26 June 2021

Carbon Capture and Storage under the Timor Sea:

Climate Change Prevention or Carbon Colonialism?

Liga ba blog ida ne'e iha Tetum

In May, Santos and Eni, two partners in the Bayu-Undan joint venture, agreed to explore opportunities to continue activities at the Bayu-Undan field after gas production ends in 2022 or 2023. They are considering using the site for carbon capture and storage (CCS). This means that carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas production could be injected into depleted gas reservoirs under the Timor Sea. The idea is a dangerous one for Timor-Leste, and is unlikely to contribute meaningfully to efforts to minimize climate change.  

Why Carbon Capture and Storage?

The world faces a major challenge in confronting human-induced climate change, including that caused by greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas production and consumption. Communities around the world are demanding that high-emission companies reduce their impact on the environment. Of course, these companies are primarily concerned with their profits, and are desperate to avoid changing their business model or reducing fossil fuel production. Instead, they are looking for ways to prolong production, and see carbon capture and storage as a mechanism which could enable them to continue environmentally harmful production, while avoiding responsibility.

When Santos and Eni announced that they would explore opportunities to establish carbon capture and storage, they did not provide explicit information about their motivation, or specific plans. 

Santos hopes to extract gas from the Barossa field in Australia’s part of the Timor Sea, but the gas there contains high levels of carbon dioxide and would create huge amounts of emissions. Eni’s Evans Shoal field faces the same issue. Although neither field will benefit Timor-Leste, both companies see dumping their carbon dioxide in Timor-Leste’s maritime territory as a way to operate those fields while keeping their commitments to achieve “net zero” emissions in the near future.

Most nations committed in the Paris Accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the companies face pressure to minimize their impact on the environment. Net zero implies that the companies can offset their emissions by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by capturing carbon or afforestation. Net zero does not oblige them to reduce emissions.

The soon-to-be-empty Bayu-Undan field could be a place to store carbon dioxide, enabling Santos and Eni to pursue environmentally-destructive activities and prolong natural gas production. Santos could also delay paying to decommission the Bayu-Undan site.

Although this might be good for the two companies, it is bad for both Timor-Leste and the planet.

How Effective is Carbon Capture and Storage?

The world’s largest carbon storage project is part of Chevron’s Gorgon LNG project, in Australia’s maritime territory. Soon after production started in 2019, Chevron encountered problems with its carbon dioxide storage technology, and has managed to store only 30% of the amount it had promised. Despite this, gas production has continued unabated.

Even if companies are able to implement effective carbon capture and storage projects, this will not ameliorate the climate crisis. The methane in natural gas is itself a highly destructive greenhouse gas. In addition, the production, transportation and consumption of natural gas releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It is impossible to produce and use natural gas without damaging the environment.

In truth, the oil and gas industry promotes carbon capture and storage in order to continue production. An effective response to the climate crisis requires reducing (not offsetting) emissions, and shifting from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas to renewable energy. Convincing nations like Timor-Leste to be part of false solutions like carbon capture and storage is a major obstacle to effective action.  

Risks and Responsibilities

Offshore carbon dioxide storage in the Timor Sea is risky, and someone must be responsible to guarantee that the carbon dioxide never escapes. Carbon dioxide leaks from an undersea storage facility could contribute to oceanic acidity, with major impacts on marine ecosystems. Will these companies still exist in a hundred or a thousand years? Who will take responsibility for the carbon dioxide then?

Although Santos has signaled that they will pay Timor-Leste if they store carbon dioxide at Bayu-Undan, they have not said how much. La’o Hamutuk’s rough estimates suggest that it will be less than $40 million per year, about 2% of Timor-Leste’s current state budget. We need to evaluate this potential revenue against the long-term risks and costs.

Climate Justice and Carbon Colonialism

Timor-Leste’s natural resources, including its biodiversity and marine ecosystems, shouldn’t be sacrificed to make profits for oil and gas companies. Using Timor-Leste’s seas as an emissions dumping ground so that polluters can continue business as usual is inconsistent with principles of climate justice. Environmentalists call it “carbon colonialism” – wealthy countries claiming to reduce environmental impacts through activities that exploit and harm nations of the Global South, echoing the abuses of the colonial period. Santos’ garbage is not Timor-Leste’s responsibility. 

Every nation has a stake in solving the climate crisis, and we need a united effort to resolve this emergency. La’o Hamutuk agrees that Timor-Leste should be part of a solution. However, carbon capture and storage will not avert the climate crisis, and could pose a risk to Timor-Leste. Climate change is creating floods and droughts, disrupting seasonal weather patterns. It also makes seas rise, contaminating ground water and destroying low-lying communities. Timor-Leste is particularly vulnerable to these impacts because our infrastructure is poor and we depend on farming, so effective solutions are all the more urgent for our people.

Timor-Leste authorities must agree before the companies can go ahead with this project. La’o Hamutuk will continue to monitor this issue, to ensure that our people and natural resources are not victimized in the interests of foreign corporations. 


Updates: On 13 September, Santos and Timor-Leste's petroleum regulators signed an MOU to explore moving ahead with this project.

In November 2021, La'o Hamutuk gave a presentation on this topic (also PDF) to a Northern Territory Environmental Centre "Mythbusting CCS" webinar (video).

In February 2022, La'o Hamutuk made a submission on this project to the Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority.

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