Whose definition of ‘Clean Coal’ has failed and why that matters

Energy, like most policy areas, has suffered from increasingly politically polarised debate recently. For conservatives, large centralised power stations running on nuclear and coal are desirable; and for majority of the population (according to most polling on the matter), hastening the shift to renewables should be focus of government and business. Climate concerns are mainstream, despite the societal reliance on fossil fuels. This is the essence of the transition challenge.

Turnbull was obviously playing to his base, then, at his February 1 Press Club address where he proudly noted that “Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, has invested $590 million since 2009 in clean-coal technology research and demonstration, and yet we do not have one modern high-efficiency, low emissions coal-fired power station, let alone one with [Carbon Capture and Storage]?”

The business response was a swift as it was brutal, especially when compared to discussions of the topic in 2008 and 2012. This time, some 10 years after the concept of CCS went mainstream, and 20 years after it first caught the attention of Federal policymakers, an usually diverse alliance of energy retailers, manufacturing, the Australian Industry group condemned the idea. Not only were most major companies, all major environmental groups and some large financial bodies now firmly of the belief that coal was uneconomic, they were thoroughly sick of the partisan bullshit.

I’ve just published a piece on carbon capture storage based on postdoctoral work I did at the University of Newcastle a few years ago interviewing engineers who’ve worked on developing the technology, policymakers who wrote regulations for it, engineers and locals at a carbon capture pilot at a power station on the Central Coast; and a nationally representative survey data on energy and climate issues.

The piece digs below the partisan debate to highlight the importance of oil and gas professionals in framing carbon capture and storage projects, as well as reviewing recent experience trying to scale up the disparate technologies of CCS into viable demonstration plants. The focus of the piece is the frictions between different kinds of industrial expertise required to make these megaprojects work: coal fired power plants suddenly need chemical engineers who understand amines; oil and gas geologists accustomed to targeting reservoirs 3kms underground to the nearest few cms with absurdly high tech drilling equipment work alongside coal miners who move vast quantities of earth to extract tonnes of the black Permian fossils onto trucks, trains and ships.

Each of these groups has their own culture, familiar technologies and fears: geologists afraid of surface engineering failures at coal plants, chemical engineers of pipeline ruptures, etc.

What does this mean for the political debate of CCS that arguably runs over the top of projects? Well, it’s worth disentangling a few different usages of the terms ‘CCS’ and ‘clean coal’. Very briefly:

  1. Turnbull, Frydenberg, Canavan and Sinodinos’ use of the terms “clean coal” and CCS clearly serves several objectives: very optimistically it’s about ‘developing the North’; also about squeezing renewables projects out of the $10bn Clean Energy Finance Corporation. The ‘energy security’ narrative is really the refuge of scoundrels when price spikes have been far more severe in coal-heavy Qld than wind-rich South Australia.
  2. Optimistic Oil and gas engineers: point out they’ve been separating CO2 from gas streams for decades in Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). Finding geostorage should be similar to finding oil and gas in the sense that the tech can just be adapted to the challenge.
  3. Pessimistic oil and gas engineers: argue that it’s very expensive and risky to look for reservoirs that effectively mimic the natural reservoir cap rocks where oil and gas deposits are found therefore CCS will only have a limited role to play. This is broadly consistent with the experience us Australia, especially with projects like ZeroGen which I analyse in the piece.
  4. Most Environmental NGOs — argue the repeated failures of projects like ZeroGen means ‘There’s no such thing as Clean Coal’ and it shouldn’t be pursued— we should phase out coal as quickly as possible.
  5. ENGOs who support CCS… well, there’s not really any of these left. Bellona, a small NGO with a modest base and the most vocal CCS supporter, has baulked at supporting integrated CCS demonstration projects after the major Norwegian projects were shelved by that oil-rich government.
  6. Global CCS Institute and IEA: point to Boundary Dam and some longstanding gas projects to argue that CCS is indispensable and plea for even greater public funding despite the fact that every single project listed on the GCCSI site would sequester just 0.04% of 2015 coal emissions annually if implemented. Hardly a moral argument for expanding coal production to, say parts of Central Queensland.

In other words, it’s worth understanding, without equivocating morally or epistemically between these positions, how each of these groups uses the concept of ‘CCS’ or ‘clean coal’ according to their values, training and worldviews. Technology is a site of politics, not an escape from it.

The piece also dissects the contentious full-scale demonstration projects heralded by proponents of the technology, most notably Boundary Dam in Canada. These projects have received enormous government subsidies through direct payments and grants, as well as relying on selling the separated CO2 streams to nearby oil producers for EOR. Only a modest percentage of the CO2 has actually been captured in one units at Boundary Dam, which required an enormously costly retrofit.

Promising integrated CCS with coal plants is analogous to making cars from the 1960s compliant with current stringent pollution standards by rebuilding the engines, most of the chassis and fitting catalytic converters that rob the engine of any power, capturing the exhaust fumes and building more car bodies with the end product. The GCCSI and IEA argue that being able to build catalytic converters and cars out of exhaust fume dust means we should. Meanwhile, everyone wants a Tesla.

This is the rub: CCS isn’t simply greenwash. Parts of the technology are well proven, but the idea that it can act as the moral or technical vanguard of the Australian wing of the Carbon Liberation Front is wishful thinking, and only serves to repress the hard work of remaking our lifestyles, habits and practices in a ways that enable most life on earth to continue.