Wednesday, 2 August 2023
Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Amendment (Using New Technologies to Fight Climate Change) Bill 2023; Second Reading
The government has told us that this bill, the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Amendment (Using New Technologies to Fight Climate Change) Bill 2023, is non-controversial—and on the face of it, you could almost agree. The bill serves to ratify the 2009 and 2013 amendments to the London protocol of the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter. The government has already committed to this ratification.
The London protocol, which has already been adopted into Australian law as the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act, bans the dumping of waste at sea except in specific instances. In 2006, the protocol was updated to provide for the storage of carbon dioxide beneath the seabed, where it is safe to do so. This was a response to the growing momentum for climate change mitigation technologies as part of the global movement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change saw this as a short-term, technological option for reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. The 2006 amendment has already been adopted into Australian law. However, and this is key, the 2006 amendment noted that 'ongoing regulation of the storage of carbon dioxide under the seabed was required to protect the marine environment'. The protocol urges an approach that's described as 'precautionary', with a focus on prevention where harm to the marine environment is likely. So, even in the establishment of carbon capture and storage as an exemption, the protocol made it clear that all parties agreed that ongoing regulation and a focus on prevention of harm were essential parts of any projects.
This takes us to the next amendments to the protocol, in 2009 and 2013, which this bill intends to ratify. The first amendment relates to the new ability to export carbon dioxide streams from Australia to another country for carbon capture and storage. The other amendment allows for the placement of waste or other matter in the sea for a marine geoengineering activity for the purpose of legitimate scientific research into options for climate change mitigation. Now, before I discuss the substance of this bill, I would like to reiterate that two-thirds of the 53 parties to the protocol must ratify any amendment for it to be successful. Currently, only 10 contracting parties have ratified the 2009 and 2013 amendments. So the amendments we're discussing are nowhere near being accepted by the contracting parties. Six of the 10 parties have agreed to a provisional step to make use of amendments before they enter into force. In effect, if this bill passes, Australia would have the ability to export carbon dioxide, despite this update not yet being accepted by most parties to the protocol, and the ability to export carbon dioxide to a country that isn't a party to the protocol.
Some are saying that the actual purpose of the bill is to allow Santos, as operator of the Bayu-Undan offshore facility in Timor-Leste, to receive carbon dioxide from gas projects in Australia. Others in this House have agreed that an intended consequence of this bill is a licence for companies to continue to expand fossil fuel projects in Australia because they can dump their carbon dioxide offshore. Irrespective of whether this is the actual purpose of the bill, the broader question is whether we should be able to export carbon dioxide to other countries for the purpose of carbon capture and storage.
I acknowledge that there are many sincere and genuine concerns and reservations relating to the science, processes and cost of carbon capture and storage as a way of mitigating emissions. Submissions to both the House and Senate committees have highlighted the risk of greenhouse gas leakage from exploration and transportation, and particularly the impact of acidification of surrounding marine environments and the subseabed, where leaks can occur. Environmental advocates point to the fact that carbon capture and storage trials on coal-fired power stations have never worked. The few projects that have got off the ground have grossly exceeded budget and schedule, massively underdelivered on carbon promised to be captured, and are now mostly shuttered.
So should we still be investing in carbon capture and storage, given all its problems? Well, climate change mitigation is a global imperative, and it's the firm consensus of many, both here in Australia and internationally, that we will fail to reach our emissions targets without new technologies. I know there have been, and remain, significant issues with carbon capture and storage projects and performance, but our pathway to decarbonisation requires us to persevere. Net Zero Australia reports:
The success of carbon capture depends on the industrial process to which it is applied, and the success of carbon storage is specific to the geological formation into which the CO2 is injected.
We must maintain the pressure and expectations on existing energy projects and their partners to increase their commitment in both capital and expertise to carbon capture and storage, to address the issues and roadblocks they're facing, to require them to interrogate the processes and technology further.
But this is not an invitation to open more projects. Let me be clear about this. What we absolutely cannot allow is for carbon capture and storage to be used as a justification for the ongoing approval of new fossil fuel projects, perpetuating an endless cycle of emissions. In WA, the government is deciding whether or not to approve the extension of the Burrup Hub in our beautiful north-west to continue operating until 2070. That's 20 years after our aim for a net zero Australia. This extension will set the scene for the opening of the Browse Basin, which is a huge dirty gas basin that has the potential to emit more carbon in its extraction and use than Australia's entire emissions budget from 2030 onwards.
