Australian sea dumping law changes condemned amid warnings of gas industry expansion
Greens and environmentalists say legislation introduced to parliament by Tanya Plibersek could facilitate new fossil fuel projects
Kirsty Howey, of the Environment Centre NT, said she feared the changes would be used to help expand gas projects such as Santos’ Barossa offshore project, which it has proposed will include an offshore CCS facility. Photograph: Rebecca Parker
Proposed changes to Australia’s sea dumping laws that would allow carbon dioxide to be pumped into international waters could be used to justify the expansion of the gas industry, the Greens and environment groups say.
The legislation, which was introduced to parliament by the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, last week, would allow the minister to grant permits so CO2 captured during industrial processes could be exported and stored under the seabed – a process known as carbon, capture and storage (CCS) – in another country’s waters.
It is intended to bring Australia’s laws into line with changes to an international treaty on the prevention of marine pollution.
The gas industry and the federal resources minister, Madeleine King, have championed CCS as central to the continued expansion of fossil fuel fields. However, although the technology has had billions of dollars of government grants and subsidies committed to it, including an estimated $4bn in Australia, it has not meaningfully provided emission cuts.
The legislation has the support of the oil and gas industry peak body, Appea, but environment groups and the Greens say it could facilitate fossil fuel expansion when the International Energy Agency has warned new projects cannot proceed if the world is to limit global heating to 1.5C.
Kirsty Howey of the Environment Centre NT said she was concerned the changes would be used to facilitate the expansion of gas developments such as Santos’ Barossa offshore project, which it has proposed will include a CCS facility in the depleted Bayu-Undan gas reservoir in waters off Timor-Leste.
“CCS hasn’t been shown to work at scale anywhere in the world,” she said. “It’s time to give up the ghost and phase out fossil fuels urgently, rather than peddling false solutions like CCS to justify their expansion.”
Tim Beshara, of the Wilderness Society, said allowing unproven, large-scale CCS projects offshore in Australia risked permanently industrialising places that were once identified as being temporary locations for industry.
“It’s desperately disappointing that the Albanese government has created space within its environmental legislative agenda for this, well before effective, future-focused environment laws that would actually help the environment,” he said.
The Greens’ oceans spokesman, Peter Whish-Wilson, said: “So far no one in the [environment] department has been able to provide any examples of commercial scale, cost-effective CCS in the ocean.
“Proper scrutiny [of this bill] is going to be critical.”
Plibersek said the legislation was necessary to meet Australia’s obligations under recent amendments to the international London protocol, a global ocean treaty on the prevention of marine pollution.
“There has already been an extensive House [of Representatives] inquiry [into the London protocol amendments] including public hearings,” she said. “The House committee includes members of the government, opposition and crossbench who unanimously agreed to ratify the protocol.”
In Australia, CCS technology has been promised billions of dollars in public funding for little result.
The climate scientist Bill Hare said storing CO2 under the seabed was not as simple as it sounded and efforts to do this in the North Sea had “thrown up really serious problems with movement of the CO2 and the permanence of its storage”.
Internationally, according to the Global CCS Institute, there were 30 CCS projects in operation last year, with a combined maximum capacity of 42m tonnes of CO2 a year – about 0.1% of global emissions. It said 11 more were under construction.
A report by the House of Representatives committee earlier this year said Australia should ratify the London protocol amendments “as a means for countries to respond to the real urgency of climate change”.
But it said the government would need to carefully regulate private sector or even public-private partnership proponents of the CCS project pipeline and noted Geoscience Australia had identified potential risks such as CO2 leakage and seismic activity induced by the injection of CO2 into the seabed.
In one submission, the Northern Territory government wrote the development of CCS facilities at its proposed Middle Arm hub in Darwin created opportunity for international trade in CO2. It said its offshore gas fields offered potential for a CO2 disposal market worth AU$400m in 2026 to “in excess of AU$1.5bn per annum for duration of its operation beyond 2040”.
It said acceptance of the CCS amendment to the London protocol was also critical for the Bayu-Undan CCS project because it required CO2 to be exported across the Australia–Timor-Leste maritime border.
Appea’s chief executive, Samantha McCulloch, said CCS had been “widely recognised as critical to reaching net zero globally and in Australia” by authorities including the International Energy Agency and the national science agency CSIRO.
“We must follow the facts and the science to get the best outcome for Australia,” she said.
“Carbon capture, utilisation and storage is a proven technology that has been safely and permanently storing CO2 around the world for climate mitigation purposes for over 25 years.”
Once a country is a signatory to the London protocol amendment on CCS they can participate in both the export and import of CO2 for seabed CCS with other signatories.
The legislation would also allow permits to be issued for “marine geoengineering” research that could be used to combat climate change. This could include adding nutrients to the ocean to try to increase CO2 absorption from the atmosphere.