Australia Pursues Greenhouse Gas Burial as Climate Solution

By Bob Burton

CANBERRA, Australia, March 1, 2004 (ENS) - David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Climate Center in New York, has appeared over the past 10 days at a series of conferences in Australia urging industry, government and dismissive environmentalists to support research into pumping greenhouse gases underground to combat global warming.

Hawkins hopes that supporting development of the as yet unproven technology of geo-sequestration - also referred to as carbon sequestration, or carbon capture and storage (CCS) - will persuade the fossil fuel lobby to drop its opposition to mandatory climate change mitigation strategies.

“What we are exploring is whether political power that is represented by the fossil energy industry can actually be used to move the process forward rather than have them in their traditional role of opposing action,” Hawkins said.

Both the U.S. and Australian governments have refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, largely as a result of a vigorous lobbying campaign by the fossil fuel industry which claims that the economic costs are too high.

Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown thinks Hawkins' political strategy, let alone his optimism about the technology, is misguided. “It just seems politically bizarre to say that you have to get into bed with the big fossil fuel lobby, that we have to help them out rather than throwing our weight behind the emerging industries in renewable energy,” the senator said.

CCS is particularly attractive to the coal industry as it involves the conversion of coal into a gas - carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide emitted by burning coal is captured and either converted into useful products or injected into underground reservoirs.

What makes the CCS attractive to the coal industry - the prospect of maintaining a major role for coal as a source for power generation over the next century - is also why environmentalists oppose pursuing it.


Electricity is generated by burning coal at Bayswater Power Station, New South Wales, Australia (Photo courtesy Australian Coal Association)
Australia is the world's largest coal exporter, and black coal is Australia's largest commodity export, worth A$13.5 billion in 2001-2002, according to the Australian Coal Association. Black coal provides more than 50 percent of Australia's electricity and is vital for major industries such as steel making and cement manufacturing.

Even if the sequestration technology proves technically viable, most agree the economic costs, especially in retrofitting existing plants, would be massive.

While Australian environmentalists oppose investing public research funds in an unproven technology, Hawkins worries that governments are not investing enough in researching it to have an impact on stabilizing global greenhouse gas concentrations.

“The problem we see with the pursuit of CCS is it is going to require a very major effort to deliver this in a timely fashion. If it is going to happen it will happen because government is serious and the private sector believes that the government is serious,” he said.

While Hawkins argues that CCS should be just one strand of a greenhouse strategy - along with energy efficiency measures and the promotion of renewables - it is not a message to which the Australian government is receptive.

Since the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard came to power in 1996, it has cut major energy research initiatives into renewable technologies and energy efficiency. In 1997 the Energy Research and Development Corporation was abolished, while in 2002 an application to renew funding for the Australian Centre for Renewable Energy was rejected.


Australian Premier John Howard (Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)
Funding for the Australian Greenhouse Office, once the government’s flagship program, has recently been wound back, and the agency has been directed to abandon work on carbon trading initiatives. A month ago, a review of mandatory renewable energy targets balked at increasing the goal beyond the current two percent of energy to be generated from renewables by 2020.

While government policy and funding support for renewable energy and energy efficiency has been scaled back, the fossil fuel industry preferred option - CCS - has been embraced with enthusiasm.

Last the Australian government established the Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies with a total budget of US$93 million over seven years, with more likely to be committed for demonstration plants. With a staff of 60 researchers it dwarfs renewable energy research.

A background document for the center states what it sees as the benefits of developing sequestration technology. “Sustainable ‘transitional technology’ has a major potential role to play in enabling us to move cost effectively to new energy sources, while in the medium term ensuring that we continue to benefit from the wise use of our very large coal and gas resources,” it states.

The center - known as CO2CRC - sells itself to industry as strategy for minimizing financial and legal risks. “CO2CRC research will decrease exposure of major energy producing or intensive projects to financial risk from, for example, the future application of a carbon trading regime, or customer resistance to major CO2 emitters, or liability for the perceived consequences of climate change,” the center states in its background document.

It is a message that resonates with sections of the business community. The center has attracted as participants some of the world's largest fossil fuel companies including BP, Rio Tinto, ChevronTexaco, Shell, BHP-Billiton and Woodside Petroleum.

Nor does Rio Tinto find it hard getting a hearing with Prime Minister John Howard. In May 1999 Howard appointed Dr. Robin Batterham to the position of chief scientist, to work two days a week advising him on issues, including energy policy. The other three days a week Batterham works as managing director of research and technological development for Rio Tinto.

First, CCS requires a stream of concentrated CO2 which would be transported by pipeline, compressed into a dense supercritical state, and injected into a suitable geological formation, where it can remain for long periods of time, perhaps for many thousands of years, if not for geological time, the CO2CRC states in its Research Plan.

The potential CO2 capacity of geological storage is enormous. Evaluation of 100 sites in Australia indicates a technical potential to sequester all of Australia’s CO2 emissions at current rates in geological formations for at least the next 1,600 years, according to the CO2CRC Research Plan.

There may be valuable byproducts, such as enhanced oil recovery or enhanced coal bed methane production, the CO2CRC plan states, saying is also feasible to store the CO2 in locations "where it can be accessed in the future for use in industrial processes or even horticulture."

Hawkins acknowledges the risk that both the U.S. and Australian governments will enthusiastically back carbon sequestration but only support token measures when it comes to energy efficiency and renewable energy measures that threaten to erode the market of the fossil fuel lobby.

“Our willingness to consider this is conditional on aggressive support for efficiency, renewables and binding measures to control global warming,” he said.

Brown argues that the recent track record of the Australian government should be enough to dissuade NRDC from continuing to support the project. “I don’t accept the argument that the coal industry needs to be taken along with us," he said. "They will end up putting huge amounts of money into researching sequestration and a pilot plant but nothing like it into the renewables side."