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What about gas?

By Kelvin Thomson - posted Monday, 21 May 2007

One of the great Sherlock Holmes mysteries revolved around a dog that didn’t bark, and one of the great mysteries of the global warming debate in Australia is why the barking of the natural gas dog goes unheard.

On the one hand the Howard Government is putting its climate eggs in the nuclear and clean coal baskets. On the other hand the Australian Conservation Foundation has released a report on reducing global warming emissions which sets a 25 per cent target for renewable energy for 2020. The report sets out a role for wind, bio-energy, hydro, solar PV and geothermal energy. The report also covers action needed on energy efficiency.

But nowhere in the Government’s work or the ACF’s work do we see any serious consideration of the future role of gas. This omission is remarkable to me, on three counts. First, natural gas technologies available today cut the global warming emissions produced by current coal technologies in generating electricity by up to 50 per cent. Clearly this could be very useful in moving Australia to a position where we are cutting our global warming emissions, rather than increasing them.


Second, Australia has abundant natural gas reserves. As at January 1, 2005 they were estimated at 146 trillion cubic feet, or 110 years of production at 2005 gas production rates. We also have extensive deposits of coal-seam methane in Queensland and New South Wales which can help service the needs of eastern Australian gas consumers. The Prime Minister says we should play to our competitive strengths - surely this is one of them.

Third, gas is ready to go now. No doubt renewable energy supplies are where we need to go in future, and the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target needs to be lifted in a serious way to develop these renewable energy industries. No doubt, also, that “clean coal” technologies should be explored to do everything we can to reduce the emissions coming from coal-fired electricity. But the value of these initiatives is some distance into the future, and we need to be reducing emissions now.

Gas has loads of potential as a transitional fuel, for both electricity and for cars, in acting as a bridge to a carbon-constrained world.

Gas powered electricity generators can be readily switched on and off, according to demand, making gas an ideal fuel to support the development of distributed power generation which incorporates significant renewable energy generators.

A serious policy push to use gas in new electricity generation capacity installed in Australia over the next 10 years could reduce global warming emissions, as against present projections.

The ACF’s paper on a 25 per cent renewable energy target by 2020 says this target would deliver 69 million tonnes reduction in electricity sector emissions. Given this, surely a 50-million tonne reduction in 10 years is worth chasing.


What do we need to do to unlock this potential? First, we have to put a price on carbon, through an emissions trading scheme, and stop pretending the planet hasn’t got a problem.

It’s a mystery of Sherlock Holmes proportions as to why the prospect of increased electricity prices in future should be cause for horror, but the prospect of increased food prices in future, as a result of the droughts caused by global warming emissions, or the prospect of higher insurance premiums to deal with more extreme weather events, is nothing to be worried about. The Stern Report set out clearly that the cost of inaction will greatly exceed the cost of action.

Putting an appropriate price on carbon will bring about a move to gas-fired electricity generation. It would also be helpful if we looked again at the capital depreciation write-off periods of 15 to 20 years for gas projects, which would encourage more commercialisation. We also need to do more to promote engineering skills. The gas industry faces serious shortages in the disciplines of petroleum engineering, geoscience and chemical engineering.

Tackling global warming will require many different actions, and a much greater sense of urgency than has so far been displayed.

Dogs, and humans, are unable to hear sounds at certain pitches. It is high time we heard the gas dog barking, and gave it a much larger role in our planning to meet the climate crisis.

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About the Author

Kelvin Thomson is the Federal member for Wills.

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