Licking lignite

Jeanette Fitzsimons raised the alarm in a recent Herald op-ed over Solid Energy’s plans for Southland lignite. A very justified alarm. She wrote of well-advanced plans to use more than 3 billion tonnes of economically recoverable lignite from three fields in Southland. Big plans, of which New Zealanders are hardly aware. First off is the transformation of lignite, by drying it, into briquettes for Fonterra’s milk-processing plants and for export. Only 100,000 tonnes a year in the pilot plant to be built next year, followed by a full-scale plant many times larger. Next are plans to convert lignite to diesel, with the claim that all New Zealand’s diesel could be produced this way. The third big plan is the conversion of lignite to urea.


It’s the increase in greenhouse gas emissions associated with this vast development that concerns Fitzsimons. Her article rests on the arguments of James Hansen that the use of coal must be phased out over the next couple of decades. And she’s not buying the claim of carbon compliance:

“Solid Energy says all the emissions will be ‘offset’. But increasing the amount of biological carbon that cycles between atmosphere and plants can’t compensate for putting more fossil carbon into the system, even if our ETS scheme pretends it can.

“Paying money is, in the end, not a get-out-of-jail-free card for increasing pollution.

“These huge lignite developments are close – Solid Energy intends to start building next year. Any hope we had of reducing our greenhouse emissions would be lost.”

Her conclusion is robust:

“As citizens, we need to refocus our domestic action to tell Solid Energy and the Government by every means available to us to keep the coal in the hole. Every tonne of lignite New Zealand keeps in the ground is 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide that doesn’t get into the atmosphere.”

I agree entirely, and wonder what is going on in the mind of the Minister of Energy and others in government as they contemplate the proposed activity of the government-owned company. It’s not as if there is any requirement for lignite in something essential like our electricity generation, no lingering imperative that we carry on using it until we can replace it with renewables. The only imperative in the proposed lignite exploitation is that we not leave any resource stone unturned in the drive to greater economic wealth.

I don’t know how much thought the Minister gives to the counter imperative that we take every step open to us to prevent the continuing build-up of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. There is perhaps a cautionary note in the reference to coal in the Draft Energy Strategy, but it’s far from specific:

“New Zealand’s extensive coal resources currently contribute to electricity supply security. Coal is also utilised by industry and is exported. Coal could potentially contribute to the economy in other ways, such as through the production of liquid fossil fuels, methanol or fertiliser such as urea.

“This potential is more likely to be fully realised if an economic way to reduce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions is found. Carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) will potentially be an effective way of utilising resources while reducing CO2 emissions.”

Moreover there’s nothing in Solid Energy’s plans which suggests that the lignite development is going to wait on CCS (if the technology is ever developed successfully). Meeting the slack requirements of the ETS is all they appear to have in mind, and that’s clearly no impediment to proceeding.

The Minister has a wide embrace. He welcomes every renewable energy development that comes along. In the same breath he waxes enthusiastic at the prospect of the discovery and urgent development of fossil fuel resources. If the Draft Energy Strategy is as close to his and the government’s philosophy as we’re going to get it appears the thinking is that we can fully exploit the fossil fuel resources while alternatives are being developed. And we should be getting on with it smartly while it’s profitable. It’s an opportunity which we would be foolish to miss. Indeed according to Chris Baker, CEO of the mining and exploration lobby Straterra, who followed up Jeanette Fitzsimons’ article the very next day, the lignite resource could be worth $3 trillion. He didn’t say to whom, but no doubt there would be trickle down.

How does this wealth stack up against the release of more atmospheric carbon as a result of exploiting the lignite? That’s a rhetorical question. It doesn’t matter how many trillions of dollars we gain if we lose a habitable world for our descendants in doing so.

If the government is serious about tackling climate change it should instruct Solid Energy not to pursue the lignite plans and relieve them of whatever dividend expectations that makes them unable to fulfil. If regulation is necessary it should legislate for it. It should tell the public that unless full carbon capture and storage technology is possible there can be no exploitation of the lignite fields because of the seriousness of the threat of increased greenhouse gases. That threat, it should explain, far outweighs the transient economic gain of fossil fuel development.

