Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Climate Change: National's carbon capture fantasy

As the climate crisis has grown worse, the tactics of the polluting industries have shifted. From denying climate change, they then moved on to pushing "carbon capture" - dumping their emissions underground rather than in the atmosphere. It's a PR scam, intended to prolong the life of the industry we need to kill if we are to survive. And unfortunately, National has swallowed this hook, line, and sinker:

A new draft framework to reduce net CO2 emissions from gas use and production is now open for consultation.

The Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) framework was estimated to reduce the country's net CO2 emissions by 4.65 megatonnes over the next two Emission Reduction Plan periods (2026-30 and 2031-35), Energy Minister Simeon Brown said.

So why is this a bad idea? Simply: while its great in theory, in practice it simply does not work. This isn't a question of technology - there are any number of pilot projects, collecting subsidies to dump tiny amounts of emissions underground, and some of them even work (a distressing number do not, however). Instead, its about adoption. Because the technology is expensive, with an effective carbon price of more than $1000 per ton removed, nobody will ever install it. Except for the oil industry, which uses the captured CO2 to push out more oil, thus increasing emissions (something noted explicitly in National's Climate Implications of Policy Assessment).

And we have a perfect example of this in Aotearoa, in the geothermal industry. Because geothermal energy is the one perfect use-case for carbon capture: geothermal steam is gassy, and sometimes releasing it is as bad as running a natural gas plant. This can be fixed by moving to a closed- rather than open-cycle, and pumping the used steam back underground. Modern plants do this - there's a real success story at Ngawha. But older plants would need to be modified. And the industry didn't do this when the carbon price was $85 a ton, its not doing it at $50 a ton, and its certainly not going to do it if National continues to crash the carbon market to Make Pollution Cheap Again. Of course, they could be forced to do it, by regulation and resource consent conditions, and that would be effective. But National is not going to do that. The CIPA statement makes it clear that they are simply going to rely on the carbon price. Which makes their assumptions about uptake pure hot air. And the idea that Methanex is going to do it at Motonui without a regulatory requirement is a total fantasy.

Again, the exception here is the gas industry, which will be given credits in order to increase emissions. And that's the actual policy goal here: keep the gas industry in business, and the donations flowing. As for the rest of us, National is quite happy for us to burn to death.

So what would an effective carbon capture policy look like? Firstly, it would be regulation-based, rather than relying purely on carbon prices. Secondly, it would exclude the fossil fuel industry, and any "utilisation" (which means emitting stuff after all). Thirdly, it would ensure permanent, ongoing liability for leaks lies with the storage facilities, flowing up the chain to their owners, executives and shareholders, in order to avoid the issues we have seen with oil industry cleanup costs. Finally - and most importantly - it would be treated as an afterthought. Because while it would be nice if we could do this, clearly its not viable yet except in a few special cases (like geothermal power). It should not be the core of climate policy. Instead, the focus should be where it always had to be: reducing emissions by killing the fossil fuel (and in Aotearoa, the dairy) industry. That is what we need to do to survive, and anything else is a distraction.