The curious case of emissions dumping down under

Camille Corcoran breaks down the implications of Australia's landmark ban on carbon capture and storage projects in the Great Artesian Basin.
Chevron's Gorgon gas plant is home to the only operational CCS project in Australia © Chevron
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Last month, the premier of Queensland, Steven Miles, announced that his government would be banning carbon capture and storage (CCS) in the Queensland portion of the Great Artesian Basin, one of the largest and deepest underground freshwater resources in the world.

The basin, which constitutes a permanent water source for over 180,000 people, spread over 120 towns, has been the target of a carbon capture and storage project by the Carbon Transport and Storage Corporation (CTSCo), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Swiss mining giant Glencore.

CTSCo was proposing to inject 330,000 tonnes of CO2 into the Precipice Sandstone, one of the largest freshwater aquifers in the Basin. The CO2 was to be transported from the Millmerran coal-fired power station, located 260km to the southeast, and injected into the aquifer at a rate of three litres a second every day for three years.

But CTSCo’s proposal attracted huge opposition, spanning the political spectrum. Even Australia’s richest woman, the mining magnate Gina Rinehart, joined the chorus of criticism directed at the project.

“I’ve been working in advocacy and agriculture for about 30 years, and I have never seen a community mobilise and unify in opposition to a project like it has with this one,” said Jo Sheppard, CEO of the Queensland Farming Federation.

As it turns out, their concerns were justified. Experts analysing the environmental impact assessment Glencore had compiled for the project identified some troubling claims within it. While CTSCo had assured authorities that injecting CO2 into the aquifer would acidify the water by an amount “level to that of tomato juice or black coffee” experts found that the acidification would in reality be much more severe.

“It’s taking the water from a pH of 8.5 down to a pH of four. For each drop in that pH scale, there’s an order of magnitude increase in acidity, so we’re looking at a 10,000 time acidification of the natural water quality,” said Ned Hamer, a hydrogeologist who has worked in and around the Great Artesian Basin for three decades.

The Bubbling Mound Spring, located in the Wabma Kadarbu Conservation Park, is one of the Great Artesian Basin's many natural springs ©️ Wikimedia Commons

Such acidification of the water would also have been highly likely to mobilise heavy metals such as arsenic and lead in the water to levels above those safe for human consumption. In fact, buried at the bottom of the environmental assessment was an admission of this from Glencore themselves. Modelling conducted by the University of Queensland on behalf of Glencore showed that the CO2 injection would increase arsenic levels in the water to 500 micrograms per litre (µg/L) and lead to 1000 µg/L. According to Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, safe levels of both substances is 10 µg/L. Both arsenic and lead are thought to be poisonous and carcinogenic.

“It is just obscene hypocrisy and such a callous disregard for the prosperity of a relatively small number of people in Australia,” said Robbie Katter, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Queensland.  

Stakeholders’ concerns did not fall on deaf ears. When a final decision was due on the project, Queensland Premier and state leader of the Australian Labor party Steven Miles rejected it outright. A week later, he doubled down, slapping a ban on all future CCS projects in the Great Artesian Basin.

“Greenhouse gas storage activities, including carbon capture and storage projects, will be permanently prohibited in the basin as part of the move to protect the critically important resource,” the Queensland government said.

CCS in Australia

While Miles’ rejection of the Glencore project has been heralded as a triumph by its opponents, Australia’s broader commitment to CCS as a climate change mitigation measure remains concerningly unshaken.

Polly Hemming, a director at the think tank, the Australia Institute, thinks that while the rejection of the CCS project is a “good outcome” it is concerning that “ideological support for carbon capture and storage still remains very strong.”

“Australia has been promoting the idea of CCS for decades”, Hemming said. “Under Scott Morrison’s centre right coalition government there were billions of dollars committed to carbon capture and storage, through subsidies and incentives to industry.”

The approach to CCS changed somewhat in 2022, when the Australian Labor party took office. They said that CCS must be funded by industry itself and redirected all the funds that had previously been committed to carbon capture and storage subsidies. This was not to say that Australia was moving away from CCS, however. Instead, the Labor government opted to make legislative changes that would enable oil and gas companies to store CO2 under the Australian seabed. 

Dumping CO2 at Sea

Last November, the Australian government approved an amendment to the 1981 Environmental Protection Act that brought it into line with the London Protocol, a global treaty on marine pollution. While the purpose of the London protocol is ostensibly to control marine pollution by preventing the dumping of waste at sea, amendments made to the protocol in 2009 allowed for cross border transportation of CO2 for storage under the seabed.

As a new signatory to the protocol, Australia’s environment minister is now able to grant permits for the export and import of captured CO2. In practice, this means countries such as South Korea and Japan will be able to export their CO2 for storage in old oil and gas fields under the Australian seabed.

“It's given confidence to other fossil fuel companies with very tired wells [that it's] business as usual.”

Campaigners are concerned at the speed with which the legislation was passed. “[The government] belted it through Parliament, which of course now opens Australia up to be the global carbon pollution dumping ground for a number of nations,” said Louise Morris, Campaign Manager on offshore oil and gas for the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

“We don’t have a clear regulatory framework about how [the law] will be governed. The precautionary principle should say that you hold a moratorium on any development until these fundamental regulatory processes are dealt with properly because this is dangerously expensive stuff. Instead, we’re seeing these projects being fast tracked to actualization, which really asks the question: is this a signal that the fossil fuel companies are going to be having a guiding hand in the rules and the regulations?”

