Thinking Old-Style Big

A full page feature recently appeared in the Waikato Times in which Press journalist John McCrone interviewed Solid Energy CEO Don Elder on the Southland lignite proposals. It was a thoughtful piece of journalism, and I wish I could provide a link to it but it doesn’t seem to have appeared on the Stuff website. It provided a good overview of the thinking behind Solid Energy’s pursuit of lignite development, along with objections levelled against it. I’ve already written on the question but it’s important enough to keep returning to.

Lignite is big. Briquetting should be under way next year in a factory which has been consented by Environment Southland. Hospitals, commercial greenhouses and Fonterra are expected customers. But that’s just a groundbreaker. On the drawing board is a phase two briquetting plant that will be ten times larger.

Then come the ‘truly humungous’ developments. First, the $1.4 billion lignite-to-urea conversion factory which could be operational by 2015, producing enough fertiliser for New Zealand to become a $2b a year exporter. Second, a $10b to $15b lignite-to-diesel conversion plan which could be producing enough synthetic fuel by 2018 for New Zealand to be self-sufficient in road transport and agricultural machinery fuel for the next few hundred years. There’s a third prospect, thankfully looking unlikely, a 2000-megawatt lignite-fired power station, double the size of anything else that has been built to supply the national grid.

Elder sees New Zealand as fantastically fortunate. 10 billion tons of lignite reserves, the equivalent in energy to 30 Maui gasfields. Yes, he completely agrees, there’s climate change to be concerned about. But that’s not the problem it looks. Solid Energy holds a trump card. Carbon capture and storage (CCS).

“Solid Energy’s proposals include the siphoning off of all CO2 produced during the urea and diesel conversion processes. This captured carbon will then be sequestered – liquefied, piped deep underground into aquifer formations, or even down oil wells if Southland’s off-shore petroleum fields ever get developed.

“Elder says under the right kind of rock it will remain sealed. ‘It stays liquid under pressure and barely moves. We’ve had a team working on geo-sequestration for eight or nine years now and we’re very comfortable with the technology.’”

McCrone points out that others like the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright and Lincoln University researcher Shannon Page consider the idea of CCS is still unproven. There are no guarantees that it works in practice or that Southland even has room for the volume of gas involved.  That doesn’t faze Elder who has a fall-back option of offsetting carbon emissions by regenerating native forest and says Solid Energy has been working on a carbon sink trial with the Conservation Department.

Elder’s assurances about CCS look premature to me. I’ve seen no evidence that we’re ready to put it into operation within four years. The fact that he offered an alternative of offsetting by native afforestation suggested that he was by no means sure that CCS was a goer. Afforestation proposals are to be welcomed, but as attempts to lower the CO2 already in the atmosphere, not to open the way for large and unnecessary additional emissions. Elder’s preparedness to rely on offsets in this way suggests that he has little appreciation of how dire the current greenhouse gas levels already are. And there was no suggestion that the afforestation proposals had been quantified relative to the expected level of emissions.

Elder did assure McCrone that Solid Energy would not be seeking free credits under the ETS for its proposals. They’ve already said no to such a possibility. “We’ve got a very clear view on this. We won’t get to do these projects unless we can pay for our own carbon.” Not that that’s a big call under a government seemingly prepared to keep the price of carbon at a comfortable level for industry.

On the fertiliser question Elder said that nitrogen fertilisers have to be made from fossil fuels. I presume when he says “have to” he means it’s the cheapest way to make them. In future, because of the better economic uses for natural gas, it will be made from coal, and China has been building coal-to-urea plants. So, if we make urea from our own lignite we’ll just be displacing the fertiliser we would have bought from China. No recognition here, incidentally, that there’s any problem surrounding the overuse of cheap nitrogen fertiliser on New Zealand farms and globally or that human modification of the nitrogen cycle has been even greater than our modification of the carbon cycle. (See Planetary Boundaries)

Diesel has to be generated somewhere else in the world and imported at cost to us. Much better to make it ourselves. Elder presumably discounts the possibility that we can make it ourselves in a climate-friendly manner by using biomass, as outlined, for example, in the 2006 report of the Royal Society Energy Panel or explored by Kevin Cudby in his recent book From Smoke to Mirrors.

This argument that if we don’t do it someone else will is much favoured by those who want to keep exploiting our fossil fuels. It is an abandonment of responsibility for our greenhouse gas emissions. It displays no sense of the urgency of the need to find alternatives to fossil fuels. It is conventional business-as-usual thinking which seems unable to even imagine how we could do some things differently, let alone set about achieving it. Basically it is a failure to recognise the imperative that rising levels of greenhouse gases have imposed upon us.

