2004, the city sold and developed seven residential lots and in 2008 we sold and developed 76. That's a 985 per cent increase. Just that alone gives you an indication of the growth," she said, adding the Weyburn boom is often compared to Alberta's Fort McMurray.

Weyburn is the gateway to the Bakken oil field, a massive oil reserve stretching across North Dakota, Montana and southeastern Saskatchewan, which dwarfs the Leduc oil discovery in Alberta in 1947, considered a seminal moment in Canada's oil wealth.

When Norman Wells, 81, a retired City of Calgary employee, and his wife Bev Hunt were looking around for a place to settle down, Weyburn was an unexpected surprise.

"They are building like crazy," said Wells as he looked out over his burgeoning neighbourhood.

"There are lot of oil jobs and there is lots of money."

Hunt can attest to that. She works at York Jewellers Ltd. in downtown Weyburn, where business keeps the seven employees hopping.

"You can tell the economy is thriving here by what people are buying. You can't believe the amount of jewellery that we move," Hunt said.

Weyburn is the oft-used example of the Saskatchewan boom, with people coming here from across the country.

"You can make less money and work here," said Rex Williams, 51, a house painter who lived in Alberta for 15 years before deciding he wanted life in the slow lane.

"Things move slowly around here. That's why I like it. There is absolutely no pressure here."


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