The Nationals’ pitch for taxpayers to invest in ‘clean coal’ is nothing but a marketing scam designed to make Australians feel better about burning carbon emissions, leading energy experts say.
It comes as the Morrison government pushes key changes to Australia’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation that would allow the green bank to invest in fossil fuel projects, and give Energy Minister Angus Taylor the power to control which investments receive funding.
The Clean Energy Finance Corporation was set up in 2013 to finance more clean energy investments and help lower Australia’s emissions.
Mr Taylor’s proposed bill would undo laws that stop the corporation from investing in fossil fuels and loss-making projects.
But outspoken backbencher Barnaby Joyce served up an amendment to allow for investment in clean coal, blindsiding the government and derailing the passage of the bill through Parliament on Wednesday.
Debate on the legislation started in the House of Representatives on Monday and the push was on to get ‘clean coal’ a spot at the investment table.
“We must have the capacity to have the cheapest and most reliable power we can get,” Mr Joyce said tabling the amendment late on Tuesday.
His amendment enraged Liberal colleagues and came after weeks of in-fighting in the Coalition, fuelled by PM Scott Morrison flagging his conditional support for net-zero emissions by 2050.
On Wednesday, Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie backed Mr Joyce’s amendment intended to allow for new investment in “high efficiency, low emissions” coal-fired power.
Doctors also joined the chorus of voices warning the changes would negatively affect environment targets, saying our love of fossil fuels is already killing 5700 Australians each year, and will continue to do so until we phase it out.
Clean coal ‘doesn’t exist’
Richie Merzian, the climate and energy program director with the Australia Institute, said ‘clean coal’ was nothing more than spin.
“Clean coal doesn’t exist. That’s the first thing,” Mr Merzian told The New Daily.
“Over the last 15 years, Australian governments have invested $1.3 billion into making clean coal work.
“There isn’t a single commercial clean coal, carbon capture storage power plant in Australia. And there are hardly any overseas – you can count them on one hand.”
Australia has only one carbon capture and storage gas plant. It’s currently leaking emissions into the atmosphere, because it doesn’t work.
The Gorgon gas project in WA received $60 million in federal funding but did not start storing emissions until 2019, three years after productions started.
Recently, it has been leaking high levels of emissions out into the atmosphere because its pressure management system is broken.
“It’s still not fully operational,” Mr Merzian said.
“The level of the emissions released in the atmosphere are about the same as Australia’s annual domestic emissions of flights.
“It’s been a massive failure.”
All it boiled down to was a marketing tool, he said.
“Carbon capture might be used for storage in the future, but right now it’s been used as a marketing tool, to extend the social licence of fossil fuels,” Mr Merzian said.
The Nationals fit over net-zero emissions by 2050 and subsequent proposal has put them at odds with their base – farmers.
The National Farmers Federation, the powerful body that represents the industry, has the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.
Sub-categories of the industry – like red meat and pork producers – have even more ambitious timelines of 2030.
Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie said the Nationals had stopped representing their constituents.
She said the majority of projects the council was funding had been of benefit to regional communities.
“The Nationals need to be listening to farming groups and not let prejudices get in the way,” Ms McKenzie said.
“Farmers are realising how much of a benefit to agriculture clean energy can be. It’s something the Nationals need to get behind.”
Our love of coal is killing us
Doctors around the country are also throwing their weight behind the calls of concern, warning that burning fossil fuels is killing us.
“It does kill,” said David King, senior lecturer in the Primary Care Clinical Unit at the University of Queensland.
A recent report from Harvard University, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, showed more than eight million people died from fossil fuel pollution in 2018.
In Australia, the research showed 4 per cent of deaths annually, or about 5700 each year, are related to fossil fuel burning.
Dr King said of all the fossil fuels, coal is the worst.
“Coal is the dirtiest form of fuel that there is in the world. It kills more people than oil and gas. A lot of those deaths are by air pollution,” he said.
In terms of health, ‘clean coal’ is a “misnomer”, he said.
“It’s the equivalent of going from 25 cigarettes a day to 20,” Dr King said.
The government withdrew the bill for debate and will now wait weeks – or months – to reintroduce it.