Environment Minister Greg Hunt should be investigated for misleading and deceptive conduct. He talks repeatedly about the potential to clean up our coal-fired power stations, reducing their emissions by 30-50%, by installing you-beaut Direct Injection Carbon Engines, when the technology is drastically underfunded, unavailable at scale, and has a colourful history of unsuccessful research sponsored for very many years by one of ICAC’s favourite miners, Travers Duncan.

The Direct Injection Carbon Engine, or DICE, is a big diesel of the kind used in ships, fuelled by a slurry of water and very fine coal with most of the ash taken out. Hunt was at it again yesterday, crowing about the passage through the Senate of legislation enabling him to set up a $2.55 billion emissions reduction fund, the centrepiece of the Direct Action plan, wording up reporters about the potential of DICE.

The key sentence is this: “DICE, the subject of a major research project at the CSIRO, can cut emissions from a coal station by up to half but is still at least five years from being ready to roll out.”

DICE is not a “major CSIRO research project”. There is a small team of two to four well-intentioned scientists and engineers working out of the CSIRO’s energy labs in Newcastle, running a 4-litre, single-cylinder diesel engine on coal, on a shoestring budget, struggling to find industry partners. “Ready to roll out” means a commercial-scale unit with a capacity of about 50MW — a tenth the size of a smallish power station — might exist by 2019-20, if trials on a prototype engine prove promising. Any roll-out worthy of the term is decades away.

As readers are aware from Crikey’s investigations here and here and here and here, culminating in this Background Briefing for ABC Radio National in July (to be re-broadcast this Sunday), DICE is the latest iteration of a long series of attempts to get the ash out of coal (by chemical leaching, or crushing the coal down to a fine powder and physically separating it), mix it with water and burn it as a liquid fuel.

The key sponsor of the research over more than 25 years was coal baron Travers Duncan, one of Australia’s richest men and chairman of listed White Energy, who was found to have behaved corruptly by ICAC after an investigation into its proposed acquisition of Cascade Coal, holder of a coal tenement at Mount Penny, which would have generated windfall gains for Cascade shareholders including Duncan and former New South Wales politician Eddie Obeid.

Back in 1987, when chaired by the late Neville Wran, the CSIRO partnered with Duncan and White Industries to develop an Ultra Clean Coal (UCC) that could be used as a liquid fuel — even injected into gas turbines or jet engines. Years of fruitless research followed, centered on trials at a UCC plant in Cessnock, later flogged off to Chinese miner Yancoal in 2009 and finally closed last year.

UCC had a forerunner too, a program called Supercoal, also supported by Wran when he was NSW premier, until it was exposed as a fraud in Parliament in 1980 by then-opposition spokesman on energy, and qualified coal engineer Ted Pickering, a key source for the Background Briefing program. UCC chewed up tens of millions of dollars in public and private funds, forever holding out the promise of public benefits like lower greenhouse gas emissions from coal and increased energy security, which never eventuated. My Background Briefing revealed the main commercial outcome of UCC was to give White an edge when tendering for the Moolarben coal mine.

Duncan is not involved in DICE, but the long back-story shows it would be unwise to put too much faith in the promise of clean coal as a liquid fuel, let alone shovel more public money into it as the federal government appears determined to do, with DICE featuring in the Energy Green Paper and affiliated companies sharing in $20 million of the grants made earlier this year. The most bizarre aspect of DICE is that, even if it succeeds in every respect, energy market experts reckon it isn’t competitive with technologies already available off the shelf. Wind energy, for example, is cheaper to build and run than a DICE engine and cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 100%. DICE is a glaring example of too little, too late.

Which seems to suit Greg Hunt just fine. If we had all century to tackle climate change, that might be OK. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has again warned, we don’t. DICE is simply not plausible at the front and centre of a national strategy to combat climate change in 2014.

Peter Fray

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