Federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor has been spruiking carbon capture and storage technology this week as part of the Federal Government’s push to overhaul clean energy investment in Australia.
The Government plans to expand the mandates of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Corporation to fund new and emerging low-emissions technologies like carbon capture and storage — technologies that may help extend the life of some coal and gas-fired power plants — ahead of wind and solar.
Speaking on RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly on Thursday, Minister Taylor said that investment in renewables is already bringing down emissions in the electricity grid, but that it has been harder to get emissions down for polluting industry, agriculture and transport.
“Our agencies need to be able to develop technologies that can bring down emissions outside of electricity as well as integrating [them into] the electricity grid and making sure we continue to see those emissions reductions, and that means a whole new range of technologies,” he said.
But when questioned about the reliability of carbon capture and storage, Minister Taylor has repeated the claim that Australia has the biggest carbon capture and storage project in the world, as evidence that the technology is working.
“Let’s be clear, carbon capture and storage is already working. We’ve got it working in Australia, we’ve got the biggest project in the world in Australia,” he said.
And he’s correct that we have the world’s biggest carbon capture and storage project.
But here’s what he’s not saying.
Failed carbon capture cost millions of tonnes of emissions
The project Minister Taylor is talking about is Australia’s only large-scale carbon capture and storage operation, located at Chevron’s Gorgon gas facility on Barrow Island off Western Australia.
Part of that project’s environmental approval was that it would capture and store between 3.4 and 4 million tonnes of CO2 emitted from the plant each year, and it was given $60 million from the Western Australian Government to assist with the technology.
Chevron forecast that the process would see between 5.5 million tonnes and 8 million tonnes of CO2 captured and stored underground in the plant’s first two years of operation.
But Chevron was unable to get the technology to work.
Despite that, they started operating their gas processing facility in 2016, without capturing any of its greenhouse emissions at all.
National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting (NGER) data shows that the Gorgon facility emitted over 7.7 million tonnes of CO2 in the 2016-17 reporting period.
Energy consulting firm Energetics estimated at the time that these emissions wiped out all the savings made by rooftop solar across Australia in the same period.
Plagued by technical difficulties through 2017 and 2018, Chevron continued to operate the Gorgon gas facility while sending all of its greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
Emissions data shows the Gorgon facility emitted over 9 million tonnes of CO2 in the 2017-18 reporting period, followed by 8.9 million tonnes in 2018-19.
Gorgon unlikely to recoup emissions blowout
In late 2019, Chevron announced that its technology was finally working, attributing the hold up to problems caused by water in the gas it was extracting.
The company, which has been sparing in the information it’s made public about the project, said the carbon capture and storage operation would be at full capacity by 2020.
In May this year, the Western Australian government ruled that Chevron — as per its environmental approval — must capture and inject underground at least 80 per cent of the emissions from the facility over the five-year period beginning in 2016, when Chevron began exporting gas from the Gorgon plant.
Chevron argued that the period for sequestration should begin in 2018, but lost.
Now, according to Chevron’s own estimates, the Gorgon facility will eventually capture a maximum of around 4 million tonnes of CO2 annually. Based on previous years, that might be about 40 per cent of annual emissions — and the sequestration process only started to work, partially, in 2019.
If we compare that to the WA government requirement of 80 per cent capture from 2016 to 2021, Chevron is heading towards a shortfall of many millions of tonnes of CO2, emitted instead of trapped.
Australia’s industry aren’t always near suitable sites for storage
Carbon capture and storage is an extremely complex and emerging technology, which requires some very specific geology to work.
According to David Byers, CEO of carbon capture and storage group CO2CRC, Australia is home to some big expanses of suitable geology.
“Australia actually has some of the best storage basins in the world,” he told the ABC last year.
The reason Chevron pushed for their processing facility to be built on Barrow Island — a Class-A Nature Reserve — is because they had identified suitable substrate for injecting CO2 in the seafloor nearby.
In their case, the CO2 that is separated from their natural gas is then pumped more than 800 metres under the seafloor where the porous geology of the surrounding rock allows the gas to migrate horizontally and become trapped.
But most of Australia’s industry, as well as coal and gas-fired power plants, does not have such convenient geology nearby.
Sequestering emissions from those facilities would involve transporting captured CO2 vast distances before it could be pumped underground.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t be exploring all our options.
We’re not going to shut down our coal and gas-fired power plants and polluting industries overnight, and while we continue to transition to a clean energy system, anything we can do to get those emissions down is vital.
Investing in carbon capture shouldn’t displace clean energy
However, it’s worth remembering that carbon capture and storage isn’t a substitute for clean energies like solar, wind, and pumped hydro.
In the case of Gorgon — the world’s largest carbon capture and storage project — when it’s in full swing it will be sequestering around 40 per cent of the gas plant’s emissions.
That leaves 60 per cent of their emissions, or around 5 million tonnes of CO2 annually based on past figures, flowing into the atmosphere.
Minister Taylor is correct to say that emissions in Australia’s electricity sector are coming down faster than industry, agriculture and transport. Most experts agree that we should be looking at carbon capture and storage as one option, where feasible, to help cut emissions in those lagging sectors.
But we’re on track to overshoot 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the middle of the century, which is forecast to have dire implications for the natural world and for us.
Scientists around the world agree that the only way to steer us away from catastrophic climate change is by aggressively cutting emissions across all sectors.
Prior to COVID-19, Australia had made very little progress on getting our greenhouse gas emissions down since 2014 and we’re still not on track to meet our Paris targets.
If we’re going to invest in complex, unproven technologies like carbon capture and storage, it needs to be in addition to, not instead of clean energy.