The government’s desire for a ‘green economy’ has become such an obsession that it has begun to override common sense. This week, the Department for Energy and Climate Change invited bidders to apply for £1 billion of public funding for a commercial-scale carbon capture and storage project. The money will be used, we are told, to extract carbon dioxide from the chimneys of a large power station, condense it and pump it 150 miles out into the North Sea to be buried in the chambers of an empty oil well.
The department justifies this expenditure by claiming that by the next decade carbon capture will be an industry worth £6.5 billion a year to Britain. It is a preposterous figure, quoted by officials without any suggestion as to how it was arrived at.
If anyone outside government really believed that carbon capture was a viable business proposition there would be plenty of private investors wanting to risk their money on it. But there is scant sign of that. There are already more than 50 demonstration projects in action around the world, some dating back to the mid-1990s. And they all have one thing in common: they have been established thanks to big government handouts.
If the idea of a £1 billion subsidy for a carbon capture project sparks a sense of déjà vu in any readers, it is not without reason. In 2007, the then Labour government launched a similar competition, estimating that it would cost between £500 million and £700 million to set up a carbon capture plant. By 2010, when George Osborne increased the public money available to £1 billion in his comprehensive spending review, the original nine bidders had been reduced to one: Scottish Power, which proposed to fit the technology to its existing Longannet power station on the Firth of Forth. But by last October, it transpired that even this subsidy wasn’t enough for Scottish Power, and the project collapsed.
Three weeks ago, the National Audit Office published a scathing report into the fiasco, which ended up costing taxpayers £64 million to achieve nothing whatsoever. Yet hardly has the ink dried on that report than the government is proposing to repeat the whole exercise on an even bigger scale.
Carbon capture could only ever make money if governments around the world forced their energy producers to use it, either through direct regulation or through such high taxes on carbon emissions that it would paralyse the economy. The fundamental problem with carbon capture is that it brings about a huge reduction in efficiency of a coal- or gas-fired power station — between 25 and 40 per cent, according to trials. In other words, a power station equipped with it requires around as third as much fuel again as one without the technology. A global conversion to carbon capture would send fossil fuel prices into the stratosphere.
The environmental benefits, on the other hand, depend upon the carbon dioxide remaining in the geological strata whence it is pumped. If it leaks out, any benefit is lost. Worse, if it leaks in populated areas it could prove highly dangerous. No one really knows how long carbon dioxide can be kept underground at high pressure, although there has already been one scare from a small carbon capture plant in Canada, when bubbling gas above a carbon dioxide reservoir was found to have killed several animals. There may be natural explanations, though the issue remains unresolved.
The tragedy is that even as it pumps money into carbon capture, the government has shown lukewarm support to another technology which genuinely does have a prospect of evolving into a multi-billion-pound industry, while simultaneously slashing carbon emissions and reducing energy prices. The arguments for exploiting our reserves of shale gas — which, kilowatt for kilowatt, would lead to a huge reduction in carbon emissions if replacing coal — is strong. The only problem with shale gas is one of branding: it hasn’t entered the heads of ministers and civil servants that it could qualify as part of the ‘green economy’.
A resurrection in Cuba
Who says miracles don’t happen? After decades of state-imposed atheism, Cuba’s Christians will this week be free to mark the Easter Triduum as they wish. Fidel Castro has announced that, after a ‘transcendental’ meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, he is making Good Friday a public holiday in Cuba for the first time since 1959. This from a man who used to persecute believers and call Catholic bishops ‘Franco’s fascists’.
This is a cause for celebration for all Christians, but the wider message is that, whatever angry atheists may say, Christianity has been and continues to be a vital force for freedom. The Christian faith gives solace and courage to many who struggle against tyrannical regimes. Christians helped overcome slavery, let’s not forget, and Pope John Paul II stood against Soviet totalitarianism in Europe.
David Cameron told church leaders this week that he supported the ‘Christian fightback’ against intolerant secularism. Even so, our ruling class seems increasingly keen to remove religion from public life. As Lent began and Britain’s Christians began to look forward to Easter, prayers at council meetings were forbidden lest they cause offence. It’s strange but true to say that this Easter, Britain could learn from what’s happening in Cuba.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 7, 2012