Carbon paper

20:10, Dec 09 2012
Barry Barton
Carbon Capture and Storage: Barry Barton and his team have been given nearly quarter of a million dollars and about seven months to come up with the basis for it.

Alistair Bone talks to a University of Waikato professor who's setting up a controversial new law. 

It may be rarely or never used, it might, in some extreme corners of a Green Party conference, see him branded as an eco-criminal; it is guaranteed to be looked at by people who suspect his motives and try to unpack his politics. But to Barry Barton, his current project is just pretty neat.

The phrase comes out as overly well enunciated and proper, like the prime minister saying it to a little girl. As it might. University bios usually run for a big paragraph. The professor of law (also director of the University of Waikato Centre for Environmental, Resources and Energy Law) has a whole page with little padding.

He has worked for years in Canada, where energy and the law of it is a big multibillion deal. He's written texts. The bulk of his work has been chopping up what others have produced into usable bits, the endless interpretations the lawyer shares with the historian.

But now he's been given a virgin forest, a blank page, a tabula rasa in his more accustomed way of speaking, to work with. He gets to write a new law and make history himself.

Pretty neat.


The law will cover Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Simply put, this is taking all the carbon dioxide (CO 2) by-product we make when we burn things like coal and piping it into a big, deep hole in the ground where it can't heat up the Earth's climate. It sounds like a great idea. We have thousands of years' worth of coal and our energy problems would be over if we could burn it with abandon. China, the United States and India and everywhere else could keep the lights and air-conditioning on without worrying about global warming.

No one does it here, yet. In fact, no one does it commercially anywhere. There are some large-scale projects under way in Norway, the US and Canada, but it is technically trickier than it sounds. The Government wants a law so that if the technology goes good and people want to do it here, they can. This is where Barton comes in.

"At the moment, it is not on the table, because there are so many legal hurdles, it is close to illegal," he says. The existing Gas Act and the Crown Minerals Act don't help much. Or the Resource Management Act. There will have to be a new law and it will have to have its relationship with a host of old laws sorted out.

The actual drafting will come from the Parliamentary Counsel Office, but Barton and his team have been given nearly a quarter of a million dollars and seven months to come up with the basis for it.

Some of the law they want to make is surprisingly detailed. The plan is to inject the CO 2 into existing rock formations deep under the Earth or sea. "We have to make sure the wells are drilled properly. No leaks or bursts, short term or long term. We will have an engineering expert on board and we will be mandating engineering standards - as in what type of steel, cement, muds, etc, to be used."

There are dangers to be avoided. "With CCS, you are handling a gas under pressure and, yeah, that can go wrong. But we are pretty used to handling gases under pressure in our economy." People have also been modelling the subsurface movement of fluids for a while. So we've got the science of it down to the point that there is not going to be a cataclysm, the whole reservoir of CO 2 is not going to come to the surface at once?

"Shouldn't," says Barton.

This leads to a question about whether the law will be followed when the lawyers are out of sight. Barton is not exactly comforting. The Pike River Royal Commission Report is not long out. "It makes sobering reading and not only in terms of what happened to the men underground," says Barton. "In terms of the quality of our systems in New Zealand, we have a long way to go to get to where we should be. Across a wide range of fields. New technologies such as CCS rightly pose questions about the quality of our regulatory systems." Publicly, Barton has criticised the lack of preparation of some councils that will be responsible for cleaning up if an oil well blows out off the coast.

Liability is another problem. The carbon is supposed to be contained underground for thousands of years. "Ordinarily you would expect the operator to be liable if things go wrong. But what about in a hundred years' time, though? There are a few companies in the world that date back to the 1600s, but not many."

He cites the Tui Mine above Te Aroha as an example of the problem. It was abandoned in 1973 and left to leak and poison nearby streams and rivers. Before remedial work, was carried out, a decent rain could have collapsed its shonky tailing dam and sent a lahar kilometres down across the outskirts of the town and the nearby State Highway. The clean-up cost central Government more than $20 million and Environment Waikato and the Matamata Piako District Council a total of more than a million all up. The mine's operator, Norpac, simply disappeared. The company, a construct of Cable Price Downer and a United States and Canadian concern, was not required to accept any kind of responsibility. Cable Price and Downer was later sold and split up and the bits thrive to this day. Bonds are paid for such operations now, but the extent to which they are adequate is questioned. Barton expects there will again be pressure on taxpayers to clean up the mess if things go wrong.

The politics of the new law can't be ignored. Greenpeace is not a fan of CCS, calling it greenwashing by the carbon industry and a dangerous diversion of time and money away from work on renewable energy sources. Barton is walking a middle line on the solution, if not the problem. To his mind, the verdict has long been in on climate change: it is happening and it is caused by human actions.

"We have a very big problem with climate change and we need every tool in our arsenal to solve it. No one single thing is going to solve it. We are going to keep using hydrocarbons for a good long time. We have a host of problems and we need a host of solutions."

Sadly, even CCS is not a silver bullet that means we can just burn coal forever.

"There are other issues with coal rather than CO 2 emissions. The non-climate change emissions from coal burning are also unpleasant. If it goes up the flue, it comes down somewhere."

CCS won't happen in a hurry here. There are no applications on the table and there are much stabler geographies in the world to do this sort of work. Also, the most logical place to inject the carbon is into empty natural gas fields off the Taranaki coast. A plan that international energy companies who have leased the sites will definitely want to say something about. It's another balancing act for the lawmakers.

"Do you want to give the oil companies veto power over CCS operations? So they would dominate them and the CCS industry would become an offshoot of oil and gas? On the other hand, we don't want to send messages to oil companies we are trying to attract here that they have good security of tenure and New Zealand is a very good place to do business - except if someone wants to do CCS all over your property."

The professor's work will include talking to people in the industry. He's sure he won't get captured. "I'm not involved with any particular project. They won't be volunteering what their commercial plans are and I won't be asking."

He says at this point, it's about getting a buzz going. "There is a mutually reinforcing relationship between setting up a legislative framework that makes it possible and people bringing them forward. We need something that is fit for purpose. It will send a signal to companies working internationally that New Zealand is open for business in this respect."