Revealed: northern Australia's fossil fuel plans push climate goals beyond reach

  • Oct 09, 2019
  • The Guardian

A wave of planned fossil fuel developments by major companies across northern Australia would significantly increase the amount of coal and gas the country plans to sell into Asia and push the Paris climate agreement goals further beyond reach, a Guardian analysis reveals.

If the proposals go ahead, the science and policy institute Climate Analytics estimates that by 2030 Australia, with 0.3% of the global population, will be linked to about 13% of the greenhouse gases that can be emitted if the world is to meet the goals set in Paris.

Ian Dunlop, a former Shell executive and chairman of the Australian Coal Association turned commentator and author, said the support for this expansion among Australia’s industry leaders and major political parties suggested they “still don’t believe climate change is an issue”.

The potential expansion of fossil fuel developments includes:

• In the remote north-west, the Australian company Woodside Energy is leading a proposal to develop what would be the country’s largest liquefied natural gas export hub, expanding an industry that has tripled in size since 2012.

• In the Northern Territory, the lifting of a moratorium on fracking, after pressure from Scott Morrison’s Coalition federal government and industry lobbying to increase gas supply, has opened up exploration in the Beetaloo sub-basin. The resources minister, Matthew Canavan, says it could supply domestic and international customers for more than 200 years.

• And in outback Queensland, preliminary groundwork has begun on the Indian billionaire Gautam Adani’s Carmichael coalmine, which made global headlines after being approved by the state government in June, nine years after first being flagged.

Adani’s plan for the first phase of the Carmichael mine has been significantly scaled back, from 60m to 10m tonnes of thermal coal a year, but opponents say even a small mine has the potential to open up the vast Galilee coal basin for wider development.

Climate Analytics estimates if all seven mines proposed for the basin were fully developed they would add 857m tonnes of heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, equivalent to more than 2% of annual global emissions.

Few people expect development of the Galilee to happen on that scale. Doubts are growing about the future appetite for exports of thermal coal, which is used to burn in power plants. There has been a 75% fall in the number of new coal plants planned across the world since 2015, largely due to a shift by investors away from coal after the Paris deal.

The Guardian has collaborated with leading scientists and NGOs to expose, with exclusive data, investigations and analysis, the fossil fuel companies that are perpetuating the climate crisis – some of which have accelerated their extraction of coal, oil and gas even as the devastating impact on the planet and humanity was becoming clear.

The investigation has involved more than 20 Guardian journalists working across the world for the past six months.

The project focuses on what the companies have extracted from the ground, and the subsequent emissions they are responsible for, since 1965. The analysis, undertaken by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute, calculates how much carbon is emitted throughout the supply chain, from extraction to use by consumers. Heede said: "The fact that consumers combust the fuels to carbon dioxide, water, heat and pollutants does not absolve the fossil fuel companies from responsibility for knowingly perpetuating the carbon era and accelerating the climate crisis toward the existential threat it has now become."

One aim of the project is to move the focus of debate from individual responsibilities to power structures – so our reporters also examined the financial and lobbying structures that let fossil fuel firms keep growing, and discovered which elected politicians were voting for change.

Another aim of the project is to press governments and corporations to close the gap between ambitious long-term promises and lacklustre short-term action. The UN says the coming decade is crucial if the world is to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of global heating. Reining in our dependence on fossil fuels and dramatically accelerating the transition to renewable energy has never been more urgent.

But influential federal and state minerals lobby groups and companies, some led and advised by former cabinet ministers, continue to push for approval and support for new developments. The chief economist’s office last year listed 53 new or expanded coalmine proposals across the country. Official government projections assume Australian coal exports will continue to increase until at least 2050.

Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal and rivals Qatar as the biggest exporter of liquified natural gas. Coal exports have more than doubled since the turn of the century, while gas sales have grown even more rapidly from a low base this decade. The progressive thinktank the Australia Institute found the country had become the third-largest exporter of fossilised carbon after Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Dunlop said the proposed developments “would guarantee we are going way over 2C”. He added: “The reality is that climate change is now an immediate existential threat to human civilisation as we know it.

“It is patently obvious we’ve been taken for fools by our politicians. We are in a position where they will maximise short-term financial advantage if they can get away with it, even if it destroys the Australian community in the process.”

Adani mine

The Adani mine is the highest profile of Australia’s proposed fossil fuel expansions, and has become emblematic of the country’s battle between fossil fuel developments that could bring jobs to regional communities and combating the climate crisis.

