The commercial and moral case for renewables over more fossil fuel projects has become stronger than ever since the coronavirus crisis, but the government continues to avoid emissions reductions as it flags cuts to environmental protections and hefty handouts to fossil fuel corporations.
Energy and emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor is driving a “gas-fired recovery” and the government has stacked its National Covid Coordination Commission with fossil fuel interests. Unsurprisingly, the first projects it has recommended involve more gas and petrochemical plants.
The government continues to claim that gas can help reduce emissions by being a transition fuel, allowing countries to reduce reliance on dirtier fossil fuels, despite evidence showing emissions from gas extraction are even worse than coal.
Taylor wrote in a recent piece in The Australian that the government was pursuing more local crude oil projects including “opening up the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory”.
The government’s controversial “Underwriting new generation investment” (UNGI) program has become another engine for pushing questionable fossil fuels projects.
“Taylor has just become explicit that he wants to use this crisis as an opportunity to advance gas and oil – they’re not even bothering to hide it anymore,” Greens leader Adam Bandt (pictured above) told Voice of Action in an interview.
“It’s well organised corruption and capture of government; there’s a revolving door where many politicians see their time in parliament as just sitting in waiting for a job in the fossil fuel industry … and it works the other way as well, large numbers of government staff are former fossil fuel lobbyists.”
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Voice of Action that the opposition to action on climate change was “a toxic alliance of the populist political right, the right wing media (principally Murdoch) and the fossil fuel lobby”.
Revolving door ‘key tenet of the power of the carbon lobby’
Dan Gocher, climate and environment director at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (AustCCR), said the new fossil fuel projects being pushed by the government would destroy Australia’s chances of meeting its Paris Agreement targets, which were already inadequate to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Gocher told Voice of Action that in the crisis the government was getting away with funding projects with very little criticism “because it’s all under the guise of rebuilding and creating jobs and stimulus”.
“The revolving door [between industry and government] for me is one of the key tenets of the power of the carbon lobby,” said Gocher.
“We’ve lost track of the number of revovling door positions … people like Ian Macfarlane who leave the ministry to go and work for the resources council, and then the opposite happening with the former CEO and deputy CEO of the Minerals Council currently working for Scott Morrison, and Stephen Galilee, former adviser to premier Mike Baird, now head of the NSW Minerals Council.”
Gocher said this issue was “endemic” and a bigger source of the fossil fuel lobby’s power than political donations.
The fossil fuel lobby has got its tentacles not just in government but our premier scientific research organisation, with the CSIRO’s Gas Industry Social & Environment Research Alliance (GISERA) stacked full of gas industry representatives.
More than half of GISERA’s voting directors are from the gas industry, says IEEFA gas analyst Bruce Robertson. “He who pays the piper chooses the tune,” he said.
Independent MP Zali Steggall has asked the auditor general to investigate UNGI on the grounds that it has no constitutional/legislative standing and there are no guidelines or transparency around how projects are chosen. Already the government has shortlisted several fossil fuel projects, particularly gas-fired plants, and Steggall has raised concerns citing the recent sports rorts scandal.
‘Billionaires are a threat to life’
The Minerals Council, along with the Business Council of Australia, has been lobbying hard for reduced company tax rates and accelerated mining project approvals coming out of the crisis.
“These billionaires are a threat to life, they are threatening human life and civilisation as we know it and they’re doing it knowingly,” said Bandt.
The Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, has already flagged it plans to cut “green tape” even before its 10-year review of environmental laws – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act – is complete, which would make it easier for businesses to destroy the natural world and dig up resources for profit.
Resources Minister Keith Pitt last week told Guardian Australia that environmental laws would be “streamlined” to prevent “cashed-up activists” from holding up projects.
But a submission to the review of the EPBC Act by Green Law, an environmental research hub based at the ANU College of Law, analysed 10 years of cases and found “no evidence green lawfare was occurring”, contradicting Pitt’s claims.
“Animals are going extinct in Australia faster than anywhere else on Earth in large part because profiteering corporations can drive a truck through the gaps in our environmental laws,” said Environment Victoria CEO Jono La Nauze.
“Now the federal govt wants to widen those gaps into a multi lane freeway.”
Bandt referred to the Naomi Klein book Shock Doctrine saying this is a classic case of the government using crises to “further strip away rights and protections that then ultimately becomes permanent”.
“You just have to look at who they’ve appointed and the projects that they’re starting to spruik to see that this is about furthering a fossil fuel agenda on the other side,” said Bandt.
