Chevron's Gorgon carbon storage facility in Western Australia (Image: Chevron Australia)

When you’re a climate denialist politician, or one addicted to the money handed to you by fossil-fuel companies — or as Scott Morrison is, both — you need to pretend to be doing something about climate change. Complete inaction is not politically acceptable. Even John Howard knew that 20 years ago.

That pretence must certainly not threaten the interests of your donors — that’s a given. But ideally it should even serve as a way to channel taxpayer money to those donors.

The Coalition’s preferred mechanism for this is to insist technology will solve climate change, as long as its donors are given money to invest in that technology. The “technology” ranges from the magical — farmers being paid for “soil carbon” despite no evidence the allegedly sequestered carbon will remain longer than the next drought or bushfire — to technologies that work in a lab but have yet to be proven to be commercially viable, like “green hydrogen”, which Morrison spruiks enthusiastically.

Meanwhile, as Malcolm Turnbull notes, renewables technology to address climate change exists, is commercially viable, and is all around us, at lower cost than any other tech solution. Trouble is, it threatens the Coalition’s fossil-fuel donors and offends News Corp, the Coalition’s media ally.

The technologies peddled in this policy of distraction and rorting have gone in and out of fashion. For a time, “high efficiency, low emissions” coal plants were in vogue. The “low emissions” in some cases are as little as 10% less than bog-standard plants, and ones that achieve a higher level of efficiency are prohibitively expensive, produce high levels of pollution or are unreliable.

“Clean coal’s” moment in the sun was brief, but it opened the way for the return of an old favourite: carbon capture and storage. One of the benefits of CCS is it’s supported by both sides of politics, with left-wing politicians often as likely to back it right-wingers. It was the Rudd government, for example, that announced a major commitment of funding for CCS and its promotion, and convinced the Obama administration to support it.

The one minor drawback was that CCS doesn’t work in anything like a commercially viable form. This was less obvious back when Kevin Rudd was in the Lodge, when a coal industry lobbyist said there would be “commercial scale demonstration plants with carbon capture and storage in operation in Australia by 2015”. In 2018, when the Australia Institute looked at the track record of CCS in Australia, it found that despite government allocating $1.3 billion, there were no working large-scale projects. The only functional CCS project is at Chevron’s Gorgon LNG facility, and that has been plagued by long delays, cost blowouts and extensive technical problems.

A recent US study found more than 80% of America’s CCS projects have ended in failure (such as Petra Nova’s Texas plant). As Rod Campbell at reported, the NSW government’s “coal innovation fund” spent $4.5 million asking Deloitte to advise on CCS viability and was told it would cost NSW more than $16 billion, so the study was junked.

So why are we still talking about CCS? Because scientific and economic facts are less powerful than the weight of money.

A key moment for CCS’s resurgence was in 2018 when senators on both sides of the aisle — a North Dakota Democrat linked to the energy industry, a Wyoming Republican climate denialist, a Democrat climate activist, and a West Virginia Republican — combined to dramatically expand a 2008 US tax allowance for CCS, which perfectly complemented Donald Trump’s push for the revival of coalmining. Congress has continued to push for more funding for CCS, despite awareness that it is pushed primarily by oil and coal companies such as Exxon and BP. In 2020, the Trump administration further expanded the rules around “45Q” to remove “uncertainty” that was allegedly deterring investors.

Meanwhile fossil-fuel interests were moving internationally. In 2018 the UK government hosted a conference on what is now badged as “carbon capture, utilisation and storage”, where the fossil fuel-aligned International Energy Agency and many of the world’s biggest polluters — Peabody Coal, Shell, BP, China Energy and Kuwait Petroleum — met to “unlock the potential of this game-changing technology”.

The IEA had to admit “there are fewer than 20 large-scale CCUS projects in operation” around the world but “there are today no technological barriers to their development”. What was needed was for investment to be “supported” by governments.

Australia was doing its own little bit: the Rudd-created and funded “Global CCS Institute” has continued to exist through the dark years when CCS was ignored. “Europe experienced a resurgence of CCS in the climate and energy policy discussions in 2019,” it reported with delight in 2019, although it noted that the actual number of projects worldwide was just 19 — it padded the numbers up to 43 by including projects in “early development”.

Who forms the Global CCS Institute beyond Australia and fossil-fuel interests like Woodside and the Minerals Council? In January it proudly announced it had dramatically expanded its membership in 2020, with more 30 members joining an array of the world’s biggest polluters such as Exxon, Shell and BP.

In the meantime, the laws of physics, and of economics, haven’t changed, even with record low interest rates: CCS remains unviable commercially. But it is very, very viable politically, because of the huge fossil-fuel interests behind it and the willingness of politicians in their pay to support them.

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