Howard, Labor push 'clean coal' pipe-dream

Friday, April 20, 2007

Those hoping for a more serious approach to tackling global warming from the federal ALP than the do-as-little-as-politically-possible tack of John Howard's Coalition government should revise down their expectations. On February 25, Labor leader Kevin Rudd unveiled the centrepiece of his party's "climate action plan" — $500 million in funding for "clean coal" technologies research.

Rudd's announcement essentially pledges Labor's support for Australia's coal-mining corporations, led by BHP Billiton, Australia's most profitable company. The Labor plan also includes $25 million to the CSIRO to bolster its research and development into clean coal.

Labor's climate-change policy includes ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, setting up a national emissions trading scheme and reducing Australia's greenhouse emissions by 60% by 2050.

However, the policy contains only a vague promise to "substantially" increase the use of renewable energy. Achieving the goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions at their source is thereby left mostly to investing in the development of "clean coal" technologies.

'Clean coal' fund

Labor's proposed $500 million National Clean Coal Fund (NCCF) is in addition to the almost $300 million so far granted to "clean coal" technology development through the Howard government's $500 million Low Emission Technology Demonstration Fund. The ALP has criticised the LETDF for being open to all low-emission technologies, including renewable energy, rather than only for being for "clean coal".

The big coal corporations have so far pledged only a fraction of the Howard government's commitments to "clean coal" research.

The ultimate goal of both the Howard government's investment in, and Labor's promised spending on, "clean-coal" technologies is to see if low-emissions "clean coal" can be commercially deployed by 2020 and for near-zero emissions "clean-coal" technologies to become economically viable by 2030.

The problem is that cost-effective "clean coal" technology does not yet exist and is completely unproven. Even in the ALP's policy document, "New Directions for Australia's Coal Industry", the aim of which is to boost public confidence in these technologies, the scale of the technical and financial problems associated with them are patently obvious.

The term "clean coal" encompasses a range of different technologies, but they essentially come down to two proposed processes — the "capture" of carbon dioxide released from burning coal before it is released into the atmosphere and then the "storage" of this CO2, usually in liquid form in large underground cavities, such as drained oil or natural gas fields. This is known as "carbon geo-sequestration".

Both processes are far from being commercially viable. Of the three main methods of CO2 capture, only one is capable of capturing almost 100% of emissions.

However, this technology requires the construction of completely new coal-fired power stations, a task that no corporation would undertake voluntarily. This is why the goal of installing "near-zero" emissions technology is put back to 2030 — to allow all or most of the existing power stations to reach the end of their operational lives, thus protecting for another 23 years the profits of their corporate owners.

Other methods of CO2 capture that are being researched have been equally unsatisfactory. The February 14 Canberra Times reported that a new method of CO2 capture being researched by the government-funded Cooperative Research Centre for Coal in Sustainable Development, the aqua ammonia process, was judged to be "seriously limited by problems" and "is unlikely to be favoured commercially".

A research scientist with the CSIRO, who participated in authoring a scientific report on the method, admitted that the government's corporate partners were able to suppress the findings, believing that public disclosure was not in their commercial interests.

Storage problems

The problems with the capturing of CO2 pale in comparison to those of storing the emissions.

While it is technically feasible to transport the liquified CO2 through pipelines over long distances to storage sites, this adds immense cost to the process. The March 17 Australian cited a University of California study that showed that the cost of these pipelines would be about US$1 million per kilometre.

The Howard government has committed $60 million from the LETDF for a geo-sequestration site using an oil field on Barrow Island in Western Australia, the country's largest operating on-shore oil field. It projects that the site would be able to store 3.2 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

However, the March 17 Australian reported that a typical 1000-megawatt coal-fired power station produces 5-6 million tonnes of CO2 per year, and that annual emissions from burning coal in Australia are 150-180 million tonnes per year (one-third of Australia's total emissions).

