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Sea Dumping Bill a Dangerous Enabler

I rise today to continue doing one of the most important things the community of Mackellar elected me to do, and that's to fight for stronger action on climate change. This bill, the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Amendment (Using New Technologies to Fight Climate Change) Bill 2023, is as confounding as its title suggests. Are we dumping carbon in the sea to protect the marine environment? Isn't carbon capture and storage an old and failed technology? Rather than fight climate change, won't this bill make it worse by enabling more gas mines to proceed?

The Government says it is introducing the bill to give effect to Australia's obligations arising out of the 2009 amendment to the 1996 London protocol. 'London protocol' is shorthand for the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter. This is where it gets confusing. The 2009 amendment to the London protocol has never been ratified. It was introduced to create an exemption for the export of carbon dioxide streams to another country for carbon capture and storage, or CCS. The 2009 amendment is not in force. It has never been ratified and it won't come into force until two-thirds of the parties to the London protocol have accepted it, and so far only 10 out of the 53 contracting parties to the protocol have done so. So the Government's first justification for this Bill just does not stack up.

The purpose of the London protocol was to protect the marine environment. It expressly prohibits incineration at sea and the export of wastes and other matter for the purpose of ocean dumping. The unratified 2009 amendment allows for certain materials to be considered for dumping, including—and importantly for our purposes—carbon dioxide streams for sequestration in sub-seabed geological formations. In layman's terms, that means that the protocol permits, in certain circumstances, the dumping of carbon into sub-seabed geological formations, and it allows carbon to be exported for that purpose.

Why now? Why would the Government seek to give effect to a 2009 amendment which is not even in force, and do it prior to reforming our flawed national environment laws, which could provide additional layers of protection for our marine environment? The answer is simple. A few months ago, as a result of pressure from the crossbenchers of both the House and the Senate, the Government was forced to bring in amendments to improve the safeguard mechanism. One of those amendments dictates that all new gas facilities must be net zero from the start of operations and remain net zero for the life of the project. This had the climate-positive effect of putting a spanner in the works of upcoming but not yet approved gas projects, like Santos's Barossa project.

So let's talk about the Barossa gas project. This gas field is proposed to be developed in the pristine waters north of the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory. If developed, it will be one of the most polluting offshore gas projects in the world, releasing 15.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually. That is because not only will it be a colossal project in size; Barossa's gas also has a very high level of carbon dioxide in it, far higher than any other gas project in the country, as much as 1.5 tonnes of carbon for every one tonne of gas. That's right, Mr Deputy Speaker: it may produce more carbon dioxide than the methane gas it is trying to extract.

On top of the climate impact, the pipeline connecting the Barossa gas field to the land poses a major threat to turtle hatchlings and nesting beaches, as it will involve extensive seabed disturbance, dredging, increased shipping and helicopter movements over the islands, and significant noise and light pollution.

But back to the Safeguard Mechanism. The amendments to the Safeguard Mechanism were introduced to be the major lever that would allow Australia to meet our 2030 climate targets. Being a new gas project, under the amended safeguard mechanism the Barossa gas field would be allowed to operate only if it were net zero for scope 1 emissions from initiation—that is, net zero for emissions that are created when the gas is being mined; it doesn't include those emissions that come from burning the gas overseas. This amendment to the safeguard mechanism made Santos and other investors in the project understandably anxious, as it made Barossa's gas project far less viable. This new safeguard rule has unsettled investor countries such as Japan, which rely heavily on the importation of Australian gas—so much so that, just one month ago, the Australian Financial Review reported that Japan had requested the Barossa gas project be exempted from the safeguard mechanism.

So how does such a highly polluting gas project operate on a carbon neutral basis? Reducing its emissions is very difficult, so instead it needs to sequester them. In other words, it needs to capture the carbon and store it somewhere, such as under a seabed. Enter this Bill, the Sea Dumping Amendment Bill 2023. This bill will enable the export of gas for sequestration under the seabed of other countries. It will enable emissions from the Barossa gas project to be shipped away to Timor-Leste who will store the carbon dioxide under the seabed on our behalf. In other words, this bill enables the Barossa gas project to go ahead when, because of the Safeguard Mechanism, it may not have. It is the very exception to the safeguard mechanism that Japan was seeking—except it has happened by the back door. In essence, with the sea-dumping bill, the government is creating a pathway for new gas mines to proceed. This pathway relies upon flawed, unproven technology—carbon capture and storage—which has been shown time and again to fail.

As everyone with even a passing interest in climate change knows, carbon capture and storage is not new and, as everyone also knows, it does not work. Chevron's Gorgon gas project was approved on the basis of its carbon capture and storage technology, which Chevron promised would store 80 per cent of the carbon emissions released during the mining process. The Gorgon gas project has since become infamous for the repeated and unmitigated failure of its carbon capture and storage technology. It is universally recognised as a monumental failure. By mid-2020, Chevron had spent a staggering $3 billion on that CCS technology, making it one of the costliest CCS facilities in the world, and it didn't even work.

Norway's experience of carbon capture and storage also raises major alarm bells. In one of Norway's carbon capture and storage projects, the sequestered CO2 has already risen 220 metres up through the sedimentary rock of the seabed. Far from being captured, it's migrating. Secondly, a site that was touted to be able to store 18 years worth of carbon dioxide emissions looks like it'll run out of capacity after just two years. Carbon capture and storage is unproven and in many cases is a failed technology.

It is also alarming that, in tandem with this Sea Dumping Bill, the Minister for Industry and Science has been opening up huge areas of our ocean floor acreage for exploration for carbon capture and storage sites. This means two things at least. Firstly, our marine environments will be subjected to more seismic blasting, and secondly, it is yet another step enabling polluting gas mines to proceed. If all this isn't dire enough, none of what I've discussed so far deals with scope 3 emissions that result from the actual burning of the gas once we ship it overseas. And this represents the vast majority of emissions from gas—over 85 per cent.

So, here we are on climate action, or inaction: one step forward, two steps back. This Government has a foot in each camp, pretending to act on climate change and at the same time approving and enabling new fossil fuel projects and mines. This Sea Dumping Bill is a dangerous enabler. It is a dangerous enabler because it allows for polluting gas projects to proceed based on flawed and unproven carbon capture and storage technology, and it does not deal at all with scope 3 emissions. All of this is occurring at a time when the UN Secretary-General has warned that we've entered an era of global boiling. Can you get any clearer than that? We have been warned, repeatedly, that there must be no new oil, gas or coal mines if we are to leave a liveable planet for our children and future generations. Rather than being beholden to the fossil fuel industry, this Government needs to start taking these warnings seriously and stop enabling and approving new fossil fuel mines.