On September 7, 2009, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) first aired a detailed, 45 minute investigative report on the current status of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology around the world. The segment, titled “The Coal Nightmare”, shows just how little progress has been made in actually building a single demonstration that it is possible to separate CO2 from flue gas, compress that gas, pump it underground, and monitor the results to prove that the gas does not later seep out.
The largest project that the show covers that appears “almost” ready to begin operating a full cycle is one in Virginia that actually only takes a tiny 1.3% slice of the flue gas emissions from a large coal facility, but even that project is not yet operating to sequester CO2.
None of the guests interviewed even mentioned that nuclear energy is a proven, large scale, affordable, reliable power alternative to burning coal and doing something with the CO2. There were even several who dramatically stated that they had to figure out how to make CCS work because “there is no plan B.” I would sort of agree, nuclear energy should not be considered a “plan B” to try if other things do not work; it is a terrific plan A that makes most other energy efforts uncompetitive.
One thing that the segment makes clear is that the real coal nightmare for Australia would be for some or all of its international customers to agree to rules that force its customers to either pay a price for CO2 emissions or to capture the emissions even when there is no affordable, reliable way to do so. The reason that this is a nightmare for Australia is that even though the country has a small population and only contributes a small amount to the total world CO2 emission burden, it is the world’s largest coal exporting nation. Those exports are a large source of wealth for the country; they are at risk if the rest of the world slows down its coal consumption due to higher costs or newly competitive alternative power sources with lower emissions.
As I have shown on Atomic Insights with certain “smoking gun” entries, the Australian coal industry knows just how threatening uranium fission is to its future prosperity. Heck, they even pay to run advertisements with that explicitly stated in the text of the ad!
The ad campaign run by the coal industry succeeded in its goals. The recommended Labor government got elected. It has paid its debt to the coal industry with its recent passage of a law providing more than $2.25 billion in support for carbon capture and sequestration projects. It is interesting to note how the ABC reporter focuses on the effects of increases in cost to build plants but brushes over the increases in coal consumption (and coal sales) that would result if the plants actually do get built. Even if they do function as promised, only some of the CO2 produced by burning coal would actually be scrubbed and buried; at the same time, it will take 20-40% more fuel input in those new plants with CCS to produce the same quantity of power output. No wonder the coal mining industry likes CCS!
For those of you who are fans of ClimateProgress.org, Joe Romm is one of the Americans who gets a lot of face time on the program. I kept wanting to ask him when the natural gas industry was going to start investing in CCS; he gave the coal industry a lot of heat for resisting a price on CO2 and for its unwillingness to invest its own money into the technology.
If you go to the linked site, you will find not only the full show, but links to extended interviews with some of the featured guests, a full transcript of the show and links to other recent work by ABC on the topic. I want to thank Chris for sending me the links to the shows – it is great to have interested readers from around the world.