Everywhere we look, there’s less than meets the eye. Again, look at what the government is doing, not what it’s saying—or, if you do look at what the government’s saying, consider the doublespeak that’s going on. Unfortunately, this sea dumping legislation, with its gimmicky and misleading subtitle, ‘Using new technologies to fight climate change’, is a case in point. The aspirations for carbon capture and storage are hardly new, but they’re yet to be realised—if they ever will be. Yet they’re central to this legislation. Billions have been spent on CCS around the world, including around $4 billion here in Australia, to little end. And while the resources minister champions CCS, other ministers are apparently agnostic—in which case, why are we committing to this very uncertain path, if they don’t believe in it? Consider the following findings from June this year regarding research into two Norwegian gas projects that store CO2 under the seabed, held up by advocates as signs of success amid a sea of other failure.
Now a new report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis calls that into doubt, stating that due to the unpredictability of the subsurface conditions the pair cannot be used as definitive models for the future of CCS and that the IEFC’s literature review of technical studies and academic papers from the 1990s to the 2020s demonstrates that, even with the most advanced data, science and monitoring, subsurface unknowns can arise at any point. The report goes on: The findings raise onerous implications for the scores of CCS projects planned globally, with field operators and the governments that regulate them needing to expect the unexpected, make detailed contingency plans, and ensure funding is at the ready to address materialized risks. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement, and it’s worthy of close scrutiny.
At last year’s election neither of the major parties really wanted to move on climate change. It was community pressure that made it happen. Labor, to their credit, then did advocate for a reduction of 43 per cent in our greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. But that is still less than eminent experts state is needed if we’re to have a hope of getting to net zero by mid-century. The climate change minister himself admits that it will be a challenge to meet even the modest target that his government has set. As for the coalition, of course they were even less ambitious. Yet still we’re giving with one hand and taking with the other, cancelling out the beginnings of good policy with bad as we seek to store CO2 under the seabed to enable new projects. Forget about net zero; this makes zero sense. With respect to the minister’s comments, to be clear: using CCS, if it works, might be okay if it removes CO2 from the atmosphere, bringing about an overall reduction. Using it to offset more CO2 production? Not okay. In other words, as my colleague from North Sydney remarked, while CCS is one of a suite of options available for reducing CO2 emissions, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors, it is not a substitute for decarbonisation. In the months before the last election, communities around the country got together to activate campaigns which led to the election of the largest crossbench in the recent history of this House, with more-effective and more-rapid action on climate change central to that result. Yet even with that outcome, even as Europe and Canada burn, we continue to try to have our cake and eat it. This approach will not fix the problem, and this is just one of a growing list of problematic legislation.
There are already real questions, for example, about the effectiveness and accountability of the government’s safeguard mechanism. Will it really require the nation’s 200 or so biggest polluters to change their carbon-heavy habits? Or will it enable them to use suspect carbon credits to try to account their way to zero? The challenge of climate change is not an accounting exercise. It does not allow us to change our behaviour at the margins to balance some imaginary book. It requires fundamental and rapid changes in the way we act as individuals, as families, as communities, as companies, as governments, as leaders. The same goes for the nature repair market legislation, which runs the risk of becoming a market for offsets rather than a nature-building scheme.
We’ve now discovered that the government’s plans for the petroleum resource rent tax were not Treasury’s preferred approach but the option that the gas and oil producers were prepared to cop. The government should be more ambitious and seek a bigger yield than a paltry $2.4 billion over four years from multinational gas companies making superprofits from Australian resources. The Treasurer says we need gas to assist in that transition. Okay. What we don’t need is more gas, new gas. It’s barely a month since the International Energy Agency declared that we must stop the exploitation and development of new oil and gas resources if we’re to have even a hope of achieving net zero by 2050. At the end of the hottest July on record, the UN Secretary-General declared we’re beyond global warming and now in the era of global boiling. The communities of south-eastern Australia discovered that in the black summer of 2019 and 2020. The people of the northern hemisphere are suffering it right now. At the heart of the reason for this legislation is the Santos Barossa development, which yields gas with a very high—18 per cent—CO2 content. To make this giant project more environmentally palatable, Santos is proposing to export its CO2 via a proposed carbon capture and storage facility at Middle Arm in Darwin to the depleted BayuUndan gas field off Timor-Leste. In September 2021, Santos announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding to progress CCS opportunities at the Bayu-Undan site, involving repurposing of the existing facilities for CCS, with carbon dioxide streams to be captured at other gas fields in Australia’s offshore areas, such as the Barossa field, and imported from other countries for injection into the Bayu-Undan field for permanent storage. Santos managing director and CEO Kevin Gallagher has said: CCS at Bayu-Undan has potential capacity to safely and permanently store approximately 10 million tonnes per annum of CO2 and could build a new job-creating and revenue-generating industry for Timor-Leste.
