The CO2 crisis in New Zealand was pushed off the news agenda by Jacinda Ardern’s unexpected resignation last week.

I’m only slightly kidding, but heck, imagine if the country ran out of beer. What Prime Minister could have survived that? Joking aside, I do think this actually is a political problem — not because of the beer angle but because CO2 is so critical, in many unseen ways, for so much of modern living: from medicine to food safety.

Garage Project helped put the CO2 ball in the political court, with their agenda-setting tweet:

Here they are referring to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority which is funded by the various levies we pay for fuel, gas and electricity. EECA made a big deal last year about helping breweries reduce carbon emissions. They offer co-funding to help businesses meet emissions goals.

Garage project’s Jos Ruffell told Radio NZ that tweaks to EECA funding could help breweries afford expensive carbon-capturing technology. The authority declined Garage Project’s application for funding, which Ruffell said was largely because its area in the industry was out of the scope of the authority’s mandate.

As an aside there are some good carbon reduction stories coming out the industry but reducing carbon emissions and buying or creating food grade CO2 are two different things.

This crisis has been a few years in the making and we are feeling some of the knock-on effects from similar carbon dioxide crunches in Britain and the US, but things accelerated quickly here with the shutdown of Marsden Point refinery last year and then the safety-first closure of Todd Energy’s gas plant in Kapuni this month.

Kapuni will be back to 30% next month but planned maintenance from late February to mid-March means CO2 production will halt again before they ramp up to 50% by the end of April and back to 100% by the end of the year. 

In the meantime, there will be shortages and CO2 prices will be high.

We are not alone in this, but for different reasons. It’s been a problem in Britain and America over the past three years. The rising gas prices from the Russian invasion of Ukraine (they were already going up before that invasion) has impacted CO2 production in Britain, where the bulk of their supply comes from fertiliser producers who need natural gas to drive the process. They’d already had shutdowns before the Russian invasion but the British government came in with a bailout.

The US crisis was caused by a drop in ethanol production as Americans stayed at home during the pandemic and didn’t need ethanol for fuelling their cars. No ethanol production, no CO2 byproduct. And then America’s biggest natural supply of CO2 — in Jackson Dome, Mississippi — got contaminated.

Being at the bottom of the world, and without our own reliable supply, leaves New Zealand in a precarious position for CO2 which is needed for so many things from medicine to food safety and —down the line of priority — beer and other beverages.

CO2 is used not only for forced carbonation, but other tasks inside the brewery such as clean-in-place and purging oxygen out of bottles and cans before they are filled (CO2 being heavier than O2 it pushes oxygen out when it’s fed to the bottom).

There are ways around these things with nitrogen (though not for forced carbonation), but breweries that are not set up for nitrogen need new kit. Smaller breweries might be more adept at that.

At the higher scale there’s carbon recapture.

Lion and DB have this technology and Eddyline invested in an Earthly Labs kit, which is super-pricey but already they are probably delighted. Garage Project have ordered one but are waiting on shipping (another thing that holds up stuff these days). Hawke’s Bay-based Viniquip is close to introducing a carbon recapture kit that doesn’t do a full recapture but gets a percentage back.  Spunding valves can help save CO2 by keeping natural CO2 sealed in tank and adjusting the pressure via the valve.

That’s within the brewery, and many will find ways to get beer into package, one way or another.

But it’s in bars where the current high prices might have a huge impact, as tap lines required CO2 to push the beer out of kegs and into your glass. If prices go up too much or there’s simply no supply, bars will need to switch to nitrogen, or more likely they will do away with draught beer and just serve packaged options.

There is high powered work being done behind the scenes to come up with a long-term solution to this problem.

Major suppliers of liquid carbon dioxide are considering setting up another domestic gas production plant, according to a government agency monitoring the nationwide shortage.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE ) told the NZ Herald the gas industry was investigating the feasibility of a second CO2 production plant. It’s understood global gas companies BOC and AirLiquide are leading this response.

MBIE was leading a cross-government agency team to keep an eye on the problem and its impact on businesses and consumers, with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ministry of Health and Ministry for Primary Industries all involved.