The role of the federal opposition leader – you might think – is to oppose the most reckless and destructive policies proposed by the government of the day. But not in the case of Australian Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese. In the face of the Morrison government’s do-nothing climate policy, Albanese has shamefully caved in. Speaking to the National Press Club in late June, Albanese congratulated prime minister Scott Morrison for the “technology road map” released by his government in May, saying, “we have an opportunity to move beyond past partisan approaches to energy policy, to draw on the community’s clear desire for more bipartisan approaches to difficult policy areas, and to finally deliver an enduring, effective and bipartisan energy policy for Australia”.
“Bipartisan”, in the case of climate policy, has become a euphemism for adopting the Liberals’ obstructionist and pro-fossil fuel positions. While he stopped short of supporting domestic nuclear power facilities and rejected the government’s failed emissions reduction fund, Albanese endorsed a number of the government’s other key energy policies, including pledging to honour any energy contracts signed by the Morrison government. He also backed the Liberal-National Coalition’s plans to sink government funds into carbon capture and storage (CCS) infrastructure, the antithesis of climate friendly policy.
CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide as it is released from energy plants by absorbing it into an amine chemical solution. It is then compressed, transported through large piping systems and injected deep underground. Proponents of the technology talk it up as taking the harmful emissions out of fossil fuel-generated electricity production. In reality, it is a process with hazardous environmental consequences – and which evidence suggests can actually increase emissions – and an excuse for governments to promote and further subsidise coal companies.
“For a gas-fired power station”, writes chemical engineering expert Tom Baxter for The Conversation, “you typically have to burn 16 percent more gas to provide the capture power. Not only this, you end up with a 16 percent increase in emissions of other serious air pollutants like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter”.
A 2015 report from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency raised health concerns regarding the amine solvent used in the initial stage of carbon capture, concluding that some of the chemicals are potential carcinogens and that insufficient research has been done to deem the projects safe for humans and the environment. There are also uncertainties about how likely it is that the stored carbon dioxide will actually remain in the ground; most projects have to factor in expected leakage.
Research by Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, finds that CCS technologies can cause more harm than good. Jacobson examined data from two coal-fired power plants with carbon capture mechanisms powered by natural gas. He compared the quantity of carbon dioxide reduced against the total costs of running the CCS infrastructure, calculating their total emissions at each stage of the capture and transportation processes.
The standard estimate of CCS efficiency is 85-90 percent, whereas Jacobson found only 10-11 percent efficiency averaged over 20 years. He also considered the social costs of CCS, including health problems, economic costs, air pollution and overall contribution to climate change, finding that even when powered by renewables, the consequences always outweighed the reduction in emissions. Only completely replacing the coal-fired energy plants with renewable energy sources produces a tangible environmental and social benefit.
“Even if you have 100 percent capture from the capture equipment”, said Jacobson in a statement, “it is still worse, from a social cost perspective, than replacing a coal or gas plant with a wind farm because carbon capture never reduces air pollution and always has a capture equipment cost. Wind replacing fossil fuels always reduces air pollution and never has a capture equipment cost”.
CCS projects are not actually about substantially reducing harmful emissions. They are multi-billion dollar exercises in greenwashing. Coal companies can slap them on to future projects and tick the sustainability box, while continuing to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere.
Take the case of Chevron’s Gorgon Liquid Natural Gas site in Western Australia, which began exporting LNG in 2016. As a condition of the project’s approval, Chevron was obliged to capture and store at least 80 percent of carbon dioxide emissions over its first five years of operation. It was granted a $60 million contribution from the federal government to build the CCS infrastructure, which was completed only in 2019, three years after the project began operating. Eight million tonnes of carbon dioxide were pumped into the atmosphere in the meantime. Arrangements like this direct funding away from renewable energy infrastructure while allowing fossil fuel corporations to continue profiting from destruction. They are not another tool in the green energy box, but a significant hurdle to meaningful climate justice. Albanese’s support for federal funding to CCS is a nod to the mining bosses that a future Labor government will be on board with the continued expansion of coal and gas.
This is the latest in a series of retreats by the ALP on climate policy. The party has all but confirmed it will scrap its target of 45 percent emissions reduction by 2030. Meanwhile, thousands are still suffering the consequences of the catastrophic bushfire season, record temperatures continue to be experienced, and a plague of climate-induced locusts is swarming one of the poorest regions of the world. Now is the time to be rapidly transitioning away from the fossil fuel industry, not funding its expansion.