Facts must come before the gas if Australia is to tackle the climate crisis | Adam Morton

OOne of the most prominent voices for aggressive climate protection is currently the Secretary General of the United Nations. At the Major Economies Forum hosted by Joe Biden last month, António Guterres held little back when he compared the blame of coal, oil and gas companies for the climate catastrophe to the damage caused by the tobacco industry.

“We seem trapped in a world where fossil fuel producers and financiers have humanity by the throat. For decades, the fossil fuel industry has invested heavily in pseudoscience and outreach, using a false narrative to minimize its responsibility for climate change and undermine ambitious climate policies,” Guterres said.

“Nothing could be clearer or more present than the threat of fossil fuel expansion.”

However you view the UN, this is not a fleeting fringe position. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, told the Guardian that if governments are serious about the climate crisis, “there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal from now on – from this year onwards”. He said that 15 months ago, in May 2021.

These opinions are based on mountains of peer-reviewed scientific evidence compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in a report endorsed by nearly 200 national governments.

None of the above information is new information, but it’s worth revisiting as much of the fossil fuel discussion in Australia is decoupled from this fact-based analysis.

The split became clear in the last two weeks when Prime Minister Anthony Albanese declared that parliamentary support for climate change legislation was “an opportunity to end the climate wars” while at the same time arguing for further expansion of coal exports.

The split also comes into its own in the debate about what to do with gas, which is much easier to drive than coal. Outside of the Greens and some independents, it’s rare to hear Australian MPs acknowledge what Guterres is emphasizing – that gas is a key cause of the climate catastrophe.

Let’s go through the basics. Australia’s export gas industry has grown at an exceptional pace over the past decade. Emissions from Australia’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) production have increased by about a third over the past four years, according to Climate Analytics’ Bill Hare. Industry is responsible for 7.5% of the country’s carbon footprint. Because of this, national industrial emissions continue to rise.

Emissions from gas production, which are included in Australia’s greenhouse gas accounts, represent only a fraction of the total they produce. Three quarters of the gas produced in Australia is processed here and then shipped overseas and incinerated.

Politicians and industry leaders have argued that these LNG supplies are good for the planet because the gas sold abroad replaces coal and therefore lowers global emissions. But do we know that this is true? No evidence of this was presented. In Australia’s Asian markets, gas competes with zero-emission renewable and nuclear energy.

Western Australia Labor Party Premier Mark McGowan gave a textbook example of this argument, telling reporters, “If we don’t supply gas, then other countries will put in more coal” that has “two or three times the emissions”.

But, as Graham Readfearn has pointed out, claims that LNG exports are far less dirty than coal are unfounded.

Gas emits 50-60% of coal’s carbon pollution when burned, but this estimate doesn’t account for “fugitive emissions” — highly potent methane released during extraction, processing, and transportation — or the vast amounts of energy required to compress raw gas in liquid form before shipment and then convert it back to gas. In fact, the largest gas consumer in Australia is the LNG industry itself.

Conclusion: The impact of industry on the climate is greater than we are told.

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This evidence is routinely discarded when new gas fields are proposed. Analysis suggests that Woodside’s $16 billion Scarborough gas reservoir development could add 1.37 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere – almost as much as Australia emits every three years. Fracking the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory could do much the same thing. Both proposals have received bipartisan political support.

What about the other arguments being made to expand the industry? The Morrison government claimed it would be great for the economy and allocated public funds to make it happen. But as the Australia Institute has pointed out, there is no evidence that gas expansion would create many jobs. The $50 billion industry directly employs about 30,000 people and pays relatively little in taxes.

What about the claim that gas is vital to the manufacturing industry? This is true in some cases, but far less than is often assumed. The Grattan Institute found that about two-thirds of the gas used in production was consumed in just 15 plants employing about 10,000 people.

Do we need more gas to generate electricity? Again no. Gas-fired power plants are small players in the electricity sector, mostly used to fill gaps.

A slightly ridiculous row unfolded last week after the consumer watchdog said next year could face a 10 percent shortage of the gas needed to meet East Coast demand.

But there’s no shortage – just a question of where Australia’s gas is going. The big three gas companies that export LNG from Queensland were quick to say they always intended to meet local needs after the government threatened to force them into action.

Gas costs have skyrocketed this year on rampant greed for profit, which has caused fossil fuel companies’ spot prices to skyrocket by as much as fourfold in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, despite production costs more or less stayed the same. Merely securing supplies will do nothing to address this real problem.

The Albanian government will have to do more, with a windfall profits tax – a move backed by economics Nobel laureates and former energy industry executives – the obvious move to force the industry into action.

The medium-term solution must go much further. Serious discussions are needed on how Australia can reduce its dependence on gas by equipping homes and businesses to run their heating, cooking and, where possible, industrial processes on renewable electricity.

Perhaps this will gain momentum in the coming months as the government considers what to do with the huge gas subsidies the coalition has promised in its last few months in power. But so far, there is little to suggest that the longstanding imprisonment of the political system by fossil fuel interests is about to end.

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