We can’t have it both ways. We can’t reduce emissions by increasing them. We can’t say we recognise the threat of global warming and at the same time expect to carry on with all activities which give rise to it. If Gerry Brownlee and the government think we can, they are deceiving themselves and us. Jeanette Fitzsimons is absolutely right. Keep the coal in the hole.

PS. Take a few minutes to send Gerry Brownlee an email to that effect. Remind him that he has a responsibility to the future. I’ve done so.

34 thoughts on “Licking lignite”

  1. Two issues not covered above:
    – potential for the lignite plants to be declared ‘trade exposed’ under the ETS and therefore the public having to fork out for 90% of the costs of emissions under any international agreement like Kyoto
    – that the emissions from such a plant are not a big deal globally. Insignificant actually. It may actually be cheaper to have those emissions here and pay for emission reductions elsewhere. After all, it is global concentrations of ghg that is the concern, not local.

  2. Lignite has been in the news every few days here in Southland for some months. Many people are looking forward to the cash and jobs they expect the new initiatives to bring. The green voice is overwhelmed. Southland is a wealthy farming area, what will these “initiatives” add to our province?

    In the meantime, Environment Southland’s senior environmental technical officer, Karl Erikson, said this week that there has been an alarming increase in air pollution here this year – which locals are blaming on the increase in the burning of ‘lower-grade’ coal. Southland Hospital respiratory physician Dr Roland Meyer said there had been a terrible increase in respirable problems in Invercargill this year and although he did not have “hard data” to back that up, he believed they were linked to the increase in air pollution.

    If we consider coal as nature’s way of having removed excess carbon dioxide (ie a waste product) from the atmosphere in times long past perhaps we would be less inclined to want to use it – maybe an anology would be, what would we think of the use of human faeces as a fuel?

  3. Its a pity Jeanette Fitzsimons did not have a more pragmatic view about energy when she was part of government. If the Greens had not worked so hard at making Hydro power a dirty word we would not have built the gas powered extension to Huntley and we could be shutting the coal powered pat of Huntley. Coal is the dirtiest fuel and we don’t need it as we have plenty of alternatives.

  4. Carol says: “If we consider coal as nature’s way of having removed excess carbon dioxide (ie a waste product) from the atmosphere in times long past perhaps we would be less inclined to want to use it – maybe an anology would be, what would we think of the use of human faeces as a fuel?”

    Perhaps this is a wrong analogy. Human faeces *are* being used as a fuel. Maybe not in NZ but in many places over the world. E.g. in the Netherlands there are sewage plants that use the biomass component of sewage to generate biogas through bacterial activity in tanks. This gas is then burned to generate enough electricity to run the sewage plant. As an added bonus the excess heat is sometimes used to heat suburbs in nearby towns.

    There is nothing wrong with using faeces as biofuels, the sewage plants don’t smell any worse because of it. In contrary, it is smart use of otherwise rather useless human trash.

    There is another way in which your analogy is wrong: human faeces are a result of our diet: the carbon in faeces comes from plants. In other words: that carbon is already accounted for as it was already part of the fast carbon cycle. This is in contrast to coal which has been absent from the carbon cycle for millions of years.

    I wish the NZ population the strength to withstand the promises of temporary monetary wealth at the expense of future generations.

  5. Have to agree with Cynicus, not a good analogy. But what Carol is saying needs no analogy. Mother nature developed a highly effective method of sequestering carbon safely and stably over millions of years ie. store it as coal. Along comes a bipedal hominid not too distantly related to the chimpanzee, who thinks he is clever because he can extract energy from coal etc. at approximately 200 000 times faster (or whatever the rate is) than its natural rate of formation and who thinks that if he continues to burn it, there will be no significant environmental consequences. Homo sapiens is one of the few species with the ingenuity to develop technological approaches of pooing in their own nest.

  6. “Her article rests on the arguments of James Hansen that the use of coal must be phased out over the next couple of decades. ”

    And the Green Party of Aotearoa oppose extracting other fossil fuels as well.

    World energy sources (Wiki) (%)
    Oil 37, Coal 25, Gas 23, Nuclear 6, Biomass 4, Hydro 3, Solar 0.5 All others >1
    Please explain how the less than 15 % of energy that is currently non FF, can be scaled within 20 years to support 8 billion humans.

