Fact-finding trip to Australia: Valuable learnings from a global leader

By Virginia Marsh

Australia’s significant resources sector has created an economic impetus for deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) while the country’s decades-long support for CCS has produced world-leading research and projects that are several years ahead of their equivalents in Europe in many respects. These were among the SECURe team’s conclusions after a series of highly informative ‘virtual visits’ to leading Australian CCS and geoenergy organisations.

Following on from a successful fact-finding trip to North America in 2019, our research scientists had been due to visit Australia in person – until the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to our travel plans. Instead, four Australian organisations kindly hosted in-depth virtual meetings, some over two sessions: CSIRO, the national science agency, Queensland’s CTSCo, and CarbonNet and CO2CRC in Victoria (also see separate piece).

With Australia the world’s biggest exporter of both coal and natural gas, CCS’s role in extending the exploitation of these resources is a clear point of difference to Europe.

“In some areas of Australia, CCS is viewed as a way to prolong the longevity of coal as an energy source to ensure economic benefits and to protect local jobs,” says Jan Hennissen, SECURe administrator and a geologist at the British Geological Survey. “The only way a social licence to operate is acquired to continue the exploitation of coal – internally for energy and as an export product – is if a solution is found to capture and lock away CO2.”

Indeed, one of the projects SECURe met with, CTSCo, is operated by Glencore, one of Australia’s biggest coal producers while another, Victoria’s CarbonNet, aims, among other things, to reduce emissions from the Latrobe Valley’s s lignite-fired power generators. With natural resources a key employer and economic driver, CCS has also benefitted from joined-up, long-term government backing, from direct financial support through to developing the regulatory framework and sponsoring research at CSIRO, the national science agency (see separate piece).

Broad cooperation

“I’m impressed by the cooperation of all interested parties and stakeholders [which has helped] create a long-term scientific scenario, involving individual projects in partnership with federal and state authorities and with industry,” says Monika Konieczyńska, head of hydrogeology at the Polish Geological Institute. “This enables implementation into pilots and real-life projects. This is the pattern we need to think about for Europe.”

With Australia’s long experience in developing resources projects, organisations, communities and often individuals are familiar with public engagement processes.

“It was very useful to hear from experienced operators who in many ways are years ahead of EU projects. This is definitely the case in social engagement and public acceptance,” says BGS’s Jan. “The population seems a lot better informed about subsurface geo-energy projects than the average person in the UK.”

Nevertheless, host organisations stressed the need to maintain engagement even with well-educated communities and to adopt the mindset that a project needs community ‘approval’ rather than ‘support’. At the Surat Basin project, for example, CTSCo initially talked one-to-one to individuals and small groups, also asking people how they wanted to be engaged. It then presented its report to the local community, demonstrating it had listened. All its technical work is documented in extensive field storage plans which are peer reviewed and updated, a high level of detail for a demonstration project but deemed worthwhile because of its ground-breaking nature and to ensure a social license is obtained.

Meanwhile, CarbonNet’s communications plan details objectives, audiences, targeted messages, activities, proof points and risk identification. Types of engagement include: community sentiment surveys, media monitoring, community information and drop-in sessions, community reference groups, community benefits schemes, economic benefits research, an education programme (aligned to the school curriculum), interactive media, events and conferences, social media, knowledge sharing and working with project partners, such as CSIRO, the national science agency. It gave examples of workshops where, after viewing powerful climate change videos, attendees’ sentiment had shifted.

Be clear on monitoring and its purpose

In terms of monitoring, an important takeaway was that communities need to be clear on what is measured (e.g. groundwater, atmospheric chemistry and seismicity) and why (safety, reduce environmental impact), says Ed Hough of BGS and SECURe’s project coordinator.

“The use of the terms ‘baseline’ and ‘best practice’ should be carefully considered as they do not have a common meaning and use for different stakeholders,” he says.

“At the same time, a common theme was the requirement to develop monitoring methods and technologies that are fit-for-purpose and don’t place undue burdens on operators or regulators. In doing this, explaining monitoring in the context of a well-managed subsurface operation becomes clearer.”

To this end, CSIRO, for example, stressed the need to optimise campaigns to enable regulators to make decisions and to remember that monitoring is not being conducted for the public but, rather, in order for industrial activities to take place. Similarly, at Otway, CO2CRC emphasised the focus should be on ‘assurance monitoring’ rather than ‘leakage monitoring’ – in other words, measuring the impact on the environment is what is important and necessary, rather than simply identifying leakage.

The team was impressed by the high-level research into measuring, monitoring and verification (MMV) research being undertaken. At Otway, for example, it heard about CO2CRC’s recently concluded five-year CO2 plume study.

“A lot was learned from the many excellent initiatives at research sites, in particular the monitoring of the evolving CO2 plume in the subsurface (4D seismics, microseismicity, fibre optics and pulse testing) and leakage risks,” says Jan ter Heege, an induced seismicity specialist at TNO in The Netherlands. “It shows what can be achieved with state-of-the-art monitoring and modelling techniques.”

Profitable CCS in reach

With early projects such as CarbonNet now reaching maturity, profitable CCS is within reach in Australia, another key difference to Europe where commercialisation is less advanced. CarbonNet says that, after a decade of hard work, the dial has turned in the past three years and it can now see a clear commercial opportunity. As well as mitigating emissions from existing industries, a CCS network in the Latrobe region, an area with high unemployment, would open pathways to new sectors such as hydrogen while also complementing renewable energy developments. It plans to make a final investment decision by 2024, including whether to sell the project or form a joint venture, and says that, if all the necessary regulation falls into place, it could move quickly and be operational by 2026.

“The level of accomplishment and of progress were beyond what was known to me,” says Pierre Cerasi, a senior scientist at Norway’s SINTEF, of the virtual visit.

“I hope that as part of SECURe we can take the learnings of operators who are several years into projects that we are at the start of and apply them in Europe,” adds BGS’s Jan.

Photo: Otway Project Stage 2, courtesy of CO2CRC Ltd.