Nov 4, 2014

No DICE: Greg Hunt deceives the public about ‘clean’ coal project

Greg Hunt's plan to reduce carbon emissions through cleaner coal is too little, too late.

Paddy Manning

Crikey business editor

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.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

37 thoughts on “No DICE: Greg Hunt deceives the public about ‘clean’ coal project

  1. Trog Sorrenson

    Why our society votes liars like this into positions of power is beyond me.

  2. Roger Clifton

    DICE is somewhat-cleaner-coal, a token reduction when we should be eliminating, carbon emissions. But let’s remember that wind-backed-by-gas is also a token reduction. We need to get rid of the gas, too.

  3. MJPC

    The Germans in 1944 had a similar program for powdered coal to be used in aircraft engines. Didn’t work then, not working now but it appears that it is still OK for the snake oil salesman to use it to get public money.

  4. JohnB

    When a researcher says that his technology will be ready to roll out in 5 years, he is using a phrase that has a specific meaning in research everywhere.

    It means that he doesn’t have any idea when the technology will roll out, so he has put a number on it, a number which indicates that the current research team will not see it and nothing is guaranteed.

    It is code for “I don’t know”.

  5. klewso

    “Half-bake” fits Right in with his present company – what a waste of a university education? ….Who paid for that….. – because we are now.

  6. Coaltopia

    Roll the DICE, which of your favourite clean coal pot-boilers comes-up? The fig-leaf-under-swept rug of the Boundary (Dental) Dam EoR pipe-dream, the HRL clean-as-black lignite turd polisher, the Kingaroy UCG Cattle Prod, a DCFC (not the band or the football club but a “fool cell”), the Linc Energy bait and switch, the Kogan Creek microwave or another boondoggled gravy train shipping pork barrels to Japan?


  7. Mark Duffett

    A good yarn, but the pudding is overegged just a little with “Wind energy, for example, is cheaper to build and run than a DICE engine and cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 100%”. Energy embodied in the materials means wind electricity emissions, while low, are not zero. And at least you know DICE will produce x MW when you turn it on, pointing to the need for gas backup to wind as indicated by Roger.

  8. Mark Duffett

    But I hasted to furious agreement with the main point: DICE is simply not plausible at the front and centre of a national strategy to combat climate change in 2014.

  9. graybul

    “Those who forget the past . . . are doomed to . . . “! Lies are the currency of this Federal Government, so . . . “Those who . . . .”

  10. Scott

    What about Shell Cansolv technology? Can be retrofitted to existing power plants and has just started operating in Canada.

    The answer to CCS will not be found in a government lab like CSIRO. It will be found through R&D by the coal and oil companies (which have a vested interest in keeping their product moving)

    Self Interest. The only thing that works.

Leave a comment

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details