There's nothing politics loves more than a good rort or scandal, like the recent revelations of PwC's misconduct, which is finally throwing a spotlight on the vast tentacles of the big four consulting firms into the business of government.
But it's concerning one of the biggest and longest-running rorts in climate change policy - carbon capture and storage (CCS) - is not receiving the scorn or scrutiny it deserves.
CCS is back in the headlines because it's a key excuse for the government proceeding to subsidise the Darwin Harbour Middle Arm project. When you scratch the surface of this so-called "sustainable development", it's a turducken of greenwash. It's a petrochemical hub, wrapped in a CCS project, wrapped in the development of the Beetaloo gas Basin, wrapped in $1.9 billion in public subsidies from the Commonwealth government.
As Guardian Australia revealed, the petrochemical hub will generate CO2 that will need to be buried, improving the feasibility of CCS, which will also improve the feasibility and "social licence" for fracking the Beetaloo Basin. It's a veritable orgy of emissions, underpinned by CCS.
The history of carbon capture and storage is one of PR spin followed by abject failure. Yet, like the citizens of Springfield duped into spending the town's money on the defective monorail, Australian governments keep falling for it. Australia Institute research showed the Australian government has put $1.3 billion of taxpayers' money towards CCS initiatives between 2003 and 2017, with zero large-scale operational projects to show for it. Zero. Yet here we are 20 years later and the government is still "emphatically backing" CCS.
Carbon capture and storage is nothing more than the perpetual boondoggle machine of the fossil fuel industry. Or perhaps it's better to describe CCS as the unicorn of the fossil fuel industry, because it's just as mythical. Climate activists are often accused of being unrealistic, but no one talks about the magical thinking that powers CCS and the "small modular nuclear reactor" brigade.
Huge claims and predictions are constantly made about the success of CCS, but even a cursory look at actual projects shows a litany of failure. The world's biggest carbon capture plant in operation, Chevron's Gorgon project off the coast of north-west Western Australia, is running at one-third of promised capacity. Each year, Chevron's Gorgon methane gas field releases millions of tonnes greenhouse gas pollution it promised would be sequestered. Has any government sought to shut Gorgon down, or restrict its operations until it can do what it promised? No, it's just continuing to belch greenhouse gas emissions while raking in profits.
But you could pick any other CCS project ever proposed in Australia and find worse failures. ZeroGen was another "flagship" CCS project, a $4.3 billion "clean coal" power plant in central Queensland, "with the power to capture 90 per cent of coal emissions". It went belly-up in 2011, costing taxpayers more than $100 million and having sequestered nothing. Not that long ago, the coal industry promised CCS technology could be "bolted on" to Australia's existing coal-fired power fleet and it was supposed to be commercial and in operation by now. Here in reality, the only thing carbon capture and storage has ever successfully captured in Australia is taxpayers' money.
To be fair, there is one place where CCS commercially succeeds and that's when it's used for enhanced oil recovery. That's when the oil industry pumps CO2 into partially depleted oilfields to force out additional oil. Ka-ching!
It would be one thing if CCS was just a waste of taxpayers' money, but when Australia is relying on it as a key solution to avoid Black Summer bushfires becoming an annual occurrence, there's a lot more at stake.
The gap between the reality of CCS and the reality of the science of climate change is more like an abyss. CCS is expected to do a lot of heavy lifting of abatement. On a graph, the number of historical and actual CCS projects in development is basically a flat line, while the amount of operational CCS projects required to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees is the graphical equivalent of Mount Everest. Yet somehow, it's always climate scientists and activists who are accused of not being in touch with reality.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton's own magical thinking was on display in his budget reply speech, where he put nuclear power at the heart of the Coalition's energy policy. The Coalition is so serious about nuclear power it did let's check absolutely nothing about it in its nine years in office. Dutton saying he'd fix high electricity prices by building the most expensive form of electricity is real "fairies at the bottom of the garden" stuff. Like commercial CCS, small modular nuclear reactors are always about 10 years away from operation and the Coalition's nuclear brain fart shows both it is deeply unserious about energy policy and has learned little from the last election result.
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The good news is we already have most of the solutions to get on with: the Victorian government is ending native forest logging; Australia is building more large-scale renewables; the cheapest form of new electricity to build and operate (which puts downward pressure on electricity prices) and we are building large-scale batteries to both firm renewables and provide grid stability and security.
But all the solutions in the world won't matter if governments and the fossil fuel industry keep investing in the problem. Carbon capture and storage, the nuclear power distraction and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry are all part of the expansion of Australia's fossil fuel industry. Worse still, a number of investigations have revealed the government and fossil fuel industry are in on the game together.
The PwC scandal has revealed the conflicts of interest between the public interest and private profits in consulting firms. Perhaps it's time Parliament took a closer look at the potential conflicts of interest between the fossil fuel industry and Australia's key climate change bodies, too.
- Ebony Bennett is deputy director for the Australia Institute and a regular columnist for The Canberra Times.