I will come to the ethics of that in a moment. First, let’s look at what we already know about the real-world record of CCS in Australia. The Gorgon gas development in WA was supposed to be our poster child for CCS, approved on condition that the company capture 80 per cent of emissions, around four million tonnes of CO2 a year, and with $60 million of our money to help the scheme. So what’s the record? Gorgon injected 1.6 million tonnes into the ground beneath Barrow Island last financial year, down from 2.2 million in 2020-21 and 2.7 million tonnes the year before. It’s going backwards. Not only that, and not surprisingly, emissions from Gorgon climbed to 8.3 million tonnes last financial year, up from 5.5 million the year before. As IEEFA notes: Chevron in Australia has been trying unsuccessfully since 2019 to get its massive 3.5mtpa-4mtpa Gorgon CCS project to meet promised targets of 80% CO2 capture for storage, instead venting higher rates of CO2 to the atmosphere than intended. … … … In the regulatory realm, the need to assure CO2 stays in the ground permanently means CCS projects create potentially indefinite contingent liabilities. … … … “With the unknowns of long-term subsurface CO2 storage, regulators could inadvertently allow material risks to be transferred to the taxpayer,” Hauber says. Despite these risks, not to mention the potential risks to the ocean itself from experimentation with things like ocean floor fertilisation to absorb more CO2, we’re now being asked to support this legislation.
The 2013 London protocol amendment allowing this kind of experimentation was proposed by Australia and cosponsored by Nigeria and the Republic of Korea on the premise that ocean fertilisation should occur only for legitimate scientific research purposes, and should otherwise be prohibited. The then minister for the environment, now the Leader of the House in this parliament, Tony Burke, said at the time: The potential impacts of ocean fertilisation could be severe and may include ocean acidification, harmful algal blooms, oxygen depletion in deep waters, or other unwanted ecosystem changes and human health consequences. These approaches need to be considered with great care. There’s also a sleight of hand with this legislation. Not only is it designed to enable domestic projects but the indications are that the legislation is a response, in part, to pressure from Japan and South Korea, whose geology is not stable enough to allow subterranean climate capture and storage even if the technology ever works. Back to the ethics: what of the plans to enable the export of CO2 from the Santos Barossa gas field in the waters off the Northern Territory to Timor-Leste’s depleted Bayu-Undan gas field? Part of the argument is that the revenue would help revive Dili’s struggling budget. We should have thought about that before bugging Timor-Leste’s cabinet room to gain an unfair financial advantage in negotiations over gas resources in the Timor Sea all those years ago.
Now it appears we are incentivising Timor-Leste to accept our pollution and the risks that go with it in exchange for the prospect of a few pieces of silver. More than that, advice from the Parliamentary Library suggests that, even if this bill did not pass, Australia could still import carbon dioxide for sub-seabed sequestration under existing legislation, specifically the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The implication therefore is that this is more about exporting than about importing, that we want to ‘dump’, in the words of the bill, CO2 beneath the waters of a poorer, close neighbour as insurance against the possibility that we cannot find ways to sequester our own emissions within our own borders.
There is also the question of whether this legislative proposal is being used as insurance against the possibility that resources companies will need an escape route should CCS continue to fail to achieve what its promoters insist it will. One thing the revised safeguard mechanism would do is make it expensive for these big polluters if they cannot get CCS to work; in other words, as we’re doing already, exporting our carbon emissions rather than taking responsibility for them right here at home. Look at what’s being done, not what is being said.