Greenpeace Australia CEO David Ritter told Voice of Action: “The Morrison Government has used the crisis to abdicate its responsibility to protected threatened species like the koala and made it easier for new and expanded coal and gas projects to damage our climate and places of natural beauty.”
Ritter said the NSW government approved a dangerous coal mine expansion under a vital source of Sydney’s drinking water, while federally Taylor has threatened to “withold funds unless state governments fast-track the approval of fossil gas projects”.
“As a desperate lifeline to oil and gas companies that have failed to adapt to a carbon-constrained world by shifting to clean energy, it has been announced that oil companies would be allowed to hold on to oil drilling rights that they would normally lose,” said Ritter.
‘We can have our cake and eat it too’
As the government and business elite push more fossil fuel investment, the commercial and moral case to go with renewables instead has become stronger than ever.
Bandt is pushing for a Green New Deal and this idea has also been suggested by Turnbull, who told Voice of Action that we should be “accelerating the retirement of coal fired power stations and replacing them with renewables plus storage”.
Turnbull said that since he was Environment Minister in 2007 the economics around renewables had changed and the cheapest form of electricity today was solar and wind plus storage. These were “zero marginal cost generators” once installed.
“South Australia and Tasmania could end up with the cheapest electricity in Australia,” Turnbull told Voice of Action.
“This is the frustrating thing; we can have our cake and eat it too, we can have zero emissions energy and cheaper energy if we’re smart about it.”
BloombergNEF released a benchmark report last week showing that solar and wind are now the cheapest form of new build energy generation in most places.
An analysis by energy consultancy Reputex found Australia could get 90% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2040 without increasing power prices.
The Australian Energy Market Operator, which manages the country’s energy system, found the grid could accomodate up to 75% renewable energy as soon as 2025.
“If Australian governments set a goal for running our grid completely on renewable power, it would have the most extraordinary stimulatory effect – and the good news is this is not even considered radical thinking anymore,” said Environment Victoria’s La Nauze.
A new study by top economists found stimulus spending on new green energy projects created double the jobs per dollar than investments in fossil fuel projects, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said the “once-in-a-generation” government spending programs in light of the crisis would shape countries’ infrastructure for decades to come, and governments could “achieve both short-term economic gains and long-term benefits by making clean energy part of their stimulus plans”.
The IEA has found the pandemic would wipe out demand for fossil fuels, and renewable electricity would be the only source resilient to the biggest global energy shock since World War 2.
United Nations secretary general António Guterres said recently that governments “must not be bailing out outdated, polluting, carbon-intensive industries”, instead they should provide economic rescue packages for coronavirus to businesses that cut greenhouse gas emissions and create green jobs.
Evan Quartermain, head of programs at the Humane Society and Wildlife Land Trust, told Voice of Action that the scale of last summer’s bushfire crisis should be eye openers about just how complacent we have all become.
“This is absolutely our chance to transform the economy through environmental stimulus measures, one of the rare positive opportunities that have come out of the devastating back to back crises of summer’s bushfires and COVID-19,” said Quartermain.
Government research found that hundreds of threatened or migratory species and several ecological communities have had more than 30% of their range heavily impacted by the bushfires.
A separate analysis found that 100 endemic Australian species living in 1788 are now validly listed as extinct.
Since 2000, Australia’s list of nationally threatened species and ecological communities has increased by more than 30%.
The cumulative legacy of hundreds of years of mining, logging and agriculture has cleared or destroyed half of Australia’s original forests and bushland, according to the Journal of Plant Ecology.
“Frustratingly activities that further impact on many species such as logging and licences to cull wildlife are typically continuing without consideration or allowances for the damage inflicted over summer,” said Quartermain.
Pressure is also mounting from the business community and investors – in an Australia-first, more than 50% of Woodside Patroleum shareholders recently called for the company to set science-based greenhouse gas targets following a campaign by AustCCR.
The Australian Industry Group, which represents more than 60,000 businesses, this week called for the economic recovery from coronavirus and the climate crisis to be tackled together.
But big business continues to campaign strongly against climate action behind-the-scenes, with billionaire-funded lobby group Institute of Public Affairs, a long-term opponent of climate action, pushing questionable data to argue for more cuts to environmental protections.
The world is fast running out of time to prevent catastrophic impacts of climate change, with a third of the globe’s population to be exposed to Sahara Desert-like heat within 50 years if emissions continue to rise at the current pace.
“More problems for climate action will come simply from the bad personalities of the people in power (and the corporate interests they’re beholden to), than any issues around funding, investment or economics,” climate change and energy expert Ketan Joshi told Voice of Action.