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Decades on, the promise of ‘clean coal’ remains elusive

Carbon capture and storage would help the coal industry survive, but it remains elusive. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

Decades on, the promise of ‘clean coal’ remains elusive

Carbon capture and storage would help the coal industry survive, but it remains elusive. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

For more than a decade the coal industry’s favoured response to climate change was carbon capture and storage, or CCS. CCS is still the main defence, but the absence of functioning projects is making it ever more threadbare.

Last week Citigroup released a report with the catchy title ENERGY DARWINISM II: Why a Low Carbon Future Doesn’t Have to Cost the Earth arguing that commercial CCS may come too late to save some members of the coal industry, unless it receives significant government assistance.

The trouble for the coal industry is that the market has already decided. Over the past 15 years CCS has received all the (expensive) support it is ever likely to get from politicians and investors, and aside from some pilot projects and a very special case or two, it has not delivered anywhere near the number of projects that were anticipated.

Early days

When it comes to global warming, fossil fuels have been in the frame since Svante Arrhenius suggested in 1896 that the burning of coal would increase the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.

It wasn’t until 1976 that Cesare Marchetti of the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis proposed disposing of “waste” carbon dioxide in the deep oceans.

Through the 1980s, carbon capture and storage was the subject of various US Department of Energy studies, but rated only glancing mentions at both the Australian Coal Association’s 1990 conference and an International Energy Agency conference on clean coal technologies, held in Sydney in November 1991.

Through the 1990s it made a long slow march, from the first international conference devoted to CCS in March 1992 to the Norwegian Sleipner Field in the North Sea (where carbon dioxide was injected into empty gas fields and billed as climate mitigation).

In Australia, after some initial scoping work of suitable storage sites beginning in 1999, it came to politicians’ attention via the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, chaired by the then chief scientist, Robin Batterham.

Batterham was also employed by Rio Tinto, to some consternation; this was later found by a senate inquiry to be a conflict of interest. Batterham resigned as chief scientist in 2005 to take up a full-time position at Rio Tinto. He still advocates CCS.

The 2002 report from the innovation council on tackling climate change was vigorously critiqued by academics for its emphasis on CCS. CCS was also criticised by non-government organisations and think tanks.

Into the mainstream

In 2003 Australia was a founder member of the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum. Meanwhile the United States launched its FutureGen project (since abolished, re-started and re-abolished) aiming to create a demonstration project.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a CCS report in 2005. The mass rollout of CCS was one of the climate stabilisation “wedges” proposed by Stephen Pacala and Robert H. Socolow at Princeton University.

From 2006 there were attempts to have carbon capture and storage included within the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, which would have allowed CCS projects to compete for funds with reforestation and energy efficiency projects. These attempts succeeded in 2012.

Carbon capture rises in Australia

Following the mid-2003 report of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, environmentalists feared both that CCS would not cut emissions, and that support for it would starve renewables of funding.

In 2003, with great fanfare, the Coal21 partnership was launched between industry and government, with a National Plan following the next year.

In December 2006 the Coal21 initiative announced a A$1 billion fund to investigate CCS, paid for from a voluntary levy on coal.

2008 marked the peak of elite interest. In March of that year the Australian Coal Association, WWF, Climate Institute and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) all combined to call on the government to fund further research into CCS. The CFMEU, understandably mindful of its members’ jobs, called for a minimum Power from Carbon Capture and Storage target for 2020, analogous to the renewable energy target.

In November 2008 the Australian Coal Association launched an advertising campaign about NewGenCoal.

“Clean coal” (also variously branded as smart coal, green coal, and quick coal) was mercilessly spoofed in an episode (A Waste of Energy) of the television show The Hollowmen.

Undeterred by the satire, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd launched the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, despite the reservations of Australia’s leading CCS expert and proponent Peter Cook.

However, along came the global financial crisis, which briefly wiped millions off the balance sheets of Big Coal and caused projects to collapse (see also here). By the time balance sheets recovered, facts on the ground (or rather under it) had made CCS an even dimmer prospect.

The elusive dream

The Queensland “Zerogen” project collapsed, at great expense to the taxpayer, in 2010.

In 2013 it emerged that the Coal21 fund set up in 2006 to fund CCS projects had been retooled to fund promotion of coal.

Although one Canadian project is now operating (thanks to an unusual synchronicity of large amounts research and development funding, the willingness of a company to get onto the learning curve, and a market for the carbon dioxide), the trajectory of CCS is very weak compared with earlier expectations.

In Australia the coal industry has set up another roundtable and continues to produce glossy brochures and graphs.

There are daunting legal and technological risks to carbon capture and storage, alongside the challenges of corporate technology strategy.

The dilemma for the industry is this: if CCS doesn’t work, fossil fuel companies are left naked, with no other technological fix to offer. If it does work, they will need to start implementing it, which will cost a fortune and eat into their profits (based on insights from James Meadowcraft at the University of Carleton).

The fundamental dilemma for the rest of us is this: in order to drive investment, there would need to be (among other factors) a very high carbon price. But a high carbon price would also encourage the growth of renewable energy, which would remove the need for the CCS infrastructure.