Australian Sea Dumping Bill facilitates fossil fuel mining

Dr David Shearman is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Adelaide and a co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia. Here he comments the Australian government’s consideration of legislation purported to safely capture carbon at the bottom of the sea but is really a cover to help the gas industry export more gas.

Governments around the world are promoting and subsidising carbon capture and storage (CCUS) to facilitate an increase in fossil gas mining. This will dash any hope of controlling world emissions at a time when there are deep concerns for climate change becoming uncontrollable.

Yet the Australian government and the fossil gas industry are driving huge new developments about which they perpetrate misinformation. Let us examine the Sea Dumping Bill.

Submissions to The Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Amendment (Using New Technologies to Fight Climate Change) Bill 2023 (the Bill) are now being considered by the Department of the Environment and Water.

One section of the complex Explanatory Memorandum states “the Bill would seek to promote the right to health by reducing the impact on human and environmental health of wastes and other matter, especially in regard to the export of carbon dioxide streams and the placement of such matter into the sea for marine geo-engineering activities”.

The Bill acts by “enabling a permit to be granted for the export of carbon dioxide streams from carbon dioxide capture processes for the purpose of sequestration into a sub-seabed geological formation”.

Photo from Reuters: Bill will lead to more gas exports

“Therefore, the Bill promotes the right to health under Article 12 of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) It positively engages this right by ensuring that activities allowed by the permits are regulated to minimise their impacts on human and environmental health, especially to the marine environment”.

So the apparent good news for the vast majority of scientists who agree we now live at five minutes or less to midnight and the collapse of our society is that our Government is addressing the health impacts of climate change by reducing emissions produced by large new gas mining projects.

If the Dumping Bill is passed by parliament it will have ignored statements urging no new fossil fuel development from the UN Secretary General and the IPCC, and the statement from Australian scientists and experts calling for a ban on Northern Territory fracking.

The ‘real facts’ are the government will use CCUS to provide Australia with export income in the hope that targets on domestic emissions will not be transgressed.

Yet current evidence suggests CCUS is risky and currently fails to store much less than the necessary 100% of emissions. We are told this will help human health! This Bill is a con job for it facilitates fossil gas mining which is harmful to human and environmental health, by increasing world emissions and by subjecting Northern Territory citizens to toxic chemicals.

The use of CCUS Australia will facilitate the Bayu Undan project in Timor Leste waters, and the Bonaparte project in the Bonaparte Basin, both will link to the Middle Arm hub in Darwin harbour. This link will also be used to receive fossil gas from the Beetaloo project expected to generate 1.4 billion tonnes of greenhouse emissions. The Middle Arm may develop petrochemical industries and it will be interesting to see whether the government will recommend Middle Arm as a mythical health benefit.

There are many independent scientific and engineering reports on major CCUS projects which indicate their inadequacy in reducing emissions. CCUS fails to sequestrate a significant proportion of carbon dioxide even in some projects where great efforts have been made to improve performance over many years.

The Gorgon CCUS project off the coast of Western Australia has reduced emissions only by about 50% over its first five-year period. The government’s own Climate Change Authority has issued a report promoting the project. It announces that the Gorgon project reduced emissions in 2020 by around 3 Mt CO2 but failed to mention that an equal amount was discharged into the atmosphere. Then in the 12 months to June 2022 just 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 went underground and 3.4 million tonnes was vented into the atmosphere. Clearly this is government manipulation of the data.

Photo from Chevron: Chevron’s gorgon project in Western Australia

Gorgon was studied by the independent Australian Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) together with 12 other major CCUS projects around the world. Their study “found that Shute Creek in the US underperformed its carbon capture capacity by around 36% over its lifetime, Boundary Dam in Canada by about 50%, overall there was inadequate removal of emissions and they found technology and regulatory frameworks wanting.

There are growing scientific concerns over CCUS. Recently evidence has emerged in two Norwegian projects, Sleipner and Snøhvit, that CCUS may be unsafe. These are long cited as success stories; however, each project has its specific geology which it has been found can change over time making continued storage problematic. The report says “While the oil and gas industry is used to dealing with uncertainty in exploration and production, the risks multiply when trying to place something like CO2 back in the ground”.

The earth is facing more geological movements as evidenced by increases in earthquakes large and small due to the balance of the earth and its geological strata being influenced by rise in sea level, the melting of polar ice, and the huge extraction of water from underground aquifers, as consequences of climate change.

This deeply concerning information is rarely available in documentation on CCUS perpetrated by industry and governments sources. We read about the quantity of carbon dioxide which is sequestrated but not the amount lost into the atmosphere.

These issues raise serious questions in relation to the Dumping Bill. Were consultants responsible for writing the Bill and what was their expertise? Was it written by the public servants in the Department and were those writing the Bill fully briefed on the performance of CCUS?

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