    1. Let’s stick with Hansen before you rush off in other directions. This is what he had to say recently in Japan:

      “Geophysics reveals the requirements: phase out coal, leave tar sands in the ground, do not pursue the last drops of oil.”

      What we can do within 20 years depends on how serious we consider the risk of severe climate change to be. Hansen again in the same speech:

      “Our planet is dangerously close to tipping points. Ice is melting worldwide and many species are stressed by climate change and other factors. Global warming, if we allow it to continue, will cause sea level rise, species extinction and increasing climate extremes out of humanity’s control.”

      If we take that threat seriously we would surprise ourselves at how quickly we could change direction.

      1. Yep right behind you Bryan – I’ll hold the candle (whoops sorry it produces CO2 so we’ll all just follow you in the dark and cold) and hope that by obeying Jimmy’s alarmist exaggerated ranting we’ll all save the world!!

        1. Does the grubby disrespect you show to a distinguished scientist not worry you? The words I quoted from James Hansen were spoken at a ceremony where he was awarded the prestigious Blue Planet Prize, shared with co-winner Robert Watson from the UK. You don’t have to agree with him, but you might refrain from trying to belittle him in such childish terms which say a great deal more about you than about him.

  7. “Please explain how the less than 15 % of energy that is currently non FF, can be scaled within 20 years to support 8 billion humans.”

    That is a very good question. I ask myself, how do other species survive without burning FFs? Or how did humans survive prior to the industrial era without FFs? Here’s another question, how much of the FF we consume is actually necessary to survive, and how much for just entertainment? If we eliminated the latter I suspect that we could cut emissions drastically. If we were more efficient in what we do for survival we could cut emissions drastically even further. We could if we felt like it cut our emissions right down to almost nothing. We choose not to, because we prefer to live our lives by not having to exert much physical energy, or endure a little hardship. We have engulfed ourselves in cotton wool and proclaimed that this is normality and stretched the conclusion further by arguing that it is necessary for survival. In reality we are just the whiny spoilt brats of the animal kingdom unwilling to tolerate even the smallest inconvenience.

    1. “…how much of the FF we consume is actually necessary to survive, and how much for just entertainment? ”
      Can we therefore take it that this will be your last post…ever? And that you will presently skip off into the bush to be one with nature?

  8. Steve, “Please explain how the less than 15 % of energy that is currently non FF, can be scaled within 20 years to support 8 billion humans.”

    It’s not so much that we can’t generate energy in other ways, it’s just that it presently costs more. Though investment and time will bring that cost down, it’s also important to note that the cost of burning FF doesn’t (at the moment) include any of the future costs associated with the climate change it causes. So it’s not really a fair comparison.

    1. “…the cost of burning FF doesn’t (at the moment) include any of the future costs…”. Nor should they. These “costs” remain utterly speculative as the climate catastrophe fails to materialise. The benefits of longer growing seasons and CO2 fertilisation are real though. Nonetheless our govt HAS seen fit to load all NZers with the costs of an ETS that no-one else on this side of the world is carrying. Why should we continue such economic self-harming when China, India and the rest have made it absolutely clear that they will do nothing that hampers their economic growth?

      1. Interesting also that the closure of the CCX has received no media coverage whatsoever.

        With carbon trading dead in the US, one wonders what the hell our ETS is actually for.

        1. Just another tax!!
          Unlike the US voluntary scheme, the European cousin of the CCX, the European Climate Exchange (ECX), continues to trade due to the mandatory carbon caps of the Kyoto Protocol. But the future of the ECX will be in doubt unless a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol is introduced.

      2. “These “costs” remain utterly speculative as the climate catastrophe fails to materialise.”

        Ok. At exactly what point should we act? Is there a specific rise in sea levels, amount of GHGs in the atmosphere, rise in temperature, what? And what action should we then take, in your mind?

        And at that time, when (possibly that’s an “if” in your mind) it has “materialised” like a car wreck that no one can ignore, do you propose we recoup the costs from the polluters to pay for the damage they’ve caused? If so, how?

        Re: ETS. I’m not talking about NZ’s specific policy response, for now just keep it to what the global response should be.

