In an increasingly aware global population, sustainable and clean energy sources are topics almost everyone have heard of by now. The recent environmental catastrophes due to global warming include Australia.
Australia is both a significant exporter and user of coal. It is also the world’s largest coal exporter, with over half of its energy exports being coal. Using statistics obtained from the Australian government, we can see that the country’s energy generation is 75% coal-powered; this route would score a zero with environmental activists.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration has stated that during coal combustion sulphur dioxide is emitted, which may lead to acid rain and respiratory diseases, and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that leads to global warming. Other harmful emissions include nitrate oxides (leads to smog and respiratory illnesses), mercury and heavy metals (linked to neurological and developmental damage in humans and animals) and other particulates (contribute to smog and lung disease).
Not only is it harmful to our health, but coal combustion also accounts for 75% of greenhouse gases, a gas that traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere. The impact of climate change has been seen in a catastrophic size in Australia itself this year in the form of bush-fires. Although bush-fires are not a rare occurrence in Australia, scientists, including Professor Jan van Oldenborgh, confirmed that global warming increased the chance of bush-fires by 30%. January’s bush-fire, one of the country’s worst to this date, resulted in the burning of 110,000 kilometre square of Australia’s bush, forests and parks. This is why the urge to shift to safer alternatives have been a huge topic in the Australian community.
A current project regarding the issue is the Narrabri project. According to Santos, the company responsible, the project is encouraging the replacement of coal-fired power stations with gas-fired power stations using their natural gas reserves. Other than the proposed environmental benefits, Santos advertises that this project will generate more local employment, and contribute as much as AUD $1.2 billion in royalty payments to the New South Wales government.
This project, currently under review by the NSW Independent Planning Commission, is a controversial one. Santos is planning to use coal seam gas, a natural gas found in coal deposits. Coal seam gas is primarily methane. The benefit of using natural gas is, when burned, it produces only half as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy in comparison to coal.
This benefit can be compromised. Stanford University energy researcher Adam Brandt argues that methane is 30x better at holding heat than carbon dioxide. If enough methane leaks during production, it could potentially be just as costly to the environment as burning coal. Another aspect to bear in mind is that Australia is part of the 2030 Paris Agreement, in which members are aiming to reduce greenhouse gases by 40% in comparison to 1990 by 2030. Natural gas emissions might not be the most efficient route to the goal when compared to other more sustainable resources.
Three perspectives on a solution can be seen. Local lobbying groups find it curious that a country so rich in water and solar sources is unable to focus on those two instead. T. Boone Pickens, who was an American oilman before passing in 2019, said “natural gas is not a permanent solution to ending our addiction to imported oil. It is a bridge fuel to slash our oil dependence while buying us time to develop new technologies that will ultimately replace fossil transportation fuels.” Meanwhile, Santos thinks that natural gas is necessary to complement more sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar, as they tend to be unpredictable.
A danger of using natural gas as a bridge to sustainable sources, however, is that it is so attractive, it will become a barrier in the development of sustainable sources. MIT economist Harry Jacoby shares this perspective. A study conducted by the Economics of Energy and Environmental Policy, which modelled that without the increasing popularity and usage of natural gas, the U.S. government would have mandated that wind and solar energy make up a quarter of the electricity market by 2030. If the Commission approves the Narrabri project, this could potentially be the future scenario in Australia, if not appropriately managed.
While it is true that natural gas, if regulated, is a better source of energy relative to the current landscape, the question is whether it is indispensable to transition away from coal, when we currently have the technological means to utilize other sources. Will the Commission decide that the attractive economic benefits of the Narrabri Project justify the (potential) setback in the environmental sphere? Either way, the decision on whether or not the Santos project can proceed, which will be announced on the 30th of September, will most likely carve out the future of Australian energy consumption.