ACF supports big emissions reductions from coal. We can do this by burning less coal, or by developing and installing new technologies that make it less dirty to burn. We may have to do both. Whatever we do, we need to do it pronto. Geosequestration or carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the sort of topic that raises lots of questions. Here are a few.

Will CCS ever work?

ACF hasn’t ruled out the possibility that CCS could work. But it is up to the coal industry to prove that it works and that it’s safe. There’s the possibility of leakage at each step in the process. There might be some CO2 that escapes between combustion and capture, then leaky pipelines or perhaps a dodgy cap at the storage site. Commonsense and experience tell us to be cautious. We all know how hard it is to keep a fart under the doona. We know wind turbines work. And they don’t smell.

When will it work?

In the crucial period to 2020 Australia needs to cut emissions by at least 30% from 1990 levels. We may need to make even bigger cuts in the context of a global arrangement. Earlier this year, economists McKinsey & Co found a 30% cut by 2020 is affordable and achievable for Australia — without using CCS. In the next decade, the big gains and opportunities will come from improved energy efficiency and renewable energy. That’s where Australians should be focusing our efforts.

Power plant operator HRL recently announced plans to build a medium scale coal-fired power station that is “CCS-ready”. HRL says its “CCS-ready” plant will be running in 2012 or maybe 2013, with the help of $150 million of taxpayer funds. The company hasn’t set a date for fitting CCS to the plant. In the urgent context of climate action, CCS-ready isn’t good enough. I know a lot of people who are “ready” to quit smoking. Who knows when they actually will?

How much will it cost?

Big bikkies. It’s likely a carbon price of at least $40 a tonne will be needed to make CCS feasible — at the cheapest and easiest sites. Then there’s the question of who will bear the cost of insuring against the risk of failure? Oh, that’s easy. The good people of Australia will. Despite years of record profits the companies don’t want to front up with the cash and insurance companies are too busy to work out the premium. Too busy with all those droughts, floods and storms…

Who should pay?

Big polluters should pay the cost of cleaning up their act. They’ve had decades to prepare. Some have prepared well – and should not be penalised. Fortunately, coal companies have built up a huge kitty for the job at hand. If they’re really concerned about the future of their workers and their industry, they should invest in CCS big time. That means a big ramp-up of the $100 million/year “Coal21” fund. A coal levy of $2/tonne of coal would be a good start, and bearable — prices just hit $300/tonne.

Public funds should be directed towards sunrise industries that are currently outmuscled, but will flourish with the right assistance. I’m talking about fledgling renewable industries like geothermal and solar thermal and job-friendly industries that will help us use energy more efficiently, through insulation and sustainable building design.

How do we make them pay?

A strong driver is needed to encourage the coal sector to make a serious investment in CCS. Emissions trading alone may not be enough in Australia, particularly if we try to keep the permit cost artificially low — by imposing a weak cap. And if we give coal power stations free permits they will definitely delay action to cut their emissions. In the UK, conservative opposition leader David Cameron supports a ban on any new coal power stations — unless they are fitted with CCS technology. Makes sense.

What about the ethics?

Carbon waste has something in common with nuclear waste. We’ll be leaving future generations to look after our carbon dumps for eternity. Not my idea of an endowment.

What if we think it works but it actually doesn’t?

We’d have wasted a lot of time and effort — particularly if we’d sidelined or downplayed our efforts in areas we know do work. And as Professor Garnaut has made painfully clear, we have precious little time up our sleeves.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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