Solid Energy finally comes clean on lignite pollution estimate

Posted on
17 February 2011
State-owned coalminer Solid Energy has released figures that show its planned lignite to liquid fuel operation is likely to produce double the greenhouse emissions of standard diesel in New Zealand.

In November 2010, the company initially refused WWF-New Zealand’s Official Information Act (OIA) request for their comparison of lignite-to-diesel emissions with crude oil-to-diesel emissions, claiming the information was a trade secret, but has now released one page of analysis following WWF’s complaint to the Ombudsman.

Commenting, Peter Hardstaff, Climate Change Campaigner at WWF-New Zealand said: “Solid Energy’s CEO Don Elder made bold claims at the company’s 2010 AGM about the low environmental impact of converting lignite to diesel. The figures the company has eventually released show those claims are baseless; the potential environmental impact is in fact huge. For a state-owned company to conceal this information from scrutiny until faced with an Ombudsman’s challenge displays a high degree of contempt for the public interest. New Zealand’s emissions are a very public matter – millions of Kiwis are doing their bit to reduce their carbon emission but Solid Energy could make a mockery of their efforts if it proceeds with its plans”. [1]

The information released by Solid Energy comprises a table of figures accompanied by a brief explanation, but WWF is concerned that no detail has been provided on how the figures were derived and where the source information came from. The single page ‘well-to-wheels’ life-cycle assessment compares the greenhouse gas emissions of various methods that could be used to produce coal-based liquid fuel with the current emissions from standard diesel – a fossil fuel that already contributes to global warming.

WWF’s Peter Hardstaff said: “We are disappointed the company has still not provided information on how its calculations were done. They’ve given the answer but without the workings. That’s not good enough, and we’ll be going back to Solid Energy to ask for more detail.”

The figures show that even under the company’s most optimistic scenarios, which include using as yet unproven carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, making diesel out of coal would create a third more greenhouse gas emissions than diesel from crude oil. A more likely scenario, using current technology and without CCS would increase New Zealand’s diesel emissions by over 100 per cent [2] , increasing the country’s contribution to climate change by some 6.8 million tonnes and adding 53 per cent to New Zealand’s road transport emissions. [3]

On the emissions comparisons, Mr Hardstaff said: “To even consider this route of coal to liquid fuel, which would send our emissions sky rocketing, is lunacy given Solid Energy’s and New Zealand’s potential to produce fuel from wood instead. With a fraction of the emissions of crude oil diesel, clean green jobs for Kiwis, not to mention the potential to enhance the country’s reputation, producing domestic bio-fuels is a 21st century opportunity compared to the 19th century dead-end of dirty coal.”

The more likely scenario set out in Solid Energy’s analysis would increase total New Zealand emission by almost 10 per cent. Environment Minister Dr. Nick Smith recently proposed to officially gazette a long term target of a 50 per cent reduction in net emissions by 2050. [4]

Mr Hardstaff said: “Nick Smith’s proposed ‘50 by 50’ long term emissions reduction target is already inadequate. This situation only proves how pointless it is to even attempt to set it down in the statute books when, with one decision, the government could sanction a state owned enterprise setting New Zealand on a route to increasing our emissions by almost 10%. This is madness.”



[1]     If every single New Zealander managed to cut their car use by 20% it would reduce emissions by about 1.7 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2e. If all diesel in New Zealand was produced from lignite, it would increase New Zealand’s emissions by some 6.8 Mt (see note [3]).

[2]     According to Solid Energy’s figures, a reasonable case scenario is that lignite-liquid fuel will create 6.1kg CO2e per litre compared to 3.2kg CO2e per litre for diesel from crude. However, the diesel from crude figure includes 0.2kg for extraction and transport to refinery, which are not currently part of NZ’s emissions as they are done overseas (NZ’s domestic oil production does not produce diesel – it is all imported as a finished product or imported as crude and refined at Marsden Point in NZ). This means lignite to liquid fuel will likely double NZ’s emissions from diesel. This finding is similar to that of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s analysis of the emissions from lignite to diesel compared to crude oil to diesel (see:

[3]     WWF New Zealand’s calculation of diesel emissions in New Zealand:
In 2008, road transport emissions in NZ were 12.7 Million tonnes CO2e.

In 2008, petrol and diesel each contributed about 50% of New Zealand’s road transport fuel.
Oil consumption tables from MED:

Diesel, per litre of fuel, contributes about 15% more greenhouse gas emissions than petrol

Therefore, based on 2008 figures, diesel contributes about 6.8 Mt and petrol 5.9 Mt to the 12.7 Mt total for road transport.

In 2008, if all of New Zealand’s diesel needs had been provided through lignite-liquid fuel conversion, instead of crude oil, diesel emissions would have been in the region of 13.6Mt with petrol emissions at 5.9Mt – a total of 19.5Mt. This is a 53% increase in road transport emissions.

6.8Mt is 9% of total gross emissions in 2008 (74.7Mt) and 14% of net emissions in 2008 (48.5Mt).

[4]     On 29th January 2011, Environment Minister Nick Smith proposed to officially ‘gazette’ a long term emissions target of, by 2050, a 50% reduction in net emissions below a 1990 gross emissions baseline. A public consultation on this proposal closes on 28 February. More information;

Media contact: Jenny Riches WWF-New Zealand Marketing & Communications Manager, tel: 04 4714288 / 0274477158


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