Jeanette Fitzsimons

ETS is sure to spur growth – but what kind?

by Jeanette Fitzsimons

Now here’s a great idea for economic development.

First dig up Southland. Probably farmland at this stage, but could be conservation land once the Minister’s review of Schedule 4 is finished.

Extract lignite, the lowest quality coal, very wet and of low calorific value. Add copious water pollution, coal seam methane and land disturbance from open cast mining.

Then a chemical process will react the lignite with nitrogen from the air and make ammonia, then urea. Lots of greenhouse gas from the carbon in the lignite, but hey, we can capture that and store it underground for hundreds of years, where it will do no harm. That way we won’t have to pay for any carbon emissions. How do we know it will stay there? Well, we think it will for a little while, and even if it doesn’t, how are you going to prove it? Quite a complicated process, trying to monitor carbon dioxide seeping out from the ground. Probably no-one will want to pay to do that.

But I’m getting distracted. There’s a huge market for urea in NZ as a nitrogen fertiliser on farms and currently the plant at Kapuni that makes it from natural gas can’t make enough so we are importing. A good kiwi business, Solid Energy – really wants savings on our import bill.

It’s urea that makes it possible to run five cows per hectare rather than two, and increases milk production.

It’s also urea that causes cow urine to emit higher levels of nitrous oxide and the higher stocking rate also increases it. Along with climate changing emissions it greatly increases the runoff from farms to waterways, increasing nitrate levels and faecal bacteria in the rivers we want to swim in or drink from.

But it’s also urea that makes farming profitable, right?

Wrong. I’ve visited a number of dairy farms in the Waikato recently who have given up using urea and dropped their stocking rate. The extra milk they could produce isn’t worth enough to pay for the urea, for the bought in feed to enable them to run those high stocking rates, and to pay for grazing their young stock off the farm to make more room for milking cows. If they are also able to claim the organic premium, they are laughing all the way to the bank. They also tell me their stock are much healthier, their vet bills halved or better, their soil micro-organisms more abundant. Here’s my Straight Furrow article.

This dog of a project has only emerged because of the Government’s proposed changes to the ETS. These changes mean that there is no cap on the emissions for Solid Energy making the urea, or for farmers piling on more nitrogen.

New Zealand’s emissions will rise substantially, but you, dear taxpayers, will foot the bill.

Muldoon would be proud of this new Think Big, which will no doubt be as profitable as the last lot, if anyone is old enough to still remember them.

The Green Party is analysing the full impacts of this proposal and we expect to be able to give you some numbers when we’ve finished. But as usual, at the moment we have more work on than we can handle.

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Jeanette Fitzsimons on Thu, October 1st, 2009   

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