Kennedy Graham

Climate change, lignite, and Solid Energy: Searching for truth and reason

by Kennedy Graham

Matters are coming to a head, on the lignite saga in Southland.

As climate change intensifies around the world and not least here in New Zealand, our national responsibility to respond proportionate to our size and liability increases commensurately.

The UN has prescribed a national emission reduction target of 25% to 40% off 1990 levels by 2020 for the rich (‘developed’) countries.  Few have responded adequately. New Zealand, displaying the foresight of the Dodo, has committed to 10% to 20%, conditional. While that is shameful, let us explore the implications of how (not) to get there.

A 15% cut off 1990 levels means that we would emit some 52 million tonnes GHG in 2020.  (down from our current level of 75 m. t.).  The Government, somewhat disingenuously, claims that reducing our agricultural emissions (which account for about half of the national total) is almost impossible.  They say it’s a big ask to shave 15% off within ten years.

Here, to the rescue, comes Solid Energy.  This SOE, owned by you as taxpayer, plans to engage in open cast mining in Southland over the next ten years to develop three plants using lignite – the lowest grade of (dirty brown) coal on the planet.

In select committee  hearings this week, in answer to my question, Solid Energy estimated that these three projects alone would emit 10 to 20 million tonnes (mid-point = 15 m.t.) of gross GHG emissions each year. This means 15 m.t. on top of the 75 m. t. we emit today – an increase of 25%, as opposed to a decrease of 15% on 1990 levels.

Solid Energy says, of course, that some of this will be exported (mainly to China) and so will not appear on our national carbon account.  This is pure legerdemain, since NZ coal pollutes the planet’s environment wherever it is burnt, which ruins both the NZ and Chinese climate together.  While we escape accounting liability we never escape moral-political responsibility for NZ coal.

With breath-taking confidence, Solid Energy claims that, despite this, it continually makes a net positive contribution to the NZ environment; and that its lignite projects themselves will be carbon-neutral.

The only two mechanisms by which this extraordinary goal could be achieved are through carbon forest sequestration and / or carbon capture and storage (CCS).

There is, in fact, no known technology by which CCS is proving to be viable as yet – and unlikely before 2030.  One underground storage site in Saskatchewan Canada, has recently been reported as catastrophic, as the CO2 seeps to the surface, destroying the terrain and killing biodiversity.

Mercifully, the Minister (Gerry Brownlee) had no notion of where the CCS site might be located in Southland.  That, you understand, is an operational matter for Solid Energy.

That leaves sequestration.  Solid Energy remains coy about the figures.  So let me explore the matter.  To compensate for 15 m.t. of annual gross emissions, New Zealand will need about 500,000 ha. of new forest – almost 1/50th of our landmass. But we already need those forests to sequester existing emissions.

Can our climate change saviour, Solid Energy, please give us the figures of how it will compensate for 15 m.t. of gross emissions?

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Kennedy Graham on Fri, February 18th, 2011   

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