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Buried at sea: State hunts for underground home for carbon emissions

A search has begun off the coast of Gippsland’s Ninety Mile Beach for a place to bury millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide beneath the seabed as a way to cut Victoria’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Researchers hope to find porous rock formations deep beneath the ocean, into which the state will inject gas piped from fossil-fuel based industries such as the Latrobe Valley’s coal-fired power stations.

The Andrews and Turnbull governments are spending $150 million to try to kickstart the carbon capture and storage project in Gippsland, but say it will only go ahead if the fossil fuels industry backs the technology with a significant financial investment of its own.

Critics argue more than $1 billion has already been spent on carbon capture and storage trials and pilot projects in Australia, with very little to show for it.

For example, $369 million was spent, including $80 million of taxpayer funding, fitting the technology to the shuttered Hazelwood power plant so it could capture a maximum 50 tonnes of CO2 a day, or about 18,000 tonnes a year.

Victoria emitted 119 million tonnes of CO2 in 2015, federal government data shows, more than 1000 times the capacity of Hazelwood's disused facility.


But the Andrews government believes it could store up to 5 million tonnes a year underground off the Gippsland coast, arguing this would play an important role in statewide efforts to reduce global warming.

This week researchers with the project, called CarbonNet, will head out to Bass Strait in a sonar-equipped vessel to gather geological data.

Other ships, including fishing boats, will be barred from going near the vessel during the 17-day exercise.

Resources Minister Tim Pallas said the project had the potential to play a major role in reducing Victoria’s carbon emissions.

“The CarbonNet project could be a catalyst for new global investment, industry and jobs in Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley, while helping us combat climate change,” he said.

The government will ultimately only commit if it can secure investment from private industries in the Latrobe Valley that want to use carbon capture and storage to reduce their emissions.

The Minerals Council of Australia said carbon capture and storage could play a long-term role in reducing emissions from coal-fired power stations in Gippsland.

"This would allow Victoria to produce affordable and reliable electricity while reducing CO2 emissions by up to 90 per cent," Greg Evans, the council's executive director, coal, said.

The Australian coal industry has invested about $300 million in low emissions technologies and plans to spend a similar amount in the next 10 years, Mr Evans said.

But Nicholas Aberle, campaigns manager with Environment Victoria, said the government was wasting its time and plenty of public money pursuing a dubious solution to climate change.

“Carbon capture and storage is like a mirage; it’s always 10 years away,” Mr Aberle said.

“Ten years ago it was 10 years away and it’s still 10 years away. We don’t have 10 years to wait for climate solutions.”

He also argued it was doubtful the owners of the Latrobe Valley’s three remaining coal-fired power stations would pay for it, given they are scheduled to progressively close between 2032 and 2050.

“This is not a technology that’s going to save the generators in the Latrobe Valley,” Mr Aberle said.

“It’s going to be too late and going to be too expensive, they’re not going to pay to put it on their smoke stacks.”

A 2017 report by the CO2 Co-operative Research Centre conservatively estimated it would cost $2.45 billion to retrofit carbon capture and storage to one power plant boiler.

The private sector has already backed another energy project off Gippsland's coast - an $8 billion offshore wind farm.