New laws will allow a notorious gas field project to dump carbon dioxide in Timor-Leste waters – using a process that has not worked anywhere in the world – so it can meet its net-zero requirements. By Ben Abbatangelo.

Santos’s deep-sea carbon capture fantasy

A facility in the ocean.
The Santos-operated Bayu-Undan facility, off Timor-Leste.
Credit: Santos

When Polly Hemming saw the government’s deep-sea dumping legislation, she knew exactly who it was for. The bill allows companies to export their carbon dioxide outside of Australian waters and dump it in international seas. There is a single company for which this is relevant.

“It seems particularly convenient that the Australian government is now in a rush to ratify and pass this sea dumping legislation when the only company it serves is Santos,” says Hemming, director of climate and energy programs at The Australia Institute. “They’re the only company that is proposing trans-border carbon storage.”

At the centre of this story is one of the dirtiest gas fields in the world, Santos’s multibillion-dollar Barossa project. Located about 285 kilometres off the coast of Darwin, it has a carbon dioxide profile of 18 per cent – almost double the amount of the next highest emitting gas currently being converted to liquefied natural gas in Australia. It’s so dirty the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis calls the project an “emissions factory with an LNG by-product”.

To reach net-zero emissions as required under the safeguard mechanism scheme, Santos says it will capture up to 10 million tonnes of carbon from its Barossa gas field and store it in the depleted Bayu-Undan gas reservoir in Timorese maritime territory. The scale of Santos’s plans dramatically exceeds what carbon capture and storage has so far achieved. Whether or not it is possible, the government’s deep-sea dumping bill makes it legal.

“It’s about as feasible as Santos saying ‘We’re going to put carbon dioxide on the moon’,” Hemming says of the plan. “If you look at all those pipelines involved and what could go wrong in the meantime, the fact that we’re treating it with any kind of credulity is embarrassing.”

Santos recently admitted to the Northern Territory Environmental Protection Authority that the Bayu-Undan carbon capture and storage (CCS) project was “still undergoing technical and economic assessments”.

To exploit the Barossa gas field, Santos will process gas on a floating production storage and offloading vessel, before piping it hundreds of kilometres to Darwin for onshore processing and conversion to liquefied natural gas. This will happen at the yet-to-be-built Middle Arm precinct, where carbon dioxide emissions will exceed the LNG production.

After processing, Santos says CO2 will be compressed and piped nearly 500 kilometres through geologically complicated seas to the near-depleted Bayu-Undan gas field, where it will be stored.

If Santos’s CCS project operates at 100 per cent efficiency and success, which according to The Australia Institute is 10 times the current sequestration rate of the world’s largest project, not only would there be a zero net benefit, but it’s highly likely it would increase the project’s overall emissions profile.

“They don’t care if it works or not,” Hemming says. “There is no meaningful consequence or penalty set by the state or federal government if CCS fails. And if it fails in international waters, in the Timorese sea, what are the chances that the government is going to care about that either?”

The world’s current largest CCS project is Chevron’s Gorgon gas plant, located about 60 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia. As with Santos’s Barossa project, Chevron was allowed to build the $US54 billion gas export project on the condition it was capable of capturing all the carbon dioxide emissions from offshore reservoirs and burying at least 80 per cent of the pollutant.

The Chevron project has been held up as an exemplar by the CCS lobby, but after nearly seven years it is operating at just a third of its reported capacity, with no clear timetable or assurances given by the company on when it’ll reach 100 per cent operating capacity – or if it ever will.

Bill Hare, senior scientist and chief executive of Climate Analytics, says the failures at Gorgon “illustrates another general point: that as soon as one starts to dig into the claims of the CCS industry, they tend to evaporate”.

Despite the historical failures of CCS technology and the plumes of pollution it has enabled to be spewed out into the atmosphere, both the Australian and Western Australian governments provided an indemnity to the Gorgon joint venture partners against independent third-party claims.

The WA government has indemnified the GJV, and the Australian government has indemnified the WA government for 80 per cent of any amount determined to be payable under that indemnity.

Although Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen didn’t clarify whether or not Santos would be provided with the same indemnity, a spokesperson for his office said the Barossa project “will be required to be zero reservoir C02 from day one, consistent with international best practice”.

Despite the mountain of technical challenges and opposition from the Tiwi Islands’ Traditional Owners, Santos plans to begin producing gas from Barossa in 2025. The company’s infrastructure to dump carbon in the Timor Sea will be ready in 2027.

Speaking from Oslo, climate and energy analyst Ketan Joshi says the fundamental story of CCS is that it doesn’t work. “It is a rhetorical tool used to justify new fossil fuels and, on the hardest of math, it causes much more emissions than it prevents.”

In northern Australia, the Barossa project is inextricably linked to a web of other major fossil fuel investments and infrastructure. The economic viability of the $1.5 billion government-funded Middle Arm precinct in Darwin – and by extension, the export of fracked gas from the Beetaloo Basin – has a dependency on the Barossa gas field reaching production.

Waiting alongside Santos is Italian multinational energy company Eni, which controls the Evans Shoal gas field – a “carbon bomb” with a 27 per cent carbon dioxide profile that makes Santos’s Barossa project look clean.

In May 2021, Eni and Santos signed a memorandum of understanding that seeks to identify “synergies and sharing of infrastructure”. Without Santos’s infrastructure, the viability of Eni producing gas from Evans Shoal is thrown into jeopardy.

The key to unlocking all of this, as well as enabling the government to rebrand Middle Arm from a petrochemicals plant to a sustainable development precinct, is Santos’s CCS plans and the government’s deep-sea dumping bill.

In response to a series of detailed questions, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said “this bill implements Australia’s international obligations under the London Protocol”.

Bill Hare says otherwise: “The only reason Australia is proposing to dump CO2 under the seabed is because that’s what the fossil gas industry wants. There is no ‘obligation’ to do this – the bill only ensures that any CO2 sea-dumping operations would be consistent with the London Protocol.

“Doing this would be shifting Australia’s pollution problem somewhere else, and to a poor, less-developed country. The federal government will want to deduct the transported CO2 from Australia’s national emissions under the Paris Agreement, putting the responsibility onto Timor-Leste if this CO2 is subsequently released.”

The Bayu-Undan gas field is a site of profound historical injustice. Its riches were so irresistible the Australian government infamously enacted a clandestine operation to gain an upper hand in maritime negotiations with Timor-Leste.

Based on the now renegotiated sea boundaries, the Commonwealth’s commitment to corporate riches robbed Timor-Leste of an estimated $5 billion of revenue at a time when it had gained independence from brutal Indonesian occupation. It’s a significant number, considering Timor-Leste’s general state budget last year was $1.95 billion.

After decades of exploitation, Timor-Leste is staring down deep economic duress. The country’s precarious economic situation, paired with its fragile geology and infrastructure, leaves it vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Bree Ahrens, a campaigner for the Environment Centre NT, says the proposed arrangement to dump carbon in Timor-Leste waters should be viewed in this context. She is adamant this is a story “of carbon colonialism”.

“Santos might not exist in 20 years, but the CO2 from Barossa will,” she says. “And given the future questions around Timor-Leste’s financial resources, it’s a heavy burden to bear. And it’s imperative that Australia be clear about what their responsibility in regard to that is.”

A series of detailed questions was sent to Santos but the company declined to comment. The deep-sea dumping bill has passed the house of representatives and is currently moving through the senate, where it is expected to pass.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "Captive audience".

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