Why is CSIRO hiding its advice on Carbon Capture and Storage?

by Rex Patrick | Feb 2, 2024 | Energy & Environment, Latest Posts

Australia’s peak science body, CSIRO, has refused to disclose its advice on Carbon Capture and Storage technology. Is it telling the ministers that it doesn’t work, or not? Rex Patrick does the FOIs.

CSIRO is the Australian Government’s peak scientific body standing ready to guide and advise ministers and their departments in relation to some of the nation’s biggest challenges. It focuses on the big things that really matter. So, why is it all cowardly when it comes to disclosing its advice to the government on CCS technology – which the coal and gas industries claim is an effective method of containing emissions?

After all, the government has put taxpayers on the hook for enormous CCS subsidies, despite the high profitability of gas and coal companies.

CSIRO started life in 1916 as the Advisory Council of Science and Industry. It has evolved over more than a century but has always been an organisation focussed on open scientific research pursued in the interests of Australia and the world It’s now an organisation of more than 6,000 people with a budget of more than a billion dollars.

Budget documents state that one of the returns the taxpayer gets for its contribution to CSIRO is an organisation “providing the Australian Government with independent scientific and technical advice as required and informing the policy-making process to assist the government in deciding how to best meet the challenges Australia faces.”

So, noting all the controversy about whether carbon capture and storage (CCS) actually work, I thought I’d ‘FOI’ CSIRO to see what they’ve been telling the Government about CCS’ technology readiness levels. After all, that’s an important question as the country tries to tackle climate change.

CCS is a critical part of the Government’s plans to deal with CO2 emissions from power generation, LNG exports and some hard-to-abate sources in the aluminium, cement, and steel production sectors.

In response to the FOI request, CSIRO provided a number of public domain documents on CCS and advised of two letters it has sent to Federal ministers on the topic.

Carbon abatement coward

So what’s the scam?

They’re refusing to make those two letters available for the public to see. 

Exempt in full!

Why? Well, they say that disclosure would “impede the ability of CSIRO to provide full and frank advice to a Minister when consulted …” and expanded ion that theme by saying “that disclosure of the conditionally exempt information would have on CSIRO’s ability to effectively provide advice to the Minister on matters of public”.

It’s the ‘shrinking violet’ argument.

The CSIRO code of conduct demands that it, as an organisation, it “be accountable for our actions” and that its management and employees must “act in a transparent and accountable manner”.

In relation to advice, CSIRO’s code of conduct demands that employees provide “frank, honest, comprehensive, accurate and timely advice”. That’s a demand for fearless advice.

“How very odd! The fearlessness of a person confident that his or her position will be known to very few. The frankness of a person who can be confident of the limited audience he or she has.” These comments from Bret Walker SC seem apt.

Rarely do you meet a scientist shy of publishing his or her scientific views? Scientists live to have their work published. So, one is left pondering the reason why CSIRO has taken to secrecy. 

Is their advice to the Minister different from their published advice? Or is the organisation engaged in politics? Are they concealing something that might be, to adopt for US Vice President Al Gore’s phrase, “an inconvenient truth” for the Government?

The FOI was not seeking access to low-level and unreviewed correspondence between junior scientists. It was asking for advice that the organisation has given a Minister, presumable for the Minister to rely or act on as they try to tackle the existential crisis that is climate change.

Of course, this FOI response will be appealed.

The conduct of the CSIRO, in this instance, is disgraceful. It damages the CSIRO’s longstanding reputation for integrity and openness and, unfortunately, drags the organisation into disrepute. Perhaps its senior executives have forgotten who pays their salaries and who they really work for – the Australian people.

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Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader - www.transparencywarrior.com.au.

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