By David C. Paull
This government’s championing of a ‘gas-lead recovery’ for Australia in response to the COVID-19 pandemic sounds reasonable and pro-active to many in the public. But the blue-print for this Plan goes back further several years and as this article will show, was borne out of a desire by the gas sector to stay relevant amid growing evidence of harm to communities and the environment by this sector. The COVID-19 crisis and the economic hit Australia has endured has provided the perfect cover for this Plan to be dusted off, refined and rolled out for public consumption with the glitter of government sanction. But in doing so the Gas Cabal has revealed themselves in this last attempt to hijack the economy.
As previous revelations have shown, corruption lurks at the core of the gas sector who seem to have been the favoured child by Australian politicians and economists since they opened up the onshore Queensland gas-fields. From the start the mantra has been ‘gas is clean’, ‘gas is a transition fuel from coal’, ‘gas provides jobs and infrastructure for regions’. The fact we have now two ex-gas sector heavies parachuted into the Climate Change Authority does not change the growing amount of evidence of the profound impacts the sector has on greenhouse emissions – but is a revealing move.
Grant King has spent most of his time leading onshore gas development in Queensland with the Australian Pacific LNG joint venture, as head of Origin until he resigned in 2016. Before that he spent time with AGL, Boral and Contact Energy, APPEA (the leading lobby group for the gas sector), and the Energy Supply Association of Australia (who later rebranded as the Energy Users Association, in the minds of the Gas Cartel, users and suppliers are the same thing). King then took up the position as President of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), which he held to his recent appointment, at one point leading its ‘Infrastructure and Sustainable Growth Committee’. This committee was heavy with representatives from gas, aluminium and infrastructure companies, such as Origin, Santos, APA, AGL, Shell, BP, BG Group, Lend Lease and some of their financial backers, HSBC, Meryll Lynch and Macquarie Group.
There is no report from this committee available and any links are no longer found on the BCA website, but the composition of this committee indicate a likely intention to link Australia’s economic development with a growing gas sector.
But what about the greenhouse credentials of gas? Here’s where our second parachute into the Climate Change Authority comes in, Susie Smith. Like King, Smith has been a long-term employee of the gas industry in Australia, holding positions with Santos, more recently as their ‘Manager of Climate Change and Sustainability’ and has been the CEO of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network (AIGN) since March 2017, a mainly gas sector lobby group. Prior to this she was the Chairperson, representing Santos for over 13 years with the Association. Their goal is to ensure that their sector is a key player in any policy debate on energy and climate change and that Australia and business in Australia require a ‘differential’ and ‘fair’ approach to meeting carbon abatement targets.
Of course, even better if you can actually provide significant carbon abatement measures which would help justify a future use for gas. Such is the contention from Smith and King, who co-incidentally, co-authored a report only last year for the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, as part of an expert panel convened to look specifically at additional sources of ‘low cost abatement.’
And they found them, but not without a significant cost. What is being proposed is a ‘goal orientated co-investment program’, in other words, industry with its hand out. Remarkable when you consider the low levels of tax paid, royalty holidays and levels of public subsidy that has been thrown at this sector over the years. What technologies are we looking at? You don’t have to go through the report far to see the key examples they site are carbon capture and storage, industrial process heating and ‘hydrogen fuels for heavy vehicles’. And you don’t have to have a crystal ball to see that these sentiments are likely to be soon coming from our re-vamped Climate Change Authority. But what we won’t be hearing is the industry’s desire to greenwash their figures on fugitive emissions or their desire to avoid taking Scope 3 emissions into account.
King and Smith are trusted operators for the big players in the gas sector who have major expansions planned in the Northern Territory and Queensland, but the other cohort of gas up-and-comers are also being looked after. Particularly through Neville Power’s appointment to the COVID-19 Commission, now looking more like an unaccountable quasi-arm of government. His gas exploration company Strike Energy is one of several relative newcomers to the sector, such as Beach Energy and pipeline operators wanting to get a foothold like Vista and Epic. These companies are desperate for more greenfield onshore development or their future will be very short. Beach Energy is probably confident of getting some results, due in part to the ownership by Kerry Stokes, someone who is used to getting what he wants.
The COVID-19 Committee’s gas recovery plan owes a lot to that other special advisor, Australian and corporate idol, Andrew Nicholas Liveris AO. His appointment as a global trotting special energy and economic advisor to the both the Obama and Trump administrations and the Saudi King gave him all the credentials he needed to be picked by the Prime Minister. He is also Vice-chair of the Worley Services board, one of the biggest mining and petroleum service providers in the world, a company likely to benefit from any gas recovery.
His messages to the world are what made his Dow Chemical Company a corporate leader; diversify, value-add and cut regulation. Messages well received in Australia, as this is what it will take to make gas appear more rational, feed into other industries like bricks and cement, fertilizer and hydrogen production, despite each with its own level of additional greenhouse emissions.
Dow Chemical was also contracted to write an energy futures discussion paper by the US Study Centre in 2018. For those who don’t know the US Study Centre is subsidized by the American Australian Association, a pro-American business lobby, set up in 1948 by Sir Keith Murdoch, the same year he also helped set up the Institute of Public Affairs. Among other big names like Pratt and Murdoch we find Mr Liveris, currently a patron of the Association. The paper states in relation to Australia’s future energy market:
“… Institutional arrangements and property rights, free markets, infrastructure development and regulatory and policy settings all play an important role. The architecture of Australian’s energy markets also require reform, if not transformation. Get the institutional and policy settings right, and the market will transform physical abundance into economic abundance and put downward pressure on energy prices and emissions.”
That is of course assuming vast amounts of new gas are opened up, not that there should be any impairment if we follow the Trump lead and demolish environmental regulation completely. What this paper doesn’t mention are the environmental, social and greenhouse costs, but then again neither does the Morrison Government.
Looks like this is it. The Gas Cabal’s final roll of the dice, and it couldn’t be any more stacked in their favour. But Australia isn’t the US, quite yet, arguably, they are too late to save the gas sector from impending market collapse and despite all the rhetoric, it is looking increasingly like the gas emperor has no clothes in this rapidly changing energy sector.
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