Natural gas and the climate movement

June 4, 2010
Replace Hazelwood rally, Melbourne, May 6. Photo by Vicki Kyriakakis/Climate Action Centre

The most serious controversy that has emerged in the climate movement this year is probably about the role of natural gas in a transition to a zero-emissions society.

The national climate summit in March did not debate gas, but decisions taken there have influenced the debate. A decision of that summit was to campaign to “replace Australia's dirtiest coal-fired power station, Hazelwood, with clean energy by 2012”.

At the vote, there was dissent, including the argument that the 2012 deadline “suggests that a gas station would replace it”. Rather, the “focus should be on what will replace Hazelwood”, some said. In the end the proposition was passed with 84% of the vote, despite the objection.

Replace Hazelwood with gas?

Since then, Environment Victoria has taken up the campaign with enthusiasm. A report for EV by energy market analysts Green Energy Markets (GEM) has provided one plan for replacing Hazelwood.

Launching the report, GEM director Ric Brazzale said: “By combining new renewable energy with efficient gas and energy efficiency measures we can cut Hazelwood’s annual emissions of 16.2 million tonnes to 1.8 million tonnes, which would reduce Victoria’s emissions by 12% annually, as well as freeing up 27 billion litres of water for other uses.”

Two possible scenarios are examined in the report. They say either 1180 or 970 megawatts of gas plants should replace Hazelwood. Reliance on gas would decline over time as energy efficiency measures slowly replace 25% of Hazelwood’s current output. The rest would be taken up by 1500MW of renewable generation (mostly wind) — running at a typical 30% of capacity.

But there is significant dissent to the advocacy of gas. And there is an alternative plan on its way.

Beyond Zero Emissions will release the first stage of its Zero Carbon Australia plan in July. BZE director Matt Wright told Green Left Weekly that this plan would replace Hazelwood by December 2013.

“One extra year of Hazelwood's emissions doesn't justify locking in 50 years burning gas”, Wright said, in reference to the possible lifespan of a gas plant.

The Australian Energy Market Operator lists more than 20 gas power plant proposals on the drawing board across Australia, some at an advanced stage of planning. They total 8600MW of generating capacity. Hazelwood itself is a 1600MW plant.

Australia is also seeing a massive increase in gas drilling and export with the opening up of coal seam gas, especially in rural Queensland. Some climate activists fear an expansion in gas use, which is occuring worldwide, will lead to an increase in “fugitive emissions” — methane leaks. “Conventional gas is also pretty dirty”, Wright said.

Strategic uses of gas?

Clearly, gas use is expanding dramatically. Renewable energy expert and author, Dr Mark Diesendorf, told GLW: “I agree with others that we must resist the wholesale replacement of coal-fired power stations with gas.”

However, Diesendorf also supports “a limited role for gas, because renewable energy is not yet ready to take over all of gas’s roles”. In particular, areas where Diesendorf believes renewables are not yet ready include “back-up/booster for solar hot water, solar thermal power and wind power”.

He said: “The highest priority must be to stop the construction of new coal-fired power stations and to shut down dinosaurs such as Hazelwood ASAP. I don't see a problem if the environment movement advocates a mix of energy efficiency, gas and renewable electricity to replace coal.”

Fantasy and strategy

Is the notion that renewable energy can rapidly replace Hazelwood, as outlined by BZE, just a fantasy? Wright believes it is realistic.

“You can dial companies and they will roll out the technology”, he said. “They are already set up in Australia — construction giant Leighton is owned by ACS Cobra, who are building the [solar thermal] power towers in Spain.”

The greatest barrier to replacing Australia’s shameful use of fossil fuels is political will on the part of government. Perhaps the fantasy is not the technology available for the transition, but the political change in such a short time? Would a victory on Hazelwood — with gas — be the boost that the movement sorely needs?

These are not rhetorical questions: they demand serious consideration.

But at the same time, the value of a win with gas is questionable when industry and government are embarking on gas expansion anyway. And there are real problems with fugitive emissions — not to mention spending money on gas that could be used for renewable energy right now.

Climate activists need to weigh these options. It’s not about who are the “real” environmentalists, or drawing battle lines within the movement. It’s a matter of strategy and tactics and having a dialogue — and agreeing to disagree where we have to.

An old maxim says, in political alliances, “march separately, but strike together”. Different opinions within the movement can civilly compete for support within the context of a common goal — in this case, forcing the government to begin shutting down coal power stations.

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