Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is often seen as coal’s redeeming feature. Its supporters claim that the carbon dioxide emissions caused by coal-fired electricity can be captured and then stored in geological formations, for geological time periods. If I am correct, then it is a technological failure and its primary function has been to delay climate action and divert funding that should be going to solar, wind and other proven technologies.

In the federal budget last week, the government cut about half a billion dollars from CCS funding. The public deserves to know more about these decisions. If CCS is a failure, then we deserve to know where our money has gone.

Unfortunately, CCS is the foundation of long-term climate policy of the Labor government and Liberal Coalition. Both the major parties have committed  billions of dollars of public funding to it. Both parties are assuming that is will come online some time after 2020 and thus Australia’s coal industry has a rosy future.

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The CCS concept was proposed about 1986. So far there are four to six commercial-scale CCS projects in the world, depending on whose definition you use. They are mostly connected to natural gasfields, not used to capture and store post-combustion CO2 from coal, which is the whole point of the exercise.

I have been grappling with the budget papers because I want to understand how much public money is going to CCS. The Australian Coal Association’s budget response claims CCS funding was cut by more than $470 million.

My reading of the budget put the CCS cuts at $670 million over the next four years covered by the forward estimates. Martin Ferguson, Minister for Energy and Resources, claims that $420 million of this money has not been cut, but rephased out beyond the estimates period.

I am also keen to understand what value Australia has got for the $400 million allocated to the Canberra-based Global CCS Institute. As one of its bloggers has written: “Despite ambitious demonstration programs, progress has been glacially slow.”

To make up your own mind about the glacial progress of CCS, here is a summary of progress over 2010, on a CCS industry site. Note that not one full-scale plant was completed.

Where is the evidence that all this funding has been effective? Where is the peer review? What is the opportunity-cost? What is the net benefit?

If, as it appears, the Australian government has lost faith in CCS, this will be a major blow to the technology globally. Australia is the strongest advocate of CCS.

CCS has probably had a more favourable run in Australia’s media than anywhere in world. Most of that coverage has been in The Australian. A study of media coverage by the CSIRO back in May 2009 found that 34.3% of stories about CCS were printed in The Australian.

The Australian Coal Association announced its clean coal strategy with great fanfare in 2003. It claimed that CCS would work and be cost effective. It promised to spend $1 billion of its own money over 10 years from 2004-2013.

It would be interesting to know if this spending has actually taken place. You can see that the website for this project, New Generation Coal, has more news about renewables than about CCS, which is another indicator that the technology is a failure.

The International Energy Agency bases all its coal industry predictions on a faith in CCS. Its CCS Roadmap projects that 3400 CCS plants will be needed globally by 2050, to make a substantial impact on emissions.

If we accept the claim made by the industry, that CCS will be ready and cost-effective by 2020, it means all 3400 plants have to be built between 2020 and 2050. This is one full-scale plant every three days.

From what I can see on the websites of the various CCS bodies, there is rather a lot of research being done into the PR side of the technology. The same CSIRO study cited above describes in detail how to win the PR campaign to convince Australians that CCS will work.

The authors note that there are only nine journalists in Australia who comprise the “elite” and thus “require a sophisticated engagement plan”. It was proposed that meetings with these nine reporters should be organised. As they note: “Use of scientists at these meetings would help to ensure the information is seen as objective and based on the latest science of the technology.”

The public deserves to see the facts about CCS funding, with or without scientists used as a PR prop.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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