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Clean coal: for better or worse?

By Chris James - posted Friday, 16 January 2009

On March 11, 2008 the Australian Labor Government led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol committing Australia to a reduction in CO2 emissions.

This will see Australia entering international agreements on emissions and a national emissions trading scheme, which should come into effect in 2010. As a result of this, on May 20, 2008, the Government released draft legislation for consultation, which will establish the world’s first framework for carbon dioxide capture and geological storage [CCS]. This legislation allows for the injection of greenhouses gases into sub-sea reservoirs in Commonwealth waters.

These reservoirs are only required to be three nautical miles off shore and many will sit adjacent to some of the most environmentally sensitive landscapes in Australia. Areas already earmarked include the Gippsland Basin, Victoria, which is located near the world renowned Wilson’s Promontory and Ninety Mile Beach. The major project for the Gippsland Basin is The Monash Coal to Liquid Project, which converts brown coal to synthetic fuel and pre-combustion capture of CO2. The Monash Project partners include Monash Energy, Anglo American and Shell. The project requires big money and is a big risk.


The Gippsland Basin and the Latrobe Valley are known for their extraction of gas, oil and brown coal respectively. Currently, there are 21 gas and oil projects in the waters of the Gippsland Basin, and together with the coal mining in the Latrobe Valley these are causing immense pressure on the aquifer that runs beneath the valley’s surface: the disturbance is having a ripple effect.

Shifting sands coupled with the threat of rising sea levels have already prompted the state and local governments to put a ban on further development along the foreshore. Now residents and businesses are faced with losing their assets. Many more people will be at risk. Indeed, these could be the first in what is expected to become a growing number of climate change refugees in Australia.

Let us not forget the CCS initiative is designed to keep the Australian economy growing and the environment sustainable. However, we need to ask, sustainable for whom?

Coal production can only continue if massive amounts of water continue to be pumped out of the subterranean aquifer. Pumping water has been taking place now for some years and while this has caused some visible damage to the landscape it is nothing like the damage anticipated when the brown coal is liquefied and stored in sub-sea vaults.

Some environmentalists have also claimed that coal ash is potentially more dangerous than the nuclear waste. The most recent coal-ash spill in Tennessee has exceeded the ExxonValdez disaster, “belching out enough toxic goo to cover 3,000 acres a foot deep … and spiked with carcinogens, heavy metals and neurotoxins like arsenic, lead and mercury”. Can we envisage this kind of event happening along our beautiful Australian coastline?

The spill in Tennessee is a reminder that for all the coal industry’s clean-coal rhetoric, it remains a nasty, dirty industry. This is an industry more concerned with green-washing and profits than they are with community health and well being.


It has been widely reported that the CCS would leak, in small amounts of about 0.1 to 1 per cent a year. Long term leakage would represent large actual emissions, and could exceed the prescribed sustainable greenhouse emissions levels. With this in mind, the Rising Tide Organisation posed the following hypothetical:

… if all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels were sequestered from the year 2010 [next to impossible, but this is a hypothetical example], and the sequestered emissions leaked at the rate of 1% per year, by 2060, one year's emissions of leaked carbon dioxide would equal the world's current emissions from all sources.

As the Rising Tide Organisation has suggested, this has serious ramifications for future generations because it means that climate change can be caused by storage of C02s and fuelled by the leakage of accumulated pollutants as opposed to just the immediate production. In addition:

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About the Author

Dr Chris James is an artist, writer, researcher and psychotherapist. She lives on a property in regional Victoria and lectures on psychotherapeutic communities and eco-development. Her web site is

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