Fact-finding trip to Australia: CSIRO provides multi-level geoenergy support

By Virginia Marsh

Coordination and cooperation between different arms of government, sectors and companies have been a key driver behind advances in CCS and in unconventional gas in Australia. CSIRO gave the example of hydraulic fracking in the Northern Territory (NT) where the territory government instigated a wide-ranging public inquiry in 2017 (the Pepper Inquiry) to examine environmental impacts and risks and provide advice on risk mitigation.

CSIRO presented its research to the inquiry and responded to specific requests, with its review of well integrity issues included in the inquiry’s final report. It then helped implement some of the inquiry’s 135 recommendations. For example, it helped produce a Code of Practice for onshore petroleum activities in the NT, including facilitating four working groups with input from the regulator, industry and its own researchers. It also developed a framework on how to conduct Strategic Regional Environmental and Baseline Assessments (SREBA), another recommendation, and has since been extensively involved in carrying out baseline assessments of the type recommended, for example, of methane concentrations and groundwater.

Finally, CSIRO is part of a broader Geological and Bioregional Assessment (GBA), a $35.5m four-year federally-funded programme, analysing ecology and hydrology and the potential impacts from shale developments in three regions, also extending to Queensland. As well as federal and territory/state governments, the GBA involves Geoscience Australia, the national geoscientific research agency and custodian of the country’s geographic and geological data; and the Bureau of Meteorology. CSIRO says the GBA supports consideration of the biophysical recommendations of the Pepper Inquiry in an open and transparent manner while also supporting the SREBA in the NT’s Beetaloo, one of the three regions, by reporting in an aligned manner.

Short profiles of the four projects/organisations visited.

CarbonNet

Established in 2009, by the state government in Victoria, CarbonNet is one of Australia’s highest profile CCS projects, receiving some A$150m in state and federal funding. It aims to establish a commercial-scale, multi-emitter CCS network that will deliver CO2 captured in the Latrobe Valley, via an underground pipeline, to offshore storage sites in Bass Strait. The Latrobe Valley is one of Australia’s biggest industrial centres and contains the world’s second largest deposit of brown coal (lignite), by far the largest energy source for Victoria’s electricity. The project – which hopes to attract private investors - has the potential to capture, transport and store 5m tonnes of CO2 per year, with capacity to scale up significantly. Its first storage site, Pelican is located 8km off the Gippsland coast and has at least 125m tonnes of capacity, with considerable further storage potential available in the basin. A Final Investment Decision is due by 2024, with a view to the project being operational by 2030.

Carbon Transport and Storage Corporation – CTSCo

A non-profit subsidiary of Glencore, the natural resource company, CTSCo was created to oversee the Integrated Surat Basin CCS Project in central Queensland. The initiative, which has received grant funding from the federal government and the coal industry, is a three-year demonstration project of national importance, with planned capacity of 110,000 tonnes of CO2 a year and a 20-year lifespan. Its initial aim is to demonstrate the technical viability and safe operation of CCS from a coal-fired power plant - a first step to large-scale CCS in the basin for the benefit of other CO2 emitters in the cement, iron, steel, fertiliser and chemical sectors. The first well was drilled in late 2020 with a view to gaining approval for the post-combustion capture (PCC) plant and for CO2 storage this year. The project’s main focus is on storage, given that Queensland already has a PCC demonstration plant (at Millmerran).

CO2CRC

Created in 2003 under a federal government research programme, CO2CRC is the only organisation in Australia, to date, to have demonstrated CCUS end-to-end. Now a not-for-profit company, it owns and operates Australia’s longest ongoing pilot - Otway, a large internationally significant test centre in south-west Victoria where, as of mid-2020, more than A$100m had been invested to demonstrate real-world capture, injection, storage and monitoring techniques. The lead research partner for CarbonNet (see above), it undertakes R&D for international companies and is now also working in hydrogen production and storage.

CSIRO

CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, plays a key part in the country’s geoenergy research activities (see above). Other operators said its contribution was crucial, both for the research it conducts itself but also because, as an independent, well-respected organisation, its backing adds credibility to projects and the science behind them. Its own research covers the CCS spectrum. It has built and demonstrated post-combustion capture plants in both Australia and China; tested more than 100 novel solvents, ionic liquids, solid absorbents and enzyme technologies; is investigating onshore and offshore storage, including cost-effective measuring and monitoring off Victoria in partnership with CO2CRC; and is developing a direct air carbon capture technology, its Ambient CO₂ Harvester project. As well as its geoscience activities in the Northern Territory, we heard about CSIRO’s controlled CO2 release experiment in a shallow fault zone, one of the first of its kind, adjacent to Western Australia’s South West Hub project.

Picture: Southern Surat Basin appraisal well. Supplied by CTSCo Pty Ltd, courtesy of Low Emission Technology Australia (LETA)