Hidden treasure is fools gold

By Bryan Walker 19/12/2011

The Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) has launched a new document, Realising Our Hidden Treasure: Responsible Mineral and Petroleum Extraction. The title says it all, and it’s the same message as the government has been feeding us for the last three years.

First the treasure. The document sets it out in dollar terms. I’ll mention only the fossil fuels here. They estimate the potential value of the resources as $109 billion for coal, $248 billion for lignite, $187 billion for oil and $45 billion for natural gas.

Then the question of responsible extraction. The document is concerned with the environmental effects. There are plenty to be concerned about, but in this post I’ll focus on greenhouse gases, which the document addresses in a short section headed ’Can We Manage Greenhouse Gas Emissions?’

The opening statement of the section attempts to declare us free from any responsibility for the consequences from exported products:

A global decision has been made that the responsibility for minimising greenhouse discharges lies with fossil fuel users, not producers.

And so far as burning them in New Zealand is concerned, that’s all covered by the ETS which has seemingly accounted for the effects of emissions:

The New Zealand regulatory environment already provides direct economic signals to private investors so fossil fuel users and producers are able to operate in a market that embodies the effect of greenhouse gas emissions.

The conclusion follows logically:

IPENZ considers New Zealand should not penalise itself or forego economic opportunity by leaving its minerals and petroleum in the ground. It is not immoral or inappropriate to derive economic benefit from these resources.

This is casuistry, all too familiar in the defence of continuing fossil fuel extraction. What they are really saying is that it is still profitable to mine fossil fuels because governments refuse to put a price on them which reflects their real costs. That means there is continuing demand for them and we would be fools not to benefit from it.

Interesting that they should feel the need to say it is not immoral. I hope that means they suspect it might be. Somewhere along the line it must become immoral, by any normal definition of morality. We know that the continued burning of fossil fuels will create havoc with the environment in which human civilisation has developed and flourished. We can be pretty sure that it is already impacting harshly on the lives of many of the world’s poorer populations. We can foresee the grave threats it carries for the viability of many human societies even in the course of this century. It may not be immoral to continue with fossil fuels for a brief time while we make an urgent transition to other energy sources. But to delay that transition while we extract and use up all the fossil resources that are still available would be deeply immoral and should be denounced as such. To hail the possibility of extracting all New Zealand’s fossil resources as an economic opportunity not to be missed is to move dangerously away from basic ethical norms. IPENZ needs to check its moral compass, if it hasn’t lost it.

The next paragraph in the document begins to considers the possibility that the ETS may not be as effective in dealing with the matter of emissions as they first declared:

However, it is acknowledged that in a review in 2010, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment highlighted New Zealand’s international emission reduction obligations and the unlikelihood of the country meeting its targets. The review also noted the Emissions Trading Scheme is the only significant mechanism currently available for curbing growth in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

But they’re not going to let that weigh too heavily on their conscience:

This is a wider issue for New Zealand to consider, rather than one industry.

A final paragraph looks at the lignite question.

Solid Energy New Zealand Limited has recently begun constructing a pilot lignite briquetting plant near Mataura in Southland. Solid Energy is also investigating converting lignite to ammonia and urea fertiliser, or to liquid transport fuels. Each of these products has different carbon emission intensity and this will need managing. Solid Energy is aware of this issue and has stated it intends to explore ways of reducing emissions, offsetting emissions by plantings or purchasing carbon credits, or carbon capture and storage.

These are weasel words. Unless carbon capture and storage becomes a viable proposition — a possibility of which there’s so far little indication other than rhetorical — the plain fact is that the lignite development is going to add substantial quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere because the cost of offsetting will be cheap and will not come anywhere near compensating for the emissions. Offsetting is not a miracle solution to rising emissions.

The convoluted arguments of IPENZ carry no weight against the stubborn reality that most of the world’s as yet unexploited fossil fuels will have to remain in the ground if we are to have any hope of avoiding the more extreme dangers of climate change. I would have hoped that engineers would have enough scientific savvy to recognise this. The lure of hidden treasure must sometimes be resisted.