Is a CCS breakthrough approaching?

The greatest commitment from Doha may come in the form of progress on carbon capture and storage and given the bets made by governments on this technology, it would be a good news story.

Greg Combet decided to stay home rather than throw himself into the Doha climate change pigpen next week when global government ministers try to rescue yet another UN talkfest on decarbonisation policies.

Ironically, the Gillard government might have benefitted from sending along Martin Ferguson instead – even if it meant an eventual brawl with Christine Milne and the Greens.

The reason for despatching Ferguson to the Middle East is that it is being suggested the Doha summit might be an opportunity for the GCC to take a lead of CCS.

Huh?

The GCC is the Gulf Cooperation Council, the collection of states dominated by Saudi Arabia that occupy 630 million acres on the Persian Gulf.

CCS, of course, is carbon capture and sequestration, the technology much-hated by Milne, who has succeeded in persuading Julia Gillard and Combet to exclude it from the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation despite the government betting on the technology to meet 40 per cent of electricity supply in Australia by mid-century.

As the Doha meeting convenes, a view is being pushed that the summit represents an opportunity for the GCC states, with their fossil fuel wealth, to transform the carbon abatement scene by taking the lead in funding the development of carbon capture.

(Lord) Julian Hunt, the former British Met Office boss, is one spruiking the view that the GCC could be a game-changer by pursuing this path.

In a media column published in a number of countries this week, Lord Hunt argues that “there is no credible scenario without CCS under which emissions can be sufficiently reduced to limit the global average temperature rising to three degrees Celsius by 2100.”

As others have done, including Ferguson, who has charge of CCS policy here, Hunt points to the fact that storage of carbon dioxide in rock from which oil and water have been extracted is not new or untried.

The Norwegians have been doing it at the North Sea Sleipner gas field for many years. Chevron’s Gorgon project is going to do in Western Australia.

The problem is getting the cost to a point where it works in power generation. Joining the technology to a power plant is neither easy nor cheap.

Hunt makes an interesting point. The overall costs of CCS may be comparable to the extra costs being imposed to drive renewable energy – and carbon capture is not prey to the vagaries of wind and weather.

(Neither is nuclear, I hasten to add.)

CCS is a technology that seems particularly applicable to countries dependent on large-scale use of coal for generation, like China and India – and, in a lower key, us. And it can be applied to gas-fired generation, too.

Hunt argues that a mature CCS technology may need a carbon price of between $US44 and $US103 to make it viable.

Getting sufficient government expenditure to drive the technology harder and faster has not proved easy, not least when regimes like Gillard’s are trying to talk out of both sides of their mouths, relying on CCS arriving in time to deliver a promised “clean energy future” and at the same time striving to keep green voters onside.

Hunt’s view is that the GCC have access to massive sovereign wealth funds and the incentive of demonstrating that fossil fuels can be environmentally sustainable to their own long-term advantage.

Plus, success will provide a new export earner through selling the technology. Especially to China.

“If Qatar is looking for something big” from the Doha summit, Hunt urges, “this may be it.”

His views fit with suggestions in Britain and elsewhere that, if governments are serious about CCS, they need to start giving it the same, long-term, guaranteed income they are using to spur use of wind farms and rooftop solar arrays.

Something like $US25 billion has been put on the table by governments globally, including Australia, to promote CCS but there is not enough happening at the moment to suggest that the International Energy Agency desire for about 100 power stations to be equipped with the technology by 2020 is anything other than a pious hope.

The Australian Coal Association is calling for a “2030 CCS roadmap” and the coal lobby in other parts of the world is urging more effective government commitment to the cause, but the two faces of politicians on the issue makes progress painfully slow.

It says something about the local debate that Tim Flannery and his Climate Commission can pull a hundred or so media headlines in a week with the claim that Australia could be 100 per cent reliable on renewables by mid-century while what may turn out to be a central point of the Doha talks passes wholly unnoticed.

Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood says Flannery & Co have presented the prospects for renewable energy in “a more positive light than is reasonable.”

Conversely, the green movement has a vested interest in presenting the prospects for CCS in a more negative light than is reasonable.

Clearly, Gillard and Combet expect so little to come from Doha – following the less than scintillating outcomes of Cancun and Durban – that they can’t be bothered having a ministerial presence at the summit.

Won’t it be ironic if the meeting produces a breakthrough in the form of a greater commitment to CCS and we have the minister, Ferguson, who knows most about the technology and has made the strongest effort to promote it, sitting back here?

Keith Orchison, director of consultancy Coolibah Pty Ltd and editor of 'Powering Australia' yearbook, was chief executive of two national energy associations from 1980 to 2003. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the energy industry in 2004.

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