09 January, 2017

Courtesy of the Australian

The political turning point for Australia’s energy debate may well have come in the first week of the year. Federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan’s historic pledge in The Australian that coal will remain a core part of the energy supply mix for the foreseeable future was the strongest endorsement for coal from a minister since the renewables debate began more than a decade ago.

Is this the first real sign the Turnbull government has recognised voters care more about ­energy prices and the lights ­staying on when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining than they do about leading the world in cutting emissions and embracing renewables?

Canavan’s backing of coal is a clear signal of how the ­federal government intends to ­address the key voter issues of ­energy affordability and reliability. But still outstanding is a third issue created by the signing of the Paris Agreement, Australia’s promise to reduce its carbon emissions by up to 28 per cent by 2030.

Malcolm Turnbull knows this third plank must be delivered or he risks losing just as many moderate Coalition voters as he picks up from blue collar Labor electorates.

Currently, the national energy debate is so straitened that this need to consider price, reliability and the Paris Agreement are never addressed holistically: on the far Left the focus is only on what ­technology best reduces emissions, while on the far Right the message extends to keeping the lights on and prices down.

Having thrown its support behind domestic coal to the reported tune of $100 billion over the next two decades with the Paris Agreement looming large in the background, the federal government has the opportunity to advance clean coal technologies just as the government’s $2bn Australian Renewable Energy Agency has done for renewable energy.

It is this unexplored middle ground that the Prime Minister must now seize if the political headaches of energy price, reliability and carbon emissions are to be resolved.

One Nation is targeting the mining states of Queensland, NSW and Western Australia in upcoming state elections and it is not hard to see it backing clean coal as a means of appealing to conservative regional and urban voters.

The desire to reduce our carbon emissions is not new. Nor is the aspiration to reduce coal’s carbon footprint. Indeed clean coal technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), gasification and chemical washing — which remove or reduce pollutant emissions to the atmosphere — have been in development for several decades.

Ironically, like the renewables that now seek to kill off coal, it is only very recently that this research has started to deliver commercially appealing results.

CCS has struggled to gain political traction, in part due to the tough task of selling the process of pumping up to 90 per cent of the carbon emitted from power stations several kilometres below the earth’s surface, where it is then stored — perhaps indefinitely. In reality, this process simply returns the carbon to where it originated and has been safely stored for many millions of years.

In China, India, Canada, South Korea, the US and Australia, ­commercially successful coal-fired plants using either CCS or high ­efficiency low emission technologies to reduce CO2 ­emissions by up to 90 per cent are already operating.

Yet the energy debate in this country remains characterised by shrill hysteria and political point-scoring.

As Robin Batterham, a former group chief scientist at mining giant Rio Tinto and former chief scientist of Australia, says, while the cost of capturing carbon ­dioxide is challenging, “as the ­Intergovernmental Panel on ­Climate Change made clear in its 2014 report, the cost of not capturing it is greater”.

The IPCC also says that not only is CCS the cheapest way to reduce global emissions, but it may not even be possible to achieve lower emissions targets without CCS.

Geoscience Australia, an official government adviser, calls CCS “one of the most important tools Australia has to reduce our ­nation’s greenhouse gas emissions”, while the International ­Energy Agency says “following the ratification of the Paris Agreement, the ability of CCS to reduce emissions from fossil fuel use in power generation — including from existing facilities — will be crucial to limiting future temperature increases”.

And according to New Scientist, a study by the CSIRO which modelled various scenarios for how Australia could continue to grow and meet climate targets found: “The most positive scenarios for Australia’s growth and climate are ones where CCS becomes commercially viable. Australia is one of the world’s biggest producers of coal and CCS would allow coal use to increase, while decreasing emissions.”

It is clear that clean coal technology offers Australia the ­sensible middle path to a clean ­energy future in line with the three big objectives of a national energy policy that delivers security, affordability and lower carbon ­emissions.

The next federal election could be as soon as August next year. That doesn’t leave the Prime Minister much time to convince voters that only he can solve our emerging energy crisis.

If voters are to be convinced, then clean coal technology needs to quickly find its way into the government’s electricity message.

To that end, Canavan may well be remembered as the man who first shone the light on the middle path to a clean energy future.

Nathan Vass is chief executive of the Australian Power Project, which promotes sustainable national energy policy