Can carbon capture and storage help Australia reach net zero by 2050?

It’s the multi-million dollar question that plagues Australia’s oil and gas industry: How can we keep burning fossil fuels and achieve net zero by 2050?

A key part of the solution, according to proponents, lies in a technology known as carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Across Australia, 10 new offshore areas for oil and gas exploration were approved last week, as were permits for two new offshore greenhouse gas storage facilities.

So does CCS work on a massive scale and is Australia confident in its success in meeting climate targets?

An aerial view of a fracking exploration site in the Beetaloo Basin.
Gas companies have been ramping up exploration in the Beetaloo Basin. (ABC News: Hamish Harty)

What is carbon capture and storage?

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide at the production site using engineering techniques, then burying it deep underground where it becomes trapped in a layer of porous rock.

gas pipeline and Moomba S.A.
There are mixed opinions on whether there is a risk of CO2 leaking from storage.(ABC News)

Supporters say it’s a proven technology that will help reduce Australia’s carbon emissions, and directors of major gas companies hailed its potential at a recent minerals conference in Darwin.

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Report casts doubt on carbon capture and storage.

But critics argue there is no evidence that it works on a large enough scale to mitigate the effects of climate change.

According to a new report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), most carbon capture and storage projects around the world are not performing as well as they should.

The Northern Territory government is hedging its bets on the technology, seeing it as a way to open up big gas developments, from the multibillion-dollar Santos Barossa gas project to the Beetaloo Basin, a region the gas industry is holding up as a solution. to Australia’s energy crisis, while delivering on its promise to fully offset all resulting life cycle carbon emissions.

A carbon capture and storage plant
Governments have committed about $4 billion to CCS since 2003, says the Australia Institute.(Supplied: CARBON21)

The risk of over-promising

As the looming threat of climate change grows, the prospect of CCS making good on its promise to cut carbon emissions is a welcome relief.

Federal Resources Minister Madeleine King says carbon capture and storage has a “vital role to play in helping Australia achieve its net zero targets”.

But there are serious questions among some climate scientists and economists about whether the technology will work on the scale required to help offset emissions from large projects.

Companies are also facing increasing scrutiny for possible “greenwashing,” with gas giant Santos being taken to court for allegedly overstating its “clean energy” credentials.

Mark Ogge, senior climate and energy adviser at the Australia Institute, said CCS technology was “hugely complicated” and could not be used as a “justification for opening up massive new gas fields”.

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How does carbon capture and storage really work?

“Theoretically, CCS can capture a very small percentage of total emissions,” he said.

“But it’s allowing these huge projects that are going to add billions of tons of emissions into the atmosphere, so it’s a fig leaf for the industry to keep expanding.”

‘Fancy term for a dumpster’

If large-scale production from the Beetaloo Basin goes ahead, government estimates show it could release 5 to 39 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere each year.

Tony Wood, director of the energy and climate change program at the Grattan Institute, said: “We’re talking about really large amounts of CO2 here, not just a couple of Coke bottles.”

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