The myth of 'clean coal'
Australia’s coal-fired power stations are a major source of the greenhouse pollution that causes climate change. Will attempts to 'clean up' coal truly tackle this problem? Or will it sweep the dirt under the carpet?
The shift away from coal toward safe, truly clean energy sources like solar and wind is already underway overseas. Many argue Australia should lead this shift.
“I think it’s as big as the issue of nuclear waste … What are you going to do with millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide that is not nearly as compact as nuclear waste?...I don’t think the concept of pumping carbon dioxide down into a cavern under the ground is going to be the long term solution.”
Paul Anderson, director and former head, mining giant BHP Billiton, 2007
What is 'clean coal'?
It’s been dubbed “clean coal”, carbon capture and storage (CCS), or geosequestration. But it's definitely NOT clean. It’s experimental technology that aims to capture greenhouse pollution from burning coal, and transport it to burial sites for storage – sometimes hundreds of kilometres away. Here it would need to be stored underground, essentially forever. It doesn't exist at any full-sized power station at the moment, anywhere in the world.
There are many unknowns. Will the greenhouse pollution stay safely buried for millennia? Are there suitable burial sites in Australia? If so how many? What will be the additional cost?
One thing is certain. Taxpayers and consumers will pick up the tab to allow the coal industry to continue producing greenhouse pollution.
What could go wrong and who will pay the price?
Leakage is one risk. Leakage would undermine the benefits of geosequestration for reducing emissions. According to UN research, it could even pose dangers to human life and health. In 2006, scientists testing geosequestration found that greenhouse gas stored underground formed strong acids, creating a nasty mix of metals and organic substances. It also dissolved a surprising amount of the rock that helped hold the gas underground.
Liability for accidents is another risk Australians face with this technology. You might think that it's unfair to expect governments, tax-payers or future generations to take responsibility for a geosequestration site after a corporation has created it. However, this is what the Ministerial Council for Mineral and Petroleum Resources has proposed.
Here’s six reasons why we think relying on carbon capture and storage to save the day is a risky strategy that's likely to fail. Get the juice
How long will it take to get up and running?
The technology is still in its experimental phase. Even the coal industry admits that only nine such coal plants (less than 6,000 MW of capacity) would likely be built by 2020 worldwide.
Yet by that time we could have more than two hundred times that much capacity of clean, safe, emissions-free wind power (installed capacity of 1,250,000 MW). With scientists warning we must curtail emissions within a decade, it makes sense to use safe, truly clean – renewable – technologies that are available now.