Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on the CO2 Sea Dumping Bill

2 August 2023 

I rise to speak on this Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Amendment (Using New Technologies to Fight Climate Change) Bill 2023. As is often the case, it's a fairly cute title, because, when you say that this is about new technologies to fight climate change, there should be a lot more detail and some protections actually in the legislation, and that is detail that's not there at this point—and I will get to that. For people listening or watching: the bill implements amendments to the international framework under the 2009 and 2013 amendments to the London protocol. The London protocol aims to promote the effective control of all sources of marine pollution and take practical steps to prevent pollution of the sea through the dumping of waste and other matter. I know for so many around Australia, but particularly in Warringah, the health of our oceans is incredibly important. We care a lot. We actually have the Sydney Institute of Marine Science locally, at Chowder Bay, doing amazing work in conservation and restoration. The health of the oceans is incredibly important. I note that there has in fact been a call for there to be a minister of oceans. We currently have the Minister for the Environment and Water, but we don't have a minister for oceans, noting the incredibly important role the ocean plays in our environment and in setting the climate around the world.

This bill provides for the amendment of Australian laws under the London protocol to allow for the issue of permits for the export of carbon dioxide streams. We've heard a lot of members from the government side talk about this really being about putting protections around marine geoengineering and all the other things that do come under this bill. But more important is the fact that it does permit the export of carbon dioxide streams and subsea-level carbon capture and storage. What we don't have in this, in fact, but there are a number of amendments put forward, is the provision of protections around that. If we want to be true to the title of this bill, to say that it is using new technologies to fight climate change, then those amendments should be included and the government should be accepting them.

At the moment, it allows for carbon dioxide streams from carbon capture processes to be exported for the purpose of sequestration into subseabed geological formations. The bill also allows the issue of permits for the placement of waste and other material for marine geoengineering activity for the purpose of scientific research. These would implement the 2009 and 2013 amendments to the London protocol. I should say for everyone's benefit that only 10 parties have ratified the 2009 amendment to the London protocol: Norway, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Finland, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, the Republic of Korea and Belgium.

Despite the name of this bill and using all technologies to fight climate change, as I've said it is only with the amendments that it can actually do that. I have significant concerns that this bill will be used to enable prolonged use of fossil fuels. For the past two decades, Australian governments have been telling us that commercial-scale carbon capture and storage technology is a legitimate way to reduce emissions. That is a unicorn. It is a fallacy. It has failed. It is a myth peddled by the fossil fuel industry to justify their continued expansion. Despite tens of billions of dollars of investment, commercial scale CCS has been a complete failure. Its exponents tell us we can keep burning fossil fuels and simply pump the emissions underground—it's as easy as that! We know that commercial scale CCS is a lie told by the fossil fuel industry and their political representatives to justify new planet-wrecking coal, oil and gas projects.

Chevron used the lie of commercial-scale CCS to gain the social licence and approval for the massive Gorgon carbon bomb. Despite investing some $3.2 billion into what is now the largest CCS project in the world, recent reports show that the project's emissions have increased by more than 50 per cent, with a sharp drop in the amount of CO2 stored underground over the last three years. But has there been any consequence for that failure to deliver the sequestration that was a condition and a part of the approval? No. Chevron was allowed to build its $81 billion gas export hub, on the condition that it was capable of storing all the carbon dioxide from its offshore reservoirs and, as a minimum, implementing all practical means to bury at least 80 per cent of the greenhouse gas. In the 12 months to June 2022, Chevron injected underground just 1.6 million tonnes of reservoir CO2 and vented into the atmosphere some 3.4 million tonnes. That is from their own report. In the six years since the export of liquified natural gas started from Gorgon, 20.4 million tonnes of CO2 has been extracted from the natural gas piped from offshore to Barrow Island but only 6.5 million tonnes is now stored under the island.

This project is a case study of the lie that is CCS and why I am concerned that this technology leads to greater emissions by enabling the approval of new fossil fuel projects. If this legislation is used to facilitate that to continue, this is not new technology to fight climate change; it is new technology to lie and increase the risk and the consequences of fossil fuel burning and climate change. Imagine the real impact that $3.2 billion could have had if it were spent on actual legitimate projects that get us off fossil fuels rather than this complex, failing concept that allows gas companies to pretend that they are actually tackling their emissions when they instead are throwing accelerating fuel on increased temperatures and global warming.

There is a great fear among many that the Middle Arm project in the Northern Territory is a driver of enabling the fracking of the Beetaloo basin, widely acknowledged as an absolute methane carbon bomb in the making, and Middle Arm underpins the claims by companies advocating to frack the Beetaloo basin that it will somehow get net zero gas. So this bill could further enable the dumping of carbon under the sea of carbon captured at Middle Arm from the processing of Beetaloo gas.

There are fears that this bill will enable the expansion of the Barossa gas field and the export of carbon dioxide to Timor-Leste to be dumped in the seabed in their waters. Santos is leading the development of Barossa, which has a high CO2 concentration of 18 per cent. Santos also has a depleted gas field in Bayu-Undan in Timor-Leste. If Santos, through this legislation, can claim to be net zero by exporting the carbon emissions from Barossa to Bauy-Undan, they believe they will have social licence to develop the Barossa field. Yet, as the Gorgon experience has proven, this type of technology is prohibitively costly, highly ineffective and does not deliver the carbon capture and storage that is promised. But it is continually used as a carrot and as justification for further approvals.

