Wednesday, 2 August 2023
Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Amendment (Using New Technologies to Fight Climate Change) Bill 2023; Second Reading
The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived. The air is unbreathable.
The heat is unbearable. And the level of fossil fuel profits and climate inaction is unacceptable.
Those are not my words. They are not the words of an environmental activist. They are not the words of someone who has let perfect be the enemy of good. They are the words of the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, as he reacted to the climate chaos that has unfolded over the past few weeks—chaos that has seen July recorded as the hottest month ever; fire engulfing Greece, Canada, Portugal and Algeria; oceans warming at unprecedented levels; and floods devastating Spain and Pakistan.
On Monday I stood alongside my colleagues from the crossbench and asked the government to take this crisis seriously. I called on the government to respond publicly to the evidence of rapidly increasing global heating, to urgently update their policies to reflect the reality of Australia's contribution to the climate crisis, and to develop a national adaptation plan against the climate impacts that are already being felt. We have not had a comprehensive response, and we are not seeing a level of urgency and ambition that reflects the scale of the crisis we are facing.
Instead, we have heard Labor reiterate the commitment to an emissions reduction target that is not aligned with the science and reiterate their description of a set of policies that are not sufficient to meet it. Given this, it is imperative that new legislation is brought forward to ramp up our efforts to deal with the climate crisis. The priority for this government should be to urgently bring forward the proposed reforms to the EPBC Act and to use them to deal with the twin crises of climate and nature that are facing this country. I know the minister is committed to these important environmental law reforms and is working hard with the environmental and business communities to take them forward. But that important work needs to be accelerated.
This brings me to the legislation before the House today: the so-called Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Amendment (Using New Technologies to Fight Climate Change) Bill 2023. The bill has an attractive title, but I am concerned that it does not primarily deal with new technologies and, in its current formation, it does not help us deal with climate change—in fact, it is quite the opposite. Without amendment, the primary consequence of this bill will be the continued extracting, burning and exporting of fossil fuels, but instead of taking responsibility for our actions this will allow Australian fossil fuel companies to send our carbon emissions overseas and claim that they're not our problem.
Schedule 1 of this bill allows for carbon dioxide from Australian gas projects to be exported and buried under the sea by someone else. The reason this legislation is necessary is to facilitate Santos's proposal to open a new carbon capture and storage facility in Timor-Leste, delaying the commissioning reliability of their existing gas field. But this bill is about more than one project. As indicated to the committee inquiry in submissions by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, this will enable Santos's exploitation of the Barossa gas field and the expansion of the Darwin LNG hub—a project that centres on fracking the Beetaloo basin to generate fossil fuel for export. These are fossil fuel projects that DFAT say will be supported by this legislation. This is not ambitious climate action.
The proponents of this bill argue that the expansion of new gas projects for export is not a climate concern because carbon capture and storage technology will mean the emissions generated can be buried under the sea. It's the government's faith in carbon capture and storage which is at the centre of this bill. I am not against carbon capture and storage in principle. We are going to need a range of technologies to fight climate change, and perhaps this is one of them. The problem is carbon capture and storage doesn't work yet, and if it doesn't yet work as it is intended, if it's failing to work even in Australia under the close supervision of the Australian government, then there are real risks of sending our carbon overseas to be processed in a process that we don't yet know actually works. That is the fundamental reason I am objecting to this bill.
CCS is not a new technology. It has been around since the 1970s and it has consistently failed to live up to the benefits that fossil fuel companies have claimed. For a start, CCS has the potential to capture only a small fraction—around 10 per cent—of the total life-cycle emissions from the export and use of fossil fuels. That's because most emissions are generated when the gas is burned. But even just looking at that small fraction, the performance of CCS globally has been very poor. Take Australia for example: we have only one commercial CCS facility operating in this country—Chevron's Gorgon facility—and it has been an expensive and abject failure. When the facility was created it was intended to bury 80 per cent of the emissions from the Gorgon gas fields. However, since being operational, independent estimates suggest it has captured as little as five per cent of the lifecycle emissions generated, and even Chevron admits it is operating at only one-third capacity. That's despite billions of dollars of investment, including $60 million from Australian taxpayers—the same Australian taxpayers who spent $790 million supporting CCS projects under the Morrison government and who are now forking out another $1.5 billion in subsidies to the Middle Arm petrochemical hub.
CCS is unproven technology in Australia, despite our long history of fossil fuel extraction and despite millions of dollars in government subsidies. And CCS is definitely an unproven technology in Timor-Leste, which does not have the same level of expertise in the resources sector, does not have the same strong environmental laws, does not have the same level of government capacity to regulate, and is also not a signatory to the London protocol. By passing this legislation, the government will be taking a significant risk, and that is the concern I have. We will be facilitating Santos's project in Timor-Leste, exploitation of the Barossa gas field and the fracking of the Beetaloo basin in the hope that CCS will work effectively in Timor-Leste when it has failed in Australia.
In the litany of measures that we could be taking to address the climate crisis, this should not be high up on our list.
Let me close by addressing the argument that ratifying the 2009 amendment to the London protocol, which this bill does, is vital to Australia's reputation on climate action. There are 53 contracting parties to the London protocol and, 14 years after this amendment was first proposed, only 10 states have ratified it. Those 10 don't include our partners in the Pacific, for whom climate change is an existential threat; don't include Greece, Croatia, Portugal, Italy, or Algeria, where wildfires are blazing; and certainly don't include Timor-Leste, the country we are hoping will bury our emissions for us. Australia's international reputation on climate will be restored when we take real action to address the climate crisis, not by facilitating the opening of more new gas projects.
So, as I said before, if the government is passionate about CCS, if the gas industry is passionate about CCS, make it work in Australia first and then consider whether it's appropriate to consider export. But it is not yet working in Australia, and there is significant risk if you export it overseas. I also want to raise the issue that some others have raised: that this prevents the development of CCS in Australia. Nothing in the current form stops Australia from developing effective CCS technology nor actually importing carbon from other places and burying it here. We still have the ability to grow the CCS industry in Australia, including importing gases that we bury, if we so desire and if the technology works. Those are not arguments to say that the bill should be passed.
There are conditions under which I would or may support this bill: if the legislation were amended such that it only applied to projects that generated negative emissions—that is, the removing of existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere—if CCS were a successful, proven technology in removing carbon dioxide, if the legislation were amended to stop taxpayers' money being used to subsidise CCS projects, if the legislation were amended to guarantee proper safeguards that ensure the efficacy of the technology both in Australia and in Timor-Leste, if Timor-Leste were a signatory of the London Protocol and if the government first passed stronger environmental laws so that we had a guarantee that future proposals for new fossil fuel projects would be properly assessed for their climate and environmental impact. Many of these are crossbench amendments that are on the table—amendments that the government could accept—and, unless the government backs them, I cannot support this legislation.