The gas fields ride again

The company that currently stands to gain most from this new legislation is Australian oil and gas exploration company Santos, whose Bayu-Undan gas field, located in the Timor Sea, is due to be decommissioned later this year. Santos is also developing a new gasfield and pipeline in the Timor Sea, 300km north of Darwin, northern Australia. Under Australian environmental laws, emissions from this project will now have to be offset. For Santos, the new sea-dumping legislation provides a convenient solution. It will enable Santos to develop a CCS project at Bayu-Undan, at once storing CO2 from the new Barossa project and pushing back the decommissioning date of this old gasfield to sometime in the 2050s. Bayu-Undan will also be used to store CO2 exported from Japan and South Korea.

“Bayu-Undan – which is currently a very tired old gas well that is reaching the end of its life – now has a whole new world of investment potential in being used as a CCS project,” said Louise Morris. “It’s given confidence to other fossil fuel companies with very tired wells as a way to do business as usual.”

Australia's new sea-dumping laws could see old oil and gas fields avoid decomissioning ©️ ConocoPhilllips

Indicative of how widespread the practice of CO2 dumping could be is the wave of Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) that have been signed between various fossil fuel companies for the exportation of CO2 to Australia over the past few months. In March of this year, Japan’s Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration Corporation signed an MOU with Chevron to “provide a framework to evaluate the export of Carbon Dioxide from Japan to Carbon Capture and Storage projects located in Australia and other countries in the Asia Pacific region.” Korean energy company SK E&S have also announced plans to partner with Santos to facilitate exports of CO2 from the East Asian country to Australian waters.

Krill killers

The environmental impacts of offshore CCS projects are also likely to be profound. Oil and gas companies will need to conduct “seismic blastings” to map rock formations and the shape of the ocean floor. According to Louise Morris, these blastings are “the equivalent in volume to an atomic bomb and have the potential to kill krill within a 1.2km radius of the blast site.”

Seismic blasts can also cause distress to larger marine animals, such as whales and dolphins, that rely on sound to navigate and for communicating over vast distances. The blasts have the potential to seriously disrupt their feeding and breeding processes.

Here, as with the freshwater aquifer, acidification of the water is a significant risk. “Most people’s brains automatically go to ‘what happens when it leaks?’. It’s basically acidification of the ocean,” said Morris. “[CO2] has been shown in numerous projects to affect the pH of the rock formations it’s in. When the rock does fracture, CO2 gets out to the ocean and the pH level of the water it comes in contact with changes and turns acidic.”

Leakage has been a concern at existing offshore CCS facilities. A report compiled by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) on Norway’s Sleipner and Snøhvit sites found that storing carbon dioxide underground is “not an exact science” and “may carry even more risk and uncertainty than drilling for oil or gas.”

It pointed to issues at the Sleipner facility, where after just three years, the stored CO2 had risen from the lower-level injection site to a previously unidentified shallower layer. “Had this unknown layer not been fortunate enough to be geologically bounded, stored CO2 might have escaped,” IEEFA said.

The 600 billion dollar question

While cross border agreements with Asian oil and gas companies may present lucrative opportunities for players such as Santos, the potential broader economic benefits of the legislation are unclear.

Last month, the global energy analysts Wood Mackenzie stated that by expanding its CCS industry and becoming a storage hub for the Asia-Pacific region, Australia would be able to generate a staggering $577 billion in revenue from 2030 to 2050. The claim was first made in a non-peer reviewed research article by Wood Mackenzie, which was published in the oil and gas industry lobby group Australian Energy Producers’ annual journal.

Closer scrutiny of the claim, however, suggests that it may drastically overestimate Australia’s CO2 storage potential. The near $600 billion figure assumes that there is enough capacity in depleted oil and gas fields and saline aquifers to store about 9.8 billion tonnes of CO2. Currently, there is only one CCS project operating in Australia. Another is under construction and proposals have been submitted for a further 16. In order to capture the 9.8bn tonnes of CO2, all 18 of these CCS projects would have to run continually for 300 years.

This is without even considering the existing difficulties CCS projects have encountered in recent years. Australia’s only operational CCS project, which is attached to Chevron’s Gorgon gas plant in Western Australia, has, according to Polly Hemming, been a “manifest failure.”

“It has never operated to full capacity. It failed to store any emissions for the first three years. In 2021, it finally succeeded in storing 5 million tonnes of emissions and this is in the context of its saying that it would store 4 million tonnes every single year.”

Even if the project had been operating at its promised capacity, it would only be able to capture 7% of the Gorgon power station’s total emissions. This inefficiency is inherent in CCS projects. Further analysis from the Australia Institute shows that the amount of CO2 that has been captured by all CCS projects globally is cancelled out by the emissions of just three Australian power stations. 

For Hemming, the drawbacks of CCS are even more apparent offshore. “To be clear, none of this is going to work. It’s entirely unrealistic. The Barossa project would require compressing the CO2 and then pumping it for hundreds of kilometres. That uses more emissions and more energy than the amount of CO2 that would be captured.”

While government and industry enthusiasm for offshore CCS continues to concern campaigners, some are hopeful that political sympathy for the technology might be waning. For Louise Morris, the rejection of Glencore’s project in the Great Artesian Basin was “an amazing step in the right direction.”

“It was such a diverse group of people who just stood up and said you cannot do this to the Great Artesian Basin. I think the butterfly effect of that will resonate through to decision makers and politicians. We’re not going to do this to our aquifers so why would we do this to our oceans?”

Camille Corcoran is an assistant editor at Land and Climate Review.

Read more:

Capturing and storing problems

In the last entry in our series of long reads explaining CCS, Bertie Harrison-Broninski investigates the reasons carbon capture projects have such a ropey track record.

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