Carbon Capture A Costly Pipe Dream


Try saying this phrase out loud: "carbon capture and storage is the potential solution to coal-fired power internationally". An incredulous smirk might appear on your face, but saying the phrase is simple enough. It certainly did the trick for Martin Ferguson, who rattled off the line on Monday.

Talking up the promise of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is easy. Actually making it happen is a different story. Politicians and the fossil fuel industry have promised that CCS is on its way, but they can’t enjoy the benefit of the doubt forever. Proof is required to show that we’re talking about a concept that has real merit as a large-scale energy option and not just a cheap political excuse.

Greenpeace has released a new report called "Dead and Buried: the demise of carbon capture and storage". It shows how attempts to demonstrate commercial-scale CCS have been marred by failure. Community opposition, economic and technical difficulties and a lack of serious private investment have meant that every attempt to build a commercial-scale CCS power station has fallen over. As a realistic option for future power generation, CCS only exists as rhetoric.

CCS is a very expensive political excuse, paid for by taxpayers. Billions of dollars of public funds worldwide are currently tied up in programs designed to support CCS, when this money could be used to enable real, clean, renewable energy solutions that have already been available for years. Australia’s own $1.68 billion CCS Flagships program is one of the most absurd attempts to justify CCS.

A Victorian company called HRL has been trying to build a new power station that runs on gasified brown coal. HRL’s project, Dual Gas, has been dubbed "clean coal" because it would use technology that makes brown coal burn with the emissions of black coal.

Surprisingly, HRL also describes Dual Gas as a CCS project, which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. HRL just want to commercialise their gasification technology and aren’t really bothered with CCS. When they first applied to the Howard government for funding in 2006, their proposal didn’t include CCS.

After being prompted by the government to include CCS in their plans, HRL re-submitted their application and made a "plausible argument" for capturing CO2. They subsequently won a $100 million grant.

Three years later, HRL applied to the EPA for works approval. But all their CCS plans amounted to was a claim that the plant would be "capture ready" and space would be set aside on the site of the power station to accommodate CCS, should it ever materialise.

A pre-feasibility study into pre-combustion carbon capture was done last year, but it wasn’t the result of HRL’s effort. The $3.5 million study, referred to in HRL’s works approval application, was in fact paid for by the taxpayer.

Perhaps the clearest indication that HRL aren’t bothered about CCS is the fact they have indicated a desire to get out of the project after one maintenance cycle (which would be about four years after it is built).

Despite this distinct lack of enthusiasm for carbon capture and storage on HRL’s part, Dual Gas is now a part of CarbonNet, a Victorian Government effort that has been included in the Federal CCS Flagships program.

CarbonNet intends to create pipeline infrastructure that can transport up to a million tonnes of CO2 per year. Its first challenge is to actually be relevant. That means having new sources of CO2 to take and transport. The three million tonnes of carbon pollution HRL’s project would generate makes it a perfect match for CarbonNet.

In fact, Dual Gas has been dubbed "the most promising emissions source for the CarbonNet project", even though another document acknowledges "the carbon capture component of the project is not a high priority at this stage".

At the time, it probably made sense to reinforce the purpose and value of two speculative projects by attaching one to the other. But after Dual Gas made a statement on 16 April that work on the power station project was to be frozen, attaching Dual Gas to CarbonNet might prove as strategic as a struggling swimmer tying themselves to a passing submarine.

Let’s hope it happens. Between HRL’s Dual Gas and the Victorian Government’s CarbonNet, over a quarter of a billion dollars in taxpayers’ money is set to be sunk into project that will deliver little more than a dirty, expensive and unnecessary power station, and a great big pipe stretching right across Gippsland.

Climate change is far too urgent for this. We don’t have the time or money to fritter about with the coal industry’s pipe dream. Calling CCS dead and buried could be just what we need to redouble our focus and efforts on real, renewable energy solutions to climate change, and stop hoodwinking our coal communities into believing that coal can ever be clean.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.