Then there is the uncertain future of those storage sites that need a comprehensive (and no doubt exorbitantly expensive) monitoring system to provide alerts for potential leaks. Many storage sites will be vulnerable to leaks through earthquakes.

The March 14 Scientific American noted that there are other uncertainties associated with geo-sequestration, such as the permeability to gases of certain rocks, which could lead to leaks.

There is also the problem of chemical reactions such as the creation of carbonic acid via the combination of CO2 with saline. Carbonic acid can eat through rock, thus creating fissures for CO2 to escape into the atmosphere.

Any major leakages of the CO2 from storage sites could cause a serious threat to the health of on-site workers or nearby residents, as well as releasing large amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

The huge technical problems associated with "clean coal" have sparked concerns from some unlikely quarters. The March 24 Sydney Morning Herald quoted Paul Anderson, former CEO of BHP Billiton, saying of "clean-coal" technologies: "I think it's as big as the issue of nuclear waste. What are you going to do with the millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide that is not nearly as compact as nuclear waste?"

On March 13, the Howard government announced another "clean-coal" initiative. It committed $100 million worth of funding through the LETDF to a new $750 million, 400-megawatt power station being built by Australian energy company HRL at Loy Yang, in Victoria's Latrobe Valley.

The new station will use "cleaner" brown coal than that used in the existing Loy Yang power station, by drying out the brown coal before it is burned. This is projected to result in a 30% reduction in CO2 emissions, but even if successful the new station will still be dirtier than a station that burns black coal!

"This project", Victorian Labor energy minister Peter Batchelor told journalists, "will put the Latrobe Valley and Victoria at the forefront of clean coal technology, not only here in Victoria but indeed around the world".

Labor's motives

So why is Labor putting forward a carbon-copy of the Coalition's dirty plans?

Underlying both the Labor and Coalition approach to tackling climate change is the same slavish loyalty to Australia's biggest export industry. In an interview on ABC TV's March 15 Lateline program, Labor shadow environment minister Peter Garrett pointed to the contribution that coal exports make to the "national economy" as a key factor in his party's climate-change policy.

The ALP's policy paper notes that the coal industry has "benefited enormously from the global resources boom", mainly due to China's economic growth, even though China only buys about 4% of the coal Australia exports for power station purposes (mot of these exports go to Japan).

And while Garrett proclaimed on January 20 to the Newcastle Herald that the "automatic expansion of the coal industry such as we've seen in the Hunter region over the past decade is a thing of the past", he conceded in his Lateline interview that a federal Labor government would allow the coal industry to expand, regardless of the viability of "clean-coal" technologies.

Garrett also conceded that countries importing Australian coal would not be required to use "clean-coal" technology, thus admitting that Labor, like the Coalition, will give the coal corporations the green light to continue polluting, and profiting, just as they have in the past.

Labor is also fearful of a re-run of Mark Latham's doomed Tasmanian forests policy, which, in attempting to win the green vote by pledging to protect that state's old-growth forests, resulted in the loss of Labor seats because of logging industry and Coalition hysteria about job losses.

The coal corporations have the same power to incite hysteria about job losses in the "coal communities" in NSW and Queensland — despite the fact that it is those same companies that support further job cuts through further mechanisation in the industry.

The Greens, who call for a phasing out of the coal industry, say that a "just transition" from a fossil-fuel economy could result in more jobs being generated from switching to renewable energy sources, environmental regeneration and tourism. The Climate Institute notes that a solar industry that received strong support from the Australian government could create 31,000 jobs and $2 billion in exports by 2020.

While the two major parties fritter away precious time on fanciful "clean-coal" plans, renewable energy technologies continue to advance but have been unable to take off in Australia due to lack of government support. Australia's natural environment offers numerous possibilities for renewable energy, from "hot dry rock" geothermal energy to solar and wind.

The majority of Australians also favour moving away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. An Australian Research Group poll in February found that 91% of respondents favoured increasing the use of solar power, 88% supported increasing investment in renewable energy industries and 70% supported reducing the use of coal for electricity generation.