Originally published in The Canberra Times on August 5, 2023

Neoliberals are always worried about government ‘picking winners’, but strangely never seem to have a problem when governments back obvious losers, like perennial failure carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Like a problem gambler, Australian governments just cannot quit CCS.

The Parliament is currently considering the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Amendment (Using Failed Technologies to Cause Climate Change) Bill 2023, or at least that’s what it should be called.

The bill’s actual title implies that it is designed to fight climate change and that it simply ensures Australia is compliant with international commitments to help plan for transboundary CCS projects.

In reality, this bill is a trojan horse to facilitate new fossil fuel projects in general and one gas project in particular – Santos’ massive new Barossa project off Darwin.

This is the second time that a federal government appears to have created bespoke legislation to suit Santos and its CCS projects.

In 2021, the Liberal National government announced an official method under which CCS would generate carbon credits. Research by the Australia Institute shows that the government consulted almost exclusively with the fossil fuel industry to design the method, and actively excluded independent researchers.

Santos was, of course, the first company to sign up to the scheme that it had helped to develop.

The minister at the time, Angus Taylor, was bold enough to say the quiet part out loud – that the change was supposed to “scale-up” gas production in Australia.

Santos’ Barossa gas project is particularly carbon intensive. Thanks to the strengthened Safeguard Mechanism, rather than causing climate change for free, Santos can cause climate change for a modest fee. The Australia Institute has estimated the Safeguard Mechanism will increase the cost of developing Barossa by almost $1 billion to 2030.

Now, to you and me, one billion dollars is a lot of money, but let’s keep in mind Australia’s gas industry raked in up to $40 billion in windfall profits in FY2021-22. Nevertheless, it’s one billion dollars Santos would prefer not to spend on carbon offsets.

The most obvious solution—abandoning the project and ceasing new fossil fuel development—is off the table because neither Santos nor the Labor Government seem interested in avoiding extended heatwaves, more frequent bushfires, intense droughts, or in the fact that Antarctic winter sea ice is at record lows.

Instead, Santos seems to think that if it has to spend $1 billion on greenwash, it might as well do it itself. It is proposing a big new CCS project in the waters of Timor Leste, where the company has existing operations.

This is where the need for the new bill arises. Santos needs new legislation to allow its Barossa pollution, that will be generated in Australian territory, to cross into Timor Leste’s territory for burial.

While other environmental legislation languishes in the drafting phase, the Albanese Government has brought this bill for Santos to the front of the queue.

So will Santos’ CCS project work? As the Australia Institute outlined in its submission to the Senate inquiry:

“Globally, there are just 30 operating CCS projects and 20 of those are dedicated to extracting more fossil fuels. The remaining ten projects have a total nameplate capacity of just 11.6 million tonnes per year, less than the annual emissions of either Loy Yang A power station in Victoria or Bayswater power station in NSW.

Few of those ten projects are actually operating at nameplate capacity, all the operating, climate-focussed CCS projects in the entire world combined are sequestering around 6.2 million tonnes of greenhouse gas per year, roughly the emissions of the Port Kembla Steelworks near Wollongong.”

The world’s CCS vs Port Kembla. And bear in mind that Santos’ proposal would be 2.5 times larger than any operating project. What could go wrong?

Whether it works or not is a moot point because just the PR claim that Barossa’s emissions will be sequestered is valuable for Santos.

And this is the real problem, that’s all CCS really is: a PR claim. Few technologies have failed so spectacularly as carbon capture and storage. Over the decades Australian governments have poured more than a billion dollars into the CCS pipedream with basically nothing to show for it.

But won’t our Parliament understand all this and vote down this scam?

Here is where our tale gets truly grim.

A House of Reps committee, “did not inquire into the science or merits of CCS [because this] has been considered by a past committee.”

The past committee in question was in 2007. It looked mainly at CCS on coal-fired power stations and boasted members who deny that climate change on earth is important because they have seen evidence of climate change on Mars, Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune’s moon Triton. I am not making this up.

Worse still was advice from public service agencies. In a week where the Robodebt Royal Commission found that public servants had lied to the Australian people, the Department of Climate Change told the Senate that CCS would “play a key role in decarbonisation”. The Department of Industry said that “the potential for geological storage is high”.

Carbon capture and storage is not a solution to climate change, it’s part of the problem. Santos is not wanting to bury its emissions to help fight climate change, it’s only planning to invest in CCS so it can export more gas.

Like the recent nature repair market bill, which was built on a house of cards claim from a discredited PwC report, this CCS bill is half-baked and will do more harm than good. Labor’s climate credibility keeps melting under the heat of scrutiny and this bill deserves to be rejected by the Parliament.

Between the Lines Newsletter

The biggest stories and the best analysis from the team at the Australia Institute, delivered to your inbox every fortnight.

Sign up

General Enquiries

02 6130 0530

Media Enquiries

Luciana Lawe Davies Media Adviser

0457 974 636

RSS Feed

All news