Environment: Solar gets cheaper but more oil and gas is what we’re promised

Jun 23, 2024
Solar panels installed on the territory of the petrochemical complex

As solar panels get cheaper, companies and governments commit to increasing oil and gas production. Community opposition to wind farms funded by fossil fuel interests. Indigenous languages threatened by climate change.

Companies increasing oil and gas production

Extracting and burning the coal, oil and gas in the world’s existing and under-construction mines and fields will produce 3.5 times as much CO2 as is compatible with a 1-in-2 chance of keeping global warming under 1.5oC. This is not news. We’ve known for several years that to keep warming to a reasonably safe level, we must leave most of the coal, oil and gas in existing extraction sites in the ground. The problem is that this knowledge hasn’t had any effect on the fossil fuel companies’ production plans.

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Six of eight well known oil and gas companies (BP, Shell, Mobil and the like) have explicit goals to increase production, and all eight plan to continue developing new sites. Some companies also sell their high polluting sites to a rival company rather than close the sites down. This ruse is designed to make the seller look better by reducing their emissions but the world is no better off when another company simply takes over the production and pollution.

Contradictory messages about Australia’s gas industry

Here in Australia, we repeatedly hear about a shortage of gas for domestic use but there’s no shortage of Australian gas, it’s just that three-quarters of it is exported. In fact, more gas is used to power Australia’s ten LNG export terminals to turn the gaseous gas into liquid gas before being shipped overseas than is used in all Australia’s manufacturing industries or our own gas-fired powered plants.

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To rub salt into our wounds, Australians are receiving a declining share of the revenue raised by our oil and gas. The taxes and fees paid by the industry have gone down from $25-30 per $100 of revenue between 1990 and 2008 to around $7 now. The drop coincided with the opening of the LNG export terminals at Gladstone in Queensland.

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In the last four years, Australia has given away $149 billion worth of LNG to oil and gas companies by charging no royalties for the extraction of ‘our’ gas – royalties being a purchase fee, not a tax. Talking of company taxes, in 2020/21 Woodside, Exxon, Shell, Chevron, Inpex and APLNG collectively paid no tax on their combined income in Australia of $34 billion.

We’re shipping out the gas. We’re shipping out the dollars. We’re destroying the climate. We’re damaging human health and we’re threatening our existence. Crazy! We are Homo sapiens subspecies Australiensis non-sapiens.

The government has recently released its Future Gas Strategy and the priority is clear in the opening line of Minister King’s foreword: ‘Gas plays a critical role in Australia’s economy’. King then asserts that the goal of the strategy is to ‘support our economy’s transition to net zero in partnership with the world … as we move toward 2050, [that] new sources of gas supply are needed to meet demand during the economy-wide transition [and that] Australia will remain a reliable trading partner for energy, including Liquified Natural Gas (LNG)’.

Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign message ‘The economy, stupid’ still rules the roost with politicians focused on their election prospects. But how long will this fool’s dystopia last?

There is a looming two-fold problem for our gas exporters that is likely to render Australian LNG less attractive to our overseas buyers than it has been for the last decade. First, demand in overseas markets is declining and, second, there is a glut of LNG about to appear on the market from other producing countries that have much lower production costs.

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Who cares about tomorrow though! No doubt we’ll have a new Minister for Resources when all this comes to pass and they’ll almost certainly represent a seat in WA, just like most of their predecessors.

Fossil fuel interests fund community opposition to wind

Community groups are opposing offshore wind projects at protests, council meetings and in the local newspapers on the east coast of the USA. I’m a strong supporter of renewable energy but the environmental impacts of installations must be carefully assessed. Good luck, I say, to groups such as Defend Brigantine Beach, Save the Horseshoe Crab, Green Oceans, Nantucket Residents for Whales, and Protect Our Coast.

That is, of course, provided that community groups are all that they seem to be and that they are basing their opposition to wind on strong evidence. Regrettably, that doesn’t always seem to be the case.

