Is it $8.5 million of BHP’s shareholders’ money wasted on a directors’ virtue-signalling frolic to further their climate change credentials and justify the existence of a corporate vice-president for Sustainability and Climate Change? Or, as the New York Times suggests, a necessary response to mounting pressure from activist shareholders (including the politically-oriented industry superannuation funds)? Or is it simply a good investment in a potentially significant technological advance that could offset the huge CO2 emissions resulting from BHP’s role as the world’s largest mining company. And, by the way, avoiding being pressured to follow Rio Tinto’s lead in satisfying the climate cult by disposing of its multi-billion dollar coal assets. Whatever the reason, BHP’s joining Bill Gates and oil company Chevron as investors in Canada’s Carbon Engineering means it has skin in a potentially game-changing direct-air CO2 capture technology that is already in operation at a plant near Vancouver. The process involves stripping CO2 out of the air and then either sequestering it underground or turning it into an industrial product such as fuel that can be blended with traditional fossil fuels for use in cars and planes, etc.
But BHP has so far not provided financial backing for an even more scientifically exciting CO2 capture breakthrough in Australia that has received media attention worldwide – but hardly any in Australia. This RMIT/UNSW research was greeted last month with headlines ranging from London tabloids like the Sun’s ‘Hope for climate; scientists invent trick to turn CO2 into coal’ and the Daily Mail’s ‘Carbon dioxide is turned BACK into coal in world-first breakthrough which could lead to permanently cleaner air’ to the respected US Forbes magazine’s ‘Scientists Just Pulled CO2 From Air And Turned It Into Coal’. Forbes reported that this breakthrough technology has the potential to change the way we think about CO2. ‘The research, recently published in the journal Nature Communications, provides a step-by-step guide in turning CO2 into coal, acting to remove the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and lock it away in solid carbon form’. RMIT researcher Dr Torben Daeneke describes the process as converting CO2 from a gas to a solid at room temperature by using a liquid metal catalyst and electrolysis. The solid flakes that form are much like coal and could either become landfill or the recaptured carbon could be re-used as a fuel source. It also generates by-products, such as a synthetic fuel.
The certainty that technological change will provide the massive increase in the efficiency of battery storage that is needed to convert intermittent renewable energy into a reliable base-load source is an article of faith among anti-coal climate warriors. But technological change that, by taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, eases the pressure to ban coal emissions is seen as damaging the Holy Crusade (or is it a jihad these days?) against coal. Killing off coal is the only path to climate salvation; the prospect of carbon capture is dismissed as pie in the sky. For example, it was rejected out of hand by climate campaigner and Chief Judge of the NSW Land and Environment Court Brian Preston in his recent infamous judgement ‘creating’ a law to prevent the opening of new coal mines that would add to greenhouse gasses in breach of the Paris Agreement. He declared that this requirement could not be met by ‘the theoretical possibility that the environmental impact will be mitigated or offset by some unspecified and uncertain action at some unspecified and uncertain time in the future’.
But these two highly-significant technological breakthroughs in Canada and Australia could be game-changers in the climate wars. Both involve removing CO2 from the atmosphere for either safe storage or even re-use. They are major steps forward from the multi-million dollar carbon capture and storage research programs that have so far resulted in technically feasible but uneconomic and environmentally questionable outcomes. And there is an ironic twist to the RMIT/UNSW project as the ready supply of cheap intermittent renewable energy needed for the electrolysis process may be the key to its economic viability; intermittent renewables could end up being base-load coal’s life-saver.