That is where Solid Energy’s plans founder. They are cavalier about the risks of catastrophic climate change. And they are consequently risky even as economic propositions. Consider this outcome: as the realities of climate change begin to bite society will turn decisively away from greenhouse gas-emitting industry and the prosperous future prophesied by those who look to keep mining fossil fuels will not eventuate.

But look, protests Elder, we’re the lucky country. We’ve got everything Australia has – land, minerals, sunshine – but we’ve also got water, and it’s water which is essential to adding value to mining. It’s massive amounts of water which can enable us to turn coal to fertiliser or to diesel. Australia is stuck with commodity mining, but we can focus on added-value mining. We’ve hardly begun to scratch the surface of what coal can do for us. For good measure he adds the theme often sounded by the Minister for Economic Development Gerry Brownlee, that with the returns we earn we’ll be able to pay for top environmental practices. Indeed Elder’s thinking generally is very much in harmony with Brownlee’s Draft Energy Strategy.

It’s yesterday’s thinking. The dreams of wealth from coal are a chimera. If Solid Energy stays on that track investors would do well to be wary when it’s partly privatised. The company could have a much more secure and profitable future by turning its attention to the rapid and full development of our renewable energy potential. Elder says it’s time for realism rather than idealism, and adds that opponents to lignite have to consider the science. Surely science and the realism which flows from it say unequivocally leave the lignite undisturbed.

19 thoughts on “Thinking Old-Style Big”

  1. Great, not content with polluting our own waterways and lakes with excess nitrogen and phosphorus, turning them into lifeless zones, but Don Elder and his National Party mates want to do the same elsewhere.

    This has to be stopped, whatever the the cost.

  2. I think Don Elder has been on the publicity trail this month. He had two mentions in the Southland Times in the last fortnight. Hicks, Elder play down lignite risks and Resources make us ‘luckiest country’. Though it sounds like the Waikato Times interview you mention was longer.

    In the first article, Elder does the old trick of the “pot calling the kettle black”. He accuses Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright of with holding information. This seems to be him adopting the tactic of “mirroring” attacks – accuse your opponents of what you actually do. At the Coal Symposium, Jan Wright told Elder and the audience that Solid Energy had refused to answer her questions on the carbon content of the various lignite processes. So much for “let’s have a debate”!

    Dr Wright has also recently been in the Otago Daily Times. She has spoken at the University of Otago and she has issued a press release warning us of the excessive emissions from the lignite proposals.

    Pehaps that’s why Don Elder has also been in the media. The lignite issue is certainly a litmus test of whether some one “gets” James Hansen’s message to stop further exploitation of coal and non-traditional fossil fuels. Dr Wright passes with flying colours and Don Elder fails dismally.

  3. There is a simple argument for being prudent and “banking” lignite for the foreseeable future. If we accept that climate science is right about anthropogenic CO2 emissions driving global climate and ocean change, then it will be good to look back in several decades and see that lignite carbon was left in the ground (perhaps with the equivalent capital having been invested in development of renewable energy). On the other hand, if (and I agree that this is highly unlikely) the climate and ocean effects of these emissions turn out to be not that great, then lignite will be able to be exploited at greater profit than at present because production costs will be lower due to advances in technology and prices will be higher in an energy/fertilizer starved world.

      1. You could have a separate account of stocks but it would be difficult to assess increases in stocks through the identification of new technologies (ie wind and sunlight are stocks).

        1. This can already be done; see for instance this post of mine where I discuss the information in a survey of offshore wind capacity.

          However they are different. Wind is a renewable resource. So, for a given capital investment (& upkeep/maintenance), you get a reasonably predictable return as the above paper predicts. Solar is similar. This is true production. Scientifically speaking of course it’s conversion, but for all practical purposes it’s producing power given no input except the capital investment of land and equipment.

          My point is that oilfields are developed as if they were the same; at least publicly there is no acknowledgement of the asset management crisis that is peak oil. Unless you count leaked news that that was what the Iraq war was about – oil security.

          1. In economics the stock of natural capital can be decreased if a resource is depleted or degraded, or increased if natural capital is improved or a new technology allows new use. So while it may seem to a casual observer that our natural capital is decreasing, simply because non-renewable hydrocarbon resources are decreasing, as new technologies, such as improved plant and animal genetics, or improved methods of electricity generation (solar and wind), are developed natural capital is probably actually increasing.