        1. Sadly for you Erentz, global warming is no longer a fervent moral issue. It’s gone stale, tainted by too many scaremongers, carpetbaggers and hypocrites. No catastrophy, no car wreck, no need to get all hysterical…..

        2. “Ok. At exactly what point should we act?”

          I’ll try and answer this question because the trolls don’t seem to be exactly leaping at the opportunity and it is a critical question. When I see the trends in greenhouse gases CO2, CH4, N2O steadily trundling upward it reminds me of the metabolic syndrome, which we are seeing more and more of. Rising, blood pressue, serum cholesterol, rising triglycerides, raised blood sugars, insulin resistance and rising microalbuminurea. These are just indicators of course that mean something to a doctor, but to a patient unaware of what is happening just thinks that the catastrophe is failing to materialise and carries on regardless. In this case failure to act can lead to sudden death due to heart attack. The good news is that on seeing these indicators the doctor can recommend diet and exercise and reverse disease progression but the patient must start ASAP. Climate change is similar to the metabolic syndrome. But with climate change there is plenty of inertia. So in other words the time to act is now. The further we wait, just makes it alot tougher if not impossible to act the longer we leave it. The trolls can belly ache all they like, but our moral obligation as custodians is to act and now. The fact that China and the USA are slow to come to the party is problematic, and that is where environmental groups, even spiritual organisations need to put pressure on the media, as they really are doing diddly squat to raise awareness. And unless the trolls have a cunning exit plan if and when all goes to custard, they should perhaps consider doing something constructive with their time instead of wasting ours.

          1. A very useful analogy Tony. Physician William Calvin makes considerable use of analogy in his book Global Fever, reviewed here, but not this one as I recall.

            And I notice you mention spiritual groups – Calvin considers it likely that when the leaders of the major religious groups come to see climate change as a serious failure of stewardship their moral arguments will be as strong an influence against vested interests as they were in ending slavery.

            1. Thanks Bryan. I think that it is time to start thinking less about whether we should be doing something to what we should be doing. On that note I went to the NZEVA (NZ Electric Vehicles Association) meeting the other night and was very impressed with the knowledge and commitment of those that gathered. Several of them had succeeded in taking a second hand car whipping out the engine and putting in an electric motor with Lithium batteries, a range of 150km per charge, perfect for around town. The new batteries can withstand 3000 charges. What was also encouraging is that anyone is welcome to the meetings, and they were all more than happy to share their considerable knowledge and experience. What’s more they had all succeeded when many others poured scorn and doubted that they would come up with anything worthwhile. Most cars including automatics can now be converted. My sense in talking to them, is that we haven’t even scratched surface with regard to green technological possibilities involving transport.

    2. The other thing we should hold the geological carbon extraction and burning “technologies” to is the free pass they get on the vast quantities of water they waste, overheat, pollute and divert. If they had to pay the right cost – some economic genius can work out an approximate value for agricultural, domestic and industrial uses as well as the health effects of polluted supply or loss of supply – then the cost comparison with renewables might look a bit more realistic.

      The only reason burning stuff is currently the “cheapest” power supply is the fact that so many costs are subsidised or transferred to other parts of the economy.

  9. Yes these “green” initiatives are always launched to a glowing reception by the sycophantic media, who always seem to have moved on to other things when it goes pear-shaped.

        1. Since you can’t or won’t read the report, I’ll spell it out for you.

          Biofuels will increase the price of food
          Biofuels will increase CO2 emissions
          Biofuels will cause starvation and suffering in the developing world.

          Furthermore, governments are making this madness mandatory.

          1. Already read it, John – it must be comforting to you to believe we’re all ‘stupid’ about biofuels – but here’s a hint; if you’re actually trying to persuade people you don’t start with goading statements like –

            This is another example of a great green “initiative” from the masters of stupidity, the EU

            So much for today’s Smug!

          2. Biofuels will only do the things you claim if we’re stupid about the way we produce them. There are plenty of biofuel opportunities which shouldn’t impact on prime agricultural land. In the EU example, bad policy is being pointed out. It will in all likelihood therefore be changed. Unlike the US subsidies for corn ethanol, which did all the things you claim…

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