Researchers at Brown University have revealed that many of the USA’s apparently grassroots groups are part of a ‘network of seasoned fossil fuel interests and climate denial think tanks that have perfected obstruction tactics for decades’. The network provides training, public speakers, (dis)information, coordinated messaging, leadership, and legal and financial support through three closely linked coalitions with misleading environment-friendly sounding names such as Save Right Whales, American Coalition for Ocean Protection and Save the Whale Coalition. These in turn are founded and funded by wealthy right-wing individuals (e.g., Charles Koch), climate denial think tanks (e.g., the Heartland Institute) and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers Association. Between 2017 and 2021 more than US$16 million went to members of the American Coalition for Ocean Protection.

The network emerged from an energy conference in 2012. A strategy memo prepared for the conference outlined ‘a “national professional PR campaign” to cause “subversion in message of [wind] industry so that it effectively becomes so bad no one wants to admit in public they are for it (much like wind has done to coal, by turning green to black and clean to dirty).” This campaign “must appear as a ‘groundswell’ among grass roots.”’

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You don’t need to be able to read every detail of the network map above to get the general idea about the connections but, to help you, the local groups are in blue, coalitions in purple and known climate denial organisations in red. According to the researchers, the network ‘creates a façade of local opposition that is actually part of a broader sustained anti-renewable energy campaign’.

And lest Australia be complacent, the report states that ‘Emerging research in Australia has identified similar anti-Offshore Wind rhetoric promulgated by actors in the Atlas Network. I know that there is strong community opposition to some offshore wind projects around Australia. I just hope that it represents genuine local concerns uncontaminated by astroturfing.

Indigenous languages threatened by climate change

Of the roughly 7,000 languages worldwide, more than 4,000 are spoken by Indigenous groups, more than 800 in PNG alone. Indigenous languages contain enormous amounts of knowledge about not only each group’s history, traditions, culture and lifestyle but also the terrestrial and marine world around them: best times to plant crops, when indigenous food sources become available, medicinal plants, the presence and movements of animals, climate patterns, sources of fresh water, ocean currents, etc.

Unfortunately, climate change is causing the loss of Indigenous languages worldwide. For instance, extreme weather events and rising sea levels drive communities away from their historical lands, severing links with other speakers of their language, with their culture and history and with the conditions that give meaning to many of their words. As climate change alters ecosystems the significance of many words is lost.

The language of the Arctic-dwelling Sámi has over 300 words related to snow, describing not just its appearance but also its relevance to their lifestyle, reindeer herding and salmon fishing for example. The Arctic is, however, warming much faster than the rest of the globe and changing snowfall patterns lead to words losing their relevance. The Sámi even have a new word in their vocabulary: dálkkádatrievdan meaning climate change.

It is estimated that more than 90% of languages could disappear over the next century and the UN has declared 2022-2032 the Decade of Indigenous Languages to stimulate research and action to preserve threatened languages and dialects. I’m delighted that Australia is actively participating.

Solar panels getting cheaper and cheaper

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Covid delivered a shock to buyers of solar panels. Everyone had got used to the price falling, falling, falling and then in 2020 world prices increased from 20 cents (US) per watt to 28 cents. Normal service was resumed in 2023 and the price is currently 11 cents per watt. Part of the reason for the price fall over recent years is the development of a new technology (TOPCon) that has increased the amount of solar energy that a panel can convert into electricity from 24% to 25.5%. The increase doesn’t seem like much, does it, but it’s a 6% increase in efficiency.

Prices in the USA have been consistently higher than the world average mainly because since 2012 the US has imposed high tariffs on cheap, high quality Chinese modules.

The roll out of renewable energy is accelerating with 560 GW installed in 2023, an increase of 64% over 2022. Technological improvements, falling prices, economies of scale and increasing commitment to renewable energy, especially in China where 350 GW were installed last year, were largely responsible. This puts the world on track to have 8,000 GW of renewable energy operational by 2030.

That sounds impressive but it is not the trajectory needed to deliver the 11,000 GW that the nations agreed at last year’s COP meeting. China will probably play its part as it has already reached its original 2030 target of 1,200 GW of solar and wind and looks likely to hit about 3,500 GW of renewable energy in 2030. The rest of the world needs to increase their ambition and actual roll out, especially the wealthy nations.

Australian Owlet-nightjars

I suspect that the vast majority of Australians have never heard of an Owlet-nightjar, let alone seen one. Birdlife Australia has identified five things you may like to know, the first of which is that it’s neither an owl nor a nightjar. Second is that despite its anonymity, it is found all over Australia and is possibly our most abundant night bird.

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