Resources Minister Martin Ferguson happily tells people that geosequestration is vital for “the long-term sustainability of coal-fired power generation”. But he, as well as much of Australian industry and government, seems rather less concerned about the long-term sustainability of human civilisation.

Given that, without geosequestration, coal has no future in Australia or elsewhere, we must look at the issue critically. Can geosequestration be our saviour?

There are three main reasons why we say we must not assume that geosequestration will save us: it is not and will never be zero emissions, it is too slow, and it is too risky.

The fatal flaw of coal with geosequestration is that it will always emit some CO2, not less than 10% of current coal. The deeper the emissions cuts you need to achieve, the less carbon capture will play a role. In a world where we only needed to reduce emissions marginally over a long time, geosequestration might be an option. But that isn’t our world. The science is clear that we are already entering dangerous climate change, and that minimising the risk of catastrophic, runaway change means heading for net zero emissions as soon as feasible. This means zero emissions from the energy and waste sectors, and carbon sequestration in the forests and soils offsetting some stubborn agricultural and industrial emissions. In our real world, we need zero emissions energy sources, and coal with geosequestration doesn’t fit the bill.

The second flaw is timing. We need zero emissions energy fast in order to see global emissions peak in the next few years and come down fast thereafter. Meanwhile, geosequestration is slipping further into the future, with projects falling over around the world due to missed deadlines and blown budgets. Even the Bush administration has stopped funding the Future Gen project, and the head of the National Generators’ Forum, John Boshier, has acknowledged that the early confidence in coal’s technofix is fading. Confidence in renewables, meanwhile, is at an all-time high and growing with supportive policies driving massive expansion in Europe and the US in particular. The techno-fix being spruiked as a transition fuel to the distant renewable future looks like being leap-frogged by its planned successor!

Thirdly, people in the industry are finally starting grapple with the quantities involved. Australia’s coal power emissions alone would require permanent safe storage more than 2,500 times the size of the Otways trial — 250 million tonnes every year. According to Shell, a full system to transport captured carbon to storage would require twice the volume of through-put as the entire current global gas industry. The larger the amount of storage and transport, of course, the more likely it is that corners will be cut, second-rate storage used, and leakage will occur, destroying the whole purpose of the exercise. This also brings the liability monster bubbling to the surface.

In terms of pure public policy, our position is not dissimilar to that of the ACF. If the shareholders of coal corporations are happy to invest profits in researching geosequestration, they are welcome to do so, but the public purse should not be opened to those who have profited for over a century from polluting the atmosphere, and who, frankly, have had plenty of time to react to this threat. The smart investor will be looking to the sunrise industries that are outcompeting coal in the race to affordable, zero emissions energy.

The Australian economy lost the manufacturing sector under Howard’s retreat to a resource based economy. A smart government would rebuild the manufacturing sector by harnessing the huge intelligence and innovation of universities, research institutions and the renewables sector and transform the Australian economy now rather than face huge dislocation as we are swept aside by those who do.

The debate needs to move on from here fast. We can’t waste time waiting around for coal to clean up its act. We need to move ahead into the post-carbon future assuming that coal’s day is done.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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