power plant carbon emissions carbon capture
(Image: Getty)

An old scam is getting a fresh outing as fossil fuel interests sense the opportunity to extract some taxpayer funding from a government worried it might have to pretend it believes in climate change.

For two days running, The Australian Financial Review‘s Phil Coorey has reported on interest within the Coalition in funding carbon capture and storage (CCS) — and interest within fossil fuel companies in getting taxpayer money for it.

That included the hilarious claim from Santos’ Kevin Gallagher today that Santos could “safely inject and permanently store the CO² stored in Amazon rainforests today”.

Since 2010, Santos has given nearly $900,000 in donations to the Coalition, with the aim of stymieing action on climate change. According to Coorey, representatives of global mining company Glencore have also been in Canberra sniffing for handouts for CCS. Glencore, one of the world’s biggest tax dodgers, features at number 43 on the world’s top 100 carbon emitters.

Handouts are in play because the Coalition is worrying that its persistent climate denialism is going to hurt it. The loss of Liberal heartland seats like Wentworth last year and Warringah this year may become a pattern as high-income, well-educated voters switch to near-Liberals who actually believe in climate change, like Kerryn Phelps and Zali Steggall.

As with the “direct action” policy crafted under Tony Abbott in 2010, the Coalition’s goal will be to appear to be doing something about emissions abatement while funnelling money to Coalition supporters. But even better, the Coalition can point to the fact that the Rudd government spent considerable money on CCS (before Julia Gillard cut off funding).

CCS is perfect for that task, because it’s a scam. Who says? The coal industry itself.

“It is neither practical nor economic,” US coal giant Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray said about CCS two years ago. “It is just cover for the politicians, both Republicans and Democrats that say, ‘Look what I did for coal,’ knowing all the time that it doesn’t help coal at all.”

Why is it a scam? Because the very logic of CCS means making coal even more expensive, at the same time that renewables, already significantly cheaper than coal, are becoming ever cheaper.

Of course, coal companies themselves wouldn’t pay the additional cost of removing carbon dioxide and storing it — that’s why Santos and Glencore are in Canberra looking for handouts. They want taxpayers to meet that cost.

And the cost is enormous, for very little result.

Despite predictions for well over a decade that scalable CCS was just around the corner, nowhere has it been proven to be an effective and efficient carbon abatement tool. Even based on historical renewable costs, rather than current, much lower costs, investment in CCS would have curbed significantly more carbon if it had been directed into renewable energy. And you have to take into account the energy needed both to extract and then transport the carbon as well.

That’s before the problem of storage. Once you’ve sequestered carbon, you have to store it forever. It can never be allowed to escape, or be used in some other process. There’s no point storing the carbon from ten Amazons if you can’t succeed in keeping it locked down. That means someone has to monitor, safeguard and maintain the storage for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Anyone trust a company, or a government, to safely do that?

In fact the key reason why CCS doesn’t make any economic sense is that no one wants the end result — namely, a huge amount of CO2. Carbon capture is a well-established technology, but the resulting product has traditionally been used to help pump more fossil fuels out of the ground — mitigating any benefits even if the gas you pumped underground to force more oil to the surface stays down there forever.

The one advantage of CCS is that it makes the maths of nuclear power look good. CCS is still an unproven and very costly climate abatement technology. Nuclear power, however, is a proven and very costly abatement technology, which will work if you’re prepared to spend enough money, wait long enough and have governments return to power generation.

There is one form of CCS that does work well: planting trees. Indeed, planting a lot of trees has “mind-blowing” sequestration potential, according to some scientists.

It’s probably a fair bet, however, that Glencore and Santos aren’t in Canberra to push for tree planting.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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