It’s a case of canary in the coalmine for carbon capture and storage (CCS). The Weyburn-Midale Carbon Dioxide Project in Canada, reportedly the largest CCS project in the world, has begun to leak CO2. A farming couple who own land above the project have commissioned and released a damning independent report that discovered carbon dioxide is escaping from its supposedly secure confines under the ground, contaminating water sources and killing small animals. Already a technology that fails on many frontiers, the news should herald another nail in the coffin for CCS.

The disastrous potential CO2 leakages have for lifeforms was demonstrated in 1986 in Lake Nyos, Nigeria. Some 1700 people and 3500 livestock were killed by a deadly cloud of concentrated carbon gas leaking from the rock beneath their feet. Though the presence of CO2 under the ground was a natural occurrence in the 1986 case, current efforts to sequester carbon in subsurface rock formations pose similar risks.

CCS has been hailed as the world’s answer to global warming by the coal industry and fossil fuel-focused politicians alike. The current Labor government invested $2 billion of public money in CCS last year, despite the conspicuous lack of a coal plant having used or currently using the technology anywhere in the world. 

At the launch of Beyond Zero Emissions’ Zero Carbon Australia plan in Sydney, former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull labeled the hopes pinned on CCS as a “frightening prospect.” Meanwhile, respected climate commentator Guy Pearse had this to say about a future hinged on the less than promising technology:

The G8 has targeted 20 commercial scale CCS plants by 2020 (some but not all of which would relate to coal use). That might save 150 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2020 which again sounds impressive ‘til you realize that over 99% of coal fired power stations and steel mills would still not be using CCS a decade from now, and they would be generating at least 20 billion tonnes of CO2 annually.

So, CCS currently possesses a rather unenviable track record for a mitigation measure against climate change: it is both an unproven method of removing CO2 emissions from coal plants in general, and – as demonstrated by the Weyburn project – clearly far from possessing anything like foolproof technology to make it a viable choice to reduce such emissions. 

Conversely, there are mature and emerging commercially available renewable technologies now on the market that could do with the extra public support currently poured through the sieve that is CCS. Beyond Zero Emissions envisions a future for Australia powered by sustainable energy beyond the quick – and evidently temporary – fix proposed by carbon capture and storage.

By Alice Body, freelance writer and Beyond Zero Emissions volunteer.

For more information on Beyond Zero Emissions’ views on CCS, check out our “Retort” Report, released in 2007 in response to the claims and aspirations of US CCS project Futuregen.