'Clean coal' is smoke and mirrors

February 9, 2007

Australian coal-mining companies and Prime Minister John Howard are promoting "clean coal" as a technology that will enable the coal industry to continue its exports while supposedly cleaning up the greenhouse-gas emissions from the burning of this coal.

According to the Australian Coal Association (ACA), clean-coal technologies "reduce emissions, reduce waste, and increase the amount of energy gained from each tonne of coal". These measures focus on capturing and storing the carbon dioxide gas emitted from burning coal to power electricity generation.

The main carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology being promoted by the Howard government is "carbon geosequestration" — the pumping of huge amounts of liquified CO2 into deep underground cavities and keeping it there for thousands of years.

In September 2004, ABC TV's Catalyst science program pointed out that do this with all of the CO2 emitted in just one day from Australia's 24 coal-fired power stations would require pumping into underground cavities the equivalent of a one-square kilometre lake of 200-litre drums of liquified CO2 — every day!

This technology is being researched with optimists predicting it will be available in "demonstration" form in 10 years. But as Catalyst reporter Mark Horstman observed: "To make geosequestration work is an engineering feat on a scale bigger than anything we've ever tried in Australia. It begs the question — wouldn't the effort be better spent on energy technologies that don't create carbon dioxide in the first place?"

Howard told ABC radio's January 16 AM program that in discussions with Chinese government representatives, he said "we would continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels, but increasingly because of greenhouse-gas concerns, clean-coal technologies would come to the fore".

The only "clean-coal" technology that could significantly impact on the amount of greenhouse gases produced from coal burning is carbon geosequestration.

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) scientist John Wright told the AM program that "before we go into large-scale capture and sequestration of CO2, it's going to be of the order of a decade or perhaps a little bit longer" for research and pilot projects.

On the other hand, in an August 1 statement on its website, the research NGO Mineral Policy Institute (MPI) noted that a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world's leading scientific body on climate change, "estimates that by 2050 only about 30-60% of emissions from electricity generation will be technically suitable for capture. And even for the power stations that are suitable, CCS can at best only sequester 80-90% of their emissions…

"As a result, if the projected increases in power plant construction in the next 50-100 years are borne out, then even widespread use of CCS, would see emissions from the global electricity sector continue to climb."

The MPI noted that, "CCS promoters claim that CCS will be ready within 10 years. It may be ready theoretically, but will it be used? The IPCC estimates that the majority of CCS deployment will only take place in the second half of this century, and thinks that by 2020 CCS may only be capturing 9-12% of global CO2 emissions, and by 2050 as little as 21%. This is too little too late."

Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal — 230 million tonnes last year. China is a major customer for Australian coal, and the Australian and Chinese governments have recently made a pact to develop and use "cleaner coal" technologies.

As exports increase, industry is looking to increase mining. The controversial Anvil Hill mine in NSW's Hunter Valley was temporarily stopped by the NSW Land and Environment Court in November 2006. The court ruled that developer Centennial Coal had failed to adequately consider the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of its planned coal exports. This followed a campaign by local groups to protect the remnant forests on the proposed site of the mine.

Mark O'Neill of the ACA claimed in the November 29 Sydney Morning Herald that, "If coal exports from the proposed Anvil Hill mine do not go ahead, not one molecule less carbon dioxide will be emitted to the atmosphere, because the overseas customers for the coal will simply buy it elsewhere."

The ACA website claims that by "2020, coal consumption will be 50% higher than it is today. Ceasing the use of coal and other fossil fuels in order to cut greenhouse-gas emissions is simply not a realistic option for the foreseeable future." The reality of an opportunity to make megabucks obviously trumps environmental considerations for the coal-mining companies.

A January 16 press release from Greenpeace noted that "Howard's deal with China on non-existent 'clean coal' technology is a typical diversion from acting on the real solution to climate change — switching from coal to renewable energy."

Greenpeace spokesperson Ben Pearson was quoted in that day's Melbourne Age that China is "already moving in that direction, having recently announced plans to invest 45.6 billion yuan ($A7.41 billion) to more than triple wind power generation capacity by 2010 and aiming to reach a 15% renewable energy target by 2020".

"Scientific" advice being used for commercial gain may be nothing new, but it is now making headlines. The US Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has reported on January 30 that "new evidence shows that political interference in climate science is no longer a series of isolated incidents but a system-wide epidemic….

"UCS distributed surveys to 1600 climate scientists, asking for information about the state of federal climate research. The scientists who responded reported experiencing at least 435 occurrences of political interference in their work over the past five years. Nearly half of all respondents (46 percent) perceived or personally experienced pressure to eliminate the words 'climate change', 'global warming' or other similar terms from a variety of communications."

The MPI points out that the Howard government "has stacked the CSIRO's governing board with appointees from the coal and oil industry, and the organisation's energy research priority has been refocused onto the quest of 'clean coal' and CCS technologies. CSIRO scientists expressing concern about climate change have been muzzled."

Non-CO2 emitting alternative energy generation methods such as geothermal and solar-thermal are available right now, and yet massive amounts of government research money continue to flow into an unproven technology like carbon geosequestration and into "clean coal" PR exercises for the coal companies.

Meanwhile, the forecasts for the rate of global warming are increasingly giving credibility to what were the "worst case" scenarios a couple of years ago. Australia's massive coal industry is a problem that must be tackled and removed to take meaningful steps against global warming.

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