Australia can no longer dodge responsibility for its fossil fuel exports
by Richie Merzian
[Originally published in The Canberra Times, 24 August 2019]
If fuelling global carbon pollution with fossil fuel exports was an Olympic sport, Australia would get a podium place. New Australia Institute research shows Australia is the third largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world - behind only Russia and Saudi Arabia. This expansive role in fossil fuels quashes Australia's ability to meet its Paris Agreement targets and causes consternation with our Pacific neighbours. But if you're to believe our federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, protecting Australia's national interest means not just maintaining the fossil fuel industry, but expanding it.
When asked about Australia's oversized role in exporting pollution on ABC radio, Mr Taylor did not miss a beat. "We are a massive energy exporter and that's a good thing," he said.
If governments are supposed to pursue the public interest, why then do Australian governments identify the public interest with the interests of the fossil fuel industry? It seems no matter the problem, fossil fuels are presented as the solution.
Australia is the world's biggest coal exporter and the world's biggest LNG exporter, and the Morrison government is planning massive expansions of both.
If Queensland alone were a country, it would be the world's second biggest coal exporter. Yet the Queensland budget shows coal royalties will bring in less money over the next few years than will come from motorists through rego and other duties. 99 percent of the state's workers do not work in coal mining, and the former deputy leader of the Nationals even admitted Adani's mine might create only 100 ongoing jobs.
If you really wanted to support the income and jobs of existing mines then you would implement a moratorium on new mines, much like Saudi Arabia and OPEC constrain the supply of oil to protect their own oil industry. A massive new coal supply backed by government subsidies will only push coal prices down, threaten existing coalmines, and put existing coal jobs at risk.
But the very idea that new coal mines may not be in the national interest appears inconceivable to Australian governments.
Australia's coal exports dominate its carbon footprint, but this week it was Australia's dilapidated coal power plants dominating our energy debate.
On Thursday, the Australian Energy Market Operator confirmed that gas and coal station breakdowns have put Victoria's electricity reliability over the next summer at risk. This month alone, the Yallourn brown coal power station suddenly and unexpectedly broke down, six times.
Then, there is gas. Australia exports around the same amount of liquefied natural gas (LNG) as Qatar. With such a large amount being shipped overseas, you'd think LNG exports would be a big money spinner. Last year, the 313,000 citizens of Qatar enjoyed $26 billion in LNG royalties, not including proceeds from Qatar's state-owned corporation. By contrast the Australian government collected less than a billion in Commonwealth royalties, many of the companies are paying no corporate tax, and 25 million Australians enjoyed more expensive gas, despite a doubling in Australia's gas supply over the last few years.
Angus Taylor claims LNG is "good for the climate" because it is substituting coal overseas. Even the International Energy Agency, known for its own pro-gas boosterism, thinks gas plays a minor role in a carbon strained global scenario. And if our Minister for Energy and Emissions