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Why waste-carbon injection is a dangerous distraction from climate action

By Catherine Hearse, Zianna Fuad and Kate Wattchow

Golden Beach is an idyllic section of Ninety Mile Beach in Victoria. It boasts a pristine coastline, where whales can be seen from the sand in migrating season. The beaches have plentiful fish, native birds and the skeletal remains of an 1897 shipwreck.

But there is a cloud hanging over this lovely place. A publicly funded state government project, called CarbonNet, has earmarked the area for waste-carbon injection.

Waste-carbon injection and storage is the process of mixing waste-carbon with a range of chemicals in order to inject it into the ground. Waste-carbon can come from different sources, including gas or coal power stations.

The fossil fuel industry uses the term 'carbon capture and storage', however this is a misnomer. Capture rates are unpredictable, and the ability to safely store the waste-carbon is unproven. Hence a more truthful name for this technology is waste-carbon injection.

What is happening in Golden Beach?

In Golden Beach, CarbonNet wants to build a waste-carbon injection site just 7 km off the coast from Golden Beach, where they would inject carbon-waste into the seabed.

The source of the waste-carbon is a proposed coal-to-hydrogen project in the Latrobe Valley that is being pushed by the Japanese company Kawaski Heavy Industries. In a bid to decarbonise, Japan is looking to source hydrogen to fuel its vehicles, and the brown coal in the Latrobe Valley is being eyed as a potential source. However the project will only go ahead if it can be claimed to be 'low carbon', which is where CarbonNet's project fits in.

Community members in Golden Beach have been fighting the project, and a group called 'Ninety Mile Against Carbon Capture' has emerged. They do not want this project built because of the potential health and environmental risks it poses to their community.

The problems with waste-carbon injection

Ineffective technology: There are well-founded and grave concerns about waste-carbon injection. Despite billions of dollars being spent in projects worldwide the possibility of dangerous leakage remains, rendering the exercise futile. According to a study from the University of Copenhagen, unless leakage can be kept below 1% over 1,000 years, waste-carbon injection will not stop climate change.

A prime example of the unreliability of this technology is US company Chevron's Gorgon project. In Western Australia, Chevron's carbon-waste storage facility has recently been delayed for the second time because of continuing technical issues.

It was supposed to be up and running in 2017 at the beginning of the Gorgon gas project in order to sequester emissions. The gas project itself was approved on the condition that it was partnered with waste-carbon injection, so that Australia would still be able to achieve its Paris Agreement targets.

However the injection and storage process failed from the start, and an estimated 6.2 million tonnes of pollution that were supposed to be safely stored have already been emitted. The second delay is expected to result in up to another 11 million tonnes of emissions.

Advocates of carbon-waste injection and storage technology say the technology is ready to be rolled out, yet existing facilities still do not work.

Toxic chemicals: How the chemicals being used to try to trap carbon may react and degrade when injected into the seafloor is unknown. These chemicals include a range of amines including carcinogen nitrosamines.

We don't yet know how the leaking of these compounds into the marine environment will affect marine life and ecosystems. The results could be toxic and devastating.

Furthermore, this area on the Gippsland coastline is seismically active, and close to important underground aquifers. The safety of communities and the environment, as well as the integrity of these aquifers, is far from guaranteed.

Extremely costly: As the Australia Institute noted in its 2017 report Money for Nothing, Australia has spent a staggering $1.3 billion on waste-carbon injection technology.

Most projects fail to successfully store any carbon at all. Some never even reach the stage where the process can be attempted.

Truckloads of money on an experimental technology that's not yet proven to work anywhere. The Victorian government must stop funding waste-carbon injection research with public money and reallocate any remaining funds towards job creation in the Latrobe Valley.

Keeping coal open for business: Victoria's coal policy, Statement on future uses of brown coal, relies heavily on the imagined future success of waste-carbon injection to continue the use of coal. It fails to account for the technological failures and exorbitant cost of waste-carbon tech.

Continued misplaced faith in waste-carbon technology delays a commitment to transitioning away from fossil fuels, which is what Victoria and the world must do if we are to maintain a safe climate. Money that is being funnelled into this failed technology could be going to growing renewable energy and battery storage, developing renewable industries and jobs, and funding a just transition from coal for the Latrobe Valley community.

Not a climate solution: Advocates of the CarbonNet waste-carbon injection project peddle it as a solution to climate change in Victoria. However this is problematic and misleading for multiple reasons.

As outlined earlier, waste-carbon injection is not a reliable process. So there is the risk that if this project went ahead it would experience the same technological delays dogging Chevron's Gorgon project, and emissions would continue to be pumped into the atmosphere.

Furthermore, CarbonNet is attached to an entirely new coal project. So even if it was a reliable project that would store emissions, it would not reduce the climate impact of any of Victoria's current emissions.

Solar and wind energy are both currently cheaper than waste-carbon injection and continuously decreasing in price. They also have the benefit of working! Renewables are reliable, and unlike waste-carbon injection, are already reducing our carbon output.

The funding wasted on waste-carbon technologies would be better spent on improving and rolling out proven renewable technology, but there is a dangerous, misplaced hope keeping old coal alive in an increasingly warming climate.

As engineering researchers noted in an article in The Conversation: "Keeping the coal in the ground is not only the most economical way of reducing carbon emissions, it is a sure way to save thousands of lives every day due to cleaner air. It is a classic case of "prevention," through decarbonization of energy systems, being better and cheaper than the "cure" of CO2 capture."

What are we doing?

Friends of the Earth Melbourne and the Quit Coal collective are standing with Ninety Mile Against Carbon Capture to oppose CarbonNet's waste-carbon injection project. We are calling on Premier Daniel Andrews to do the right thing by the Golden Beach community, and by all Victorians, and block this expensive and unreliable project.

To learn more and get involved you can check out the Quit Coal website, or attend a collective meeting at 6pm Wednesdays, at Friends of the Earth Melbourne.

Published in Chain Reaction #135, April 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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