After its approval, Rolling Stone described it as “the world’s most insane energy project”.

It finally received the green light from the Queensland Labor government shortly after the May federal election, when its party was thrashed across the state by the Liberal-National Coalition, particularly in regional areas where support for coal is strong.

Despite cross-party support, with the exception of the Australian Greens, its development remains under a cloud. Activists are being trained at protest camps to block construction.

A recent report by the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a pro-clean-energy thinktank, found Adani was relying on $4.4bn subsidies and tax concessions and would not be bankable without them. A royalties deal with the state government was unresolved at the time of writing.

The company disputed the institute’s report and said it had not received special treatment. It did not respond to an email requesting a response to the facts in this story.

A key question for whether the Adani project could lead to further development of the Galilee basin is the infrastructure it would bring, including a rail line to a port more than 185 miles (300km) away, a port expansion and an airport.

All have been dropped or shelved, with the company now proposing a rail spur to an existing freight network with limited carrying capacity.

At its revised scale, Adani would export coal that when burned would emit about 26m tonnes a year, equivalent to about 5% of Australia’s current annual emissions.

The argument in favour of the Adani development is similar to the one used in many developing countries – that coal is a cheap, reliable fuel needed to help lift people out of poverty.

But environmentalists are already worried about Australia’s emissions, which have been rising since 2015, when the Coalition repealed a national carbon pricing scheme that required polluters to pay for their emissions.

Government analysis has blamed most of the increase on the expanding liquified natural gas industry, particularly in northern Western Australia. Yet the most significant liquified natural gas proposal is still in development.

Known as the Burrup Hub expansion, it would tap gas from the Browse, Scarborough and Pluto basins off the north-west Australian coast and use existing facilities to process it for export. Companies involved in the development include Shell, BP and BHP.

A new analysis by the Conservation Council of Western Australia, based on data from the proponents, has found the total emissions from the new gasfields and the expanded liquified natural gas processing facilities that make up the Burrup Hub proposal would be nearly 20m tonnes a year. It says there would be at least another 80m tonnes a year in “scope three” emissions when the gas is burned overseas.

The Conservation Council director said over a proposed 50-year lifespan that could mean up to 5bn tonnes of emissions from the hub. Piers Verstegen said: “When you add in the international emissions it is staggering what kind of contribution this will be making. We’re looking at something across its entire lifecycle that is far bigger than the Carmichael mine at the scale Adani is currently proposing.

The proposal comes as oil and gas companies fight attempts to force them to pay to limit the impact of their pollution. The Western Australian Environment Protection Authority (EPA) recommended in March that new or expanding projects offset their emissions, but a campaign against the proposal by Woodside, Chevron, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association and the West Australian newspaper led to the state government putting the carbon-neutral proposal on hold.

A spokesperson for Woodside Energy said the state EPA proposal was flawed because under the Paris agreement Australia was committed to a national approach, and it caused uncertainty that would make it harder to invest in cleaner projects.

The company said the Conservation Council analysis ignored that the world needed more energy, and natural gas had a big role to play because it was clean, reliable and an “ideal partner” for renewable power.

The Morrison government has also countered criticism that its support for liquefied natural gas exports is pushing up local emissions by arguing that gas is good for the climate. It says Australian liquefied natural gas exports reduce global carbon dioxide pollution by 150m tonnes a year, more than a quarter of the country’s national emissions. No evidence has been given to support the claim beyond a back-of-the-envelope calculation that assumes all the liquefied natural gas Australia exports is displacing black coal in Japan, China and Korea.

While cheap gas has displaced coal in the US, the government’s Office of the Chief Economist suggests this is not the case with all Australian gas. In the example of Japan, Australia’s biggest liquefied natural gas market, it has found its gas is increasingly competing with nuclear and renewable power.

Fergus Green, an Australian researcher who was an adviser to the climate economist Nicholas Stern and is now headed to the Ethics Institute at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, said it was a familiar story.

He said Australia was simultaneously trying to claim it was serious about climate change policy and massively increasing the fossil fuels it sold to developing countries.

Other countries are increasingly critical of this, including the leaders of island nations at the Pacific Islands Forum in September, at which Morrison was accused of being insulting and condescending to other leaders, he added.

“It just doesn’t pass the sniff test. The country is on a path contrary to the spirit of the Paris agreement and certainly inconsistent with the global pathway we need to be going on if we are going to meet 2C or 1.5C.”