Labor’s Future Gas Strategy: The greatest capitulation of any Australian government to the fossil fuel industry

May 14, 2024
Gas tap with pipeline system at natural gas station. Industry

Australians should be clear that the “Future Gas Strategy” released last week is not in the national interest. It represents the greatest capitulation of any Australian government to the demands of the fossil fuel industry.

It is the latest form of climate denial which is happening globally as fossil fuel companies and state national energy companies renege on their already minimal commitments to climate action.

Few, even in the fossil fuel industry, dispute that human-induced climate change is now real and accelerating globally. The global evidence is everywhere, whether in the form of physical impact, social or economic cost.

Accordingly, most companies and governments earnestly claim to support climate action. But the denialist argument now is that the transition to a net-zero carbon world cannot be achieve in the 2050 time frame to which most institutions subscribe, without increased use of fossil fuels, gas in particular, and that the continuing high level of carbon emissions causing climate change, which should have been reducing long ago, can be addressed by sequestering carbon with techniques such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or other offset mechanisms, even with fossil fuel expansion. All of which, incidentally, ensures a continued healthy cashflow to the industry for decades to come, putting off its inevitable demise.

Governments are caving in to such vested interest blandishments, on the grounds this meets their primary responsibility to “ensure the security of their people”.

Some 80% of Australia’s gas is either exported in the form of LNG or used in the export liquefaction process. Australia is now the third largest LNG exporter globally, after the US and Qatar.

Resource Minister Madeleine King stated that: “The Future Gas Strategy is a result of extensive consultations. It includes a detailed analysis of the future demand for gas. The findings are clear and are based on facts and data, not on ideology or wishful thinking.”

But the most important facts are missing.

In the government’s scenarios and analysis justifying the strategy, there is no mention of the fundamental reason why the strategy is needed in the first place – which is to avoid the risks of climate change.

There is much abstract discussion about scenarios which may result in global average temperature increases of 1.5-1.9oC up to 2.4-2.6oC and beyond, but not a word on what this mean in terms of the hard physical impacts, costs and secondary cascading effects that Australian and global communities will have to endure – and are already enduring. Which is what matters.

The same deliberate avoidance of climate reality permeates the entire debate around climate action, whether in the interminable COP meetings, or in the justifications for expansion advanced by major fossil fuel producers such as Exxon, Shell and BP globally through to Woodside, Santos and prospective Tamboran in Australia. Governments are only too willing to adopt the industry party-line, not least because maintaining the status quo avoids hard and long-overdue political decisions, as we see yet again with this gas strategy.

The world has reached the 1.5oC lower limit of the Paris Agreement, and the 2oC upper limit will be here probably before 2040 as climate change accelerates far faster than had been expected. Already massive destruction is occurring globally, whether unprecedented floods in China and South America, extreme heat across SE Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Central Africa, increasing water and food insecurity as agriculture is disrupted – the list goes on. And we still have people sleeping in tents and cars after the Lismore and the South Coast disasters.

Has the government thought about:

  • Improving disaster response mechanisms to contend with the rapidly deteriorating climatic conditions which Australia will experience, further accelerated by the Future Gas Strategy.
  • the implications of depopulation in Northern Australia as conditions become increasingly unliveable with rising temperature and humidity. Much recently announced investment, whether for the National Defence Strategy or the Future Gas Strategy, will be in regions where working conditions move rapidly beyond the experience of even hardened defence and oil industry professionals.
  • The management of mass migration from such areas as conditions worsen. The government recently announced, to great fanfare, the agreement to allow controlled migration from Tuvalu as sea levels rise. It is quite likely that conditions in Northern Australia will deteriorate far faster. Is there a similar agreement for indigenous Australians who may be forced to move from the region?
  • The insanity, in current global climate circumstances, of allowing carte blanche expansion of the gas industry, which is what the Future Gas Strategy amounts to, whilst relying for emission reduction on the future development of technologies such as CCS which patently do not work other than in the restricted context of depleted oil and gas reservoirs – and often even then with difficulty. Why is substantial investment of public money proposed when decades of private investment have failed to make CCS workable for emission reduction?
  • The fact that gas, particularly when transported over long distances such as our massive LNG exports, is little better than coal in terms of emission generation and climate impact. Those emissions, wherever they are in the world, affect climatic conditions in Australia. They are not just accounting book entries.

The government, to its credit is undertaking assessments of physical climate risk, but there is no sense of urgency. The one report, by the Office of National Intelligence, which probably does give an honest assessment of the threats we face, is classified on national security grounds. Other work, by the Dept of Climate Change, is unlikely to produce any meaningful results before the next election. Clearly government is trying to keep Australians in the dark about the full extent of the climate risks they face for as long as possible, ideally until new fossil projects are committed.

Obviously gas will not disappear from our energy mix instantly; a certain amount is essential to accelerate the energy transition, but adequate domestic supply can be sourced from current production. It does not require massive investment in new projects such as Woodside’s Scarborough, Santos’s Barossa and fracking of the NT Beetaloo Basin, which would still be operating in theory in 30-40 years time. Given the poor financial returns to our Treasury expected from those projects, it suggests the companies should not be investing in them anyway.

Net zero by 2050 is too late to prevent catastrophic outcomes. It must be reached far sooner; the Future Gas Strategy will only delay it further, with a massive misallocation of resources and dire consequences for our community. Time to take climate risk seriously.

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