These fears don't come from nothing. The fears are the result of the language of members of the Labor Party continuing to enable and promote the expansion of fossil fuels. As the world burns, members of the Labor Party, including the Treasurer just recently, continue to peddle the dangerous lie that gas is somehow part of the energy transition. It was highly disturbing to hear the Northern Territory Chief Minister this week frame projects like the Middle Arm gas precinct as an 'opportunity for energy transition'. These are gas industry talking points coming out of the mouth of Labor Party politicians. Such language can only remind us all of Scott Morrison's gas led recovery and the coalition's obsession with gas. This kind of pro-gas language leads many people to conclude that, like Scott Morrison's coalition government, Anthony Albanese's Labor government has been completely captured by the fossil fuel industry.

It is deceptive and dangerous for politicians to continue telling the public that carbon capture and storage can offset new fossil fuel projects, especially its expansion of gas fracking and extraction. It is especially dangerous to continue these lies given recent global air and sea temperature data which appears to show that the world has entered a new phase of accelerated global warming. Using CCS to justify new gas projects at the same time as the UN Secretary-General says that we have entered the era of global boiling is utterly reckless and negligent.

Beyond the climate impacts, there are significant environmental concerns with this technology. The EDO submitted that the drilling and laying of pipelines in offshore locations may pose significant threats to offshore ecosystems. In the event of leaking carbon dioxide from CCS activities, the environmental impact on marine environments could be significant. This would be compounded if prolonged leaks occurred or were inadequately monitored or managed. Leaking CO2 risks causing acidification of the water around the CCS site. CO2 leakages lead to CO2 dissolving into seawater and decreasing seawater pH, with the effect of acidifying the marine environment. Further, there are significant concerns about the lack of knowledge about geoengineering in a marine environment. Ocean fertilisation could have unintended consequences, such as ocean acidification, algae blooms and depletion of oxygen in deep waters. These are just some of the concerns that the now Leader of the House expressed in 2013 as the minister of the environment. He argued that it needed to be treated with great care, adding also that there was potential for damage to human health. The health of our oceans is vital to the health of our planet. The Ocean Decade leadership white paper that was recently released found:

The ocean is recognised as the new economic frontier, offering opportunities for economic growth, employment, and innovation. However, unlike previously untouched areas, the ocean has not been spared from human impact. Stressors including rising sea temperatures, pollution, resource over-exploitation, biodiversity loss, sea-level rise, and extreme weather events have only recently been understood and experienced by humans.

We need to build this understanding before further altering the ocean-climate nexus.

Australia has a long history of advocating for carbon capture and storage on the international stage, due largely to the influence of the fossil fuel industry in politics here. No-one can forget the Australian government stand, sponsored by a gas company, at the COP event. The 2013 London protocol amendment allowing this kind of experimentation was proposed by Australia and co-sponsored by Nigeria and the Republic of Korea on the premise that ocean fertilisation should occur for legitimate scientific research purposes only and should otherwise be prohibited. The government claims that this bill is necessary to assist Timor-Leste with their financial situation by enabling carbon dioxide to be stored in their waters as a future revenue source or for legitimate scientific research purposes, but no guardrails are included in this legislation as it currently stands. It's somewhat ironic that we're concerned about future revenue streams for Timor-Leste, in light of other allegations in this place.

There is significant pressure from our primary gas export markets, like Japan and the Republic of Korea, to permit carbon capture and storage and sub-seabed sequestration, as the geology surrounding their countries is not stable enough to support it, and they face pressures to reduce emissions. Norway has established a separate law for sub-seabed CO2 injection for storage regulations relating to the exploitation of sub-seabed reservoirs on the continental shelf. This legislation has enabled Norway's Northern Lights project, which the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water has referred to as an example of how CCS has been considered globally. But, specifically, it's seen as an enabler of blue hydrogen projects. It's something that I fundamentally object to, because it requires the continuation of the fossil fuel industry.

However, we are going to enter an era when we have to talk about carbon drawdown. The truth is that atmospheric carbon dioxide already far exceeds safe levels for human civilisation. The Australian Academy of Science says that the world will need to remove greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere in order to avoid the worst-case scenarios of global warming. Scientists and entrepreneurs are continuing to work on solutions to directly capture carbon from the atmosphere through a wide range of methods, including direct air capture and electrochemical and biological approaches, to name a few. So the storage of carbon drawdown of existing emissions needs to be considered, and I believe that is where this legislation could have a role to play. We do need to start looking beyond net zero, and we should have on the agenda climate-positive outcomes. So we need to talk about greenhouse gas removal and negative emissions, but for that you need the government. If the government was legitimate in wanting to say this was about climate action, then the amendments proposed would ensure that these can be used only for greenhouse gas removal and negative emissions and not for an offset or to justify any future fossil fuel projects or expansion of fossil fuels. Then we would be able to believe the government.