            Every now and then a new technology comes along which means a piece of the natural environment that previously had no capital value, such as lithium or uranium, now has value, greatly increasing the level of natural stocks.

            Other times resources beyond our reach become within our reach, such as minerals deep in the earth’s crust, deep geothermal energy, deep sea resources or perhaps minerals on asteroids in the asteroid belt.

            In my opinion it is very closed minded to pre-conclude that natural capital stocks are going down without doing a proper analysis of the output potential of the natural environment overtime. The huge amount of growth since Thomas Malthus wrote in reaction to the optimism others had regarding the future improvement of society is one clear demonstration that there has always been supposed intellectuals who believe that current output levels cannot be grown or sustained, so far these intellectuals have always been wrong.

            1. R2D2:”Other times resources beyond our reach become within our reach, such as minerals deep in the earth’s crust, deep geothermal energy, deep sea resources or perhaps minerals on asteroids in the asteroid belt”
              But no-one bandying such options takes into account the ROI, either capital or energy. Our present luxurious lifestyles are only possible with heavily subsidised* cheap fossil fuel. All of them will range from expensive to horrendously expensive. Certainly much more than Texas tea. Look at the cost of getting a few kilograms of moon rocks. We would be much better focusing on making do with less than trying to maintain the status quo.

              (*Subsidised in that we don’t currently have to pay the full cost of using it.)

            2. Obviously with current technology the ROI is not adequate. The point is technologies change.

  4. “On the fertiliser question Elder said that nitrogen fertilisers have to be made from fossil fuels.” Hmm… Trouble is that the worlds biggest mineral fertiliser producer (Yara) built its business on hydro powered ammonia production – in fact it used to be called ‘Hydro’. N fertiliser production has passed to oil producing areas such as Russia and Saudi Arabia because oil power is scaleable and, at the time, oil prices were low. I read once that the first proposals for Manapouri hydro were for fertiliser/explosives N fixing. So, very obvious and false spin from Elder.
    Overuse of N fertiliser is an environmental problem, a tried and tested way of reducing overuse is increasing the cost of N fertiliser. We can not get away without N fertiliser, and no serious Organic Farming advocate would claim this, but we do need to produce and apply it in the smartest manner. I did read a couple of years ago about a prototype small batch plant that only produced when the power marginal cost was low – great for balancing the grid and avoiding losses such as hydro spill. Any one else know what came of this?
    And why urea, why arent you using Ammonium Nitrate in NZ?

  5. The same article appeared in the Press. I asked John about the chance of it appearing on-line but he thought it would be too long to appear at Stuff. We may have to scan and OCR. And bluff the ire of Fairfax.

    Personally I’d demand that CCS be perfected, prototypes running and patents applied for. The licence fees would be worth more than the lignite globally.

  6. Beaker, many thanks for the information you’ve supplied. The declaration that fossil fuels have to be made from fossil fuels looked suspicious to me, and I did enough checking to indicate that that wasn’t the case, but lacked the time and knowledge to produce anything specific. You’ve filled that gap very effectively. I’m going to incorporate the material you’ve provided into a separate post.

  7. Bloomberg have a useful synopsis of the current CCS development globally over at
    It would appear cost (esp. “parasitic load”) and complexity are stalling progress and leading to a multitude of cancelled programmes. The likelihood therefore that in NZ we have a viable solution just around the corner seems very low.
    CCS is solvable though. Just don’t dig the stuff up in the first place and leave it nicely captured in the natural form.

  8. R2D2: “Obviously with current technology the ROI is not adequate. The point is technologies change.”
    Our problem is that we are rapidly running out of time to achieve these new technologies. Population pressures, depleting resources, accumulating destruction of the biosphere, loss of cheap energy, staggering financial and political structures and the vulnerability of our increasingly complex industrial infrastructure suggest we’re cutting it very fine. Geothermal may be a possibility, although I’d put more money on tidal energy and/or algae. Forget interplanetary.

    1. Right. Tidal and algae are good examples also. I was just giving examples of possibilities, not making predictions. Certainly not predictions within a time frame.

      I think you are taking me away from my original point, but not at all disagreeing with it, that is that natural stocks are likely increasing in the long term. If we develop tidal and algae energy these are further ways we can increase the potential of our natural capital.

  9. Has not Gerry Brownlee resigned all of his portfolios so that he can concentrate on Christchurch?

    The best thing New Zealand can do is, rather than invest in risky technology that is far from proven in its effectiveness, it should be investing in a more energy efficient future. We have the means. We have the reasons necessary to do it, however unattractive they might currently seem. But we don’t have the will power.

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