Carbon capture and storage is one part of the decarbonisation path, but it is no silver bullet. Any legislation that increases the role of carbon capture and storage must be approached with great caution. Past government decisions, like this one, have been made in the interests of gas companies rather than the planet and the country's long-term economic interests.
It seems highly likely that this ability to export carbon dioxide will be used to extend the life of the gas industry by placing huge faith in one questionable technology rather than mitigating the minimum possible emissions.
Aside from the issues surrounding the practice of carbon capture and storage, there are also significant issues with exporting carbon dioxide to other countries, as identified by many submissions to both committees. Many concerned parties have suggested that we should not assume that receiving countries will have the same safeguards, standards and expectations of environmental protection as Australia. If projects in Australia are struggling to make CCS work, why would this be any better in Timor-Leste?
I'd like to very briefly touch on the second amendment, which allows for the placement of waste or other matter in the sea for a marine geo-engineering activity. I am concerned about the lack of regulatory certainty at both domestic and global levels for the restriction and regulation of geo-engineering activity. Marine geo-engineering carries several risks, including the possibility of yet unknown consequences and detrimental effects such as damaging toxic algae blooms, increasing ocean acidification and depleting oxygen in deep waters. I don't feel confident in supporting a bill that carries this level of risk.
In conclusion, we're rocketing into a global climate crisis and we need a global response to decarbonisation, which means we can't completely ignore carbon capture and storage as one of the tools in our decarbonisation toolbox. But we can't blindly treat it as the ticket to perpetuating our fossil fuel export economy. This bill creates the ability to exploit a problem we are creating for the world. For this bill to be a good idea we would have to believe four things: firstly, that carbon dioxide can be captured, transported and stored without leaks or unintended consequences. I am not convinced. There have been mixed results at best, with plenty of large failures on carbon capture and storage. Secondly, we would have to believe that carbon capture and storage will be used to mitigate only unavoidable emissions, not to license fossil fuel expansion. I am not convinced. Gas companies seem to be relying very heavily on it in their expansion plans. Thirdly, we would have to believe that carbon dioxide storage would be managed at least as well in a receiving country such as Timor-Leste as it would in Australia. I am not convinced. We have a hard-earned reputation as a stable jurisdiction, and other countries like Timor-Leste may make compromises that we would consider unacceptable. Fourthly, we would have to believe that a precautionary approach would be taken and that a transparent regulatory framework would follow. Again, I am not convinced. The government's continued approval of not only gas projects based on existing fields but also new sites for exploration and future development makes me very sceptical about there being a precautionary approach taken to sea-dumping in Australia.
Exporting carbon dioxide to other jurisdictions is like our recent approach to offshore processing of asylum seekers—shifting the problem out of sight to a less-regulated jurisdiction and potentially turning a blind eye to the outcomes, ignoring our international obligation to take our fair share of responsibility for a global issue. It may be that in due course we can find a level of comfort on these risks—when carbon capture and storage is proven, when our regulatory environment stops carbon capture and storage being used as an excuse to expand fossil fuels, when all our neighbours have stable and transparent environmental regulatory frameworks, and when we have a track record of taking a precautionary approach to environmental protection. That will be the time to ratify these amendments to the London protocol, but that time has not yet come.
If this bill is to pass, I urge the minister to follow the requirements of the protocol and embed a clear and transparent regulatory framework that assesses risk and demands appropriate and consistent environmental standards apply from the domestic source right to the export destination. This framework should capture any agreements between Australia and other states as well as the project parties who seek the permit and maintain carriage of the export process. It should explicitly refer to the provisions of the risk assessment and management framework for carbon dioxide sequestration already prepared by the contracting parties to the London protocol.
If this bill goes ahead, the minister must also ensure that, in line with the requirements of the protocol, Australia explicitly applies a precautionary approach to protect and preserve the marine environment from pollution. This precautionary approach must be consistently applied to the whole process to which these amendments apply, from initial evaluation through to the minister's decision to grant a permit, the domestic loading, the transportation and export processes and the ongoing environmental monitoring of the marine environment. The same lens must also be consistently applied in any application for marine geoengineering activities for scientific purposes domestically in Australia.
I will be supporting a range of amendments that attempt to tighten the regulatory framework and apply a precautionary approach, but, ultimately, I don't think the time has come to ratify these amendments by passing this bill because of the fundamental issue of carbon capture and storage being used as a licence to continue to expand fossil fuels and because of the risks and moral implications of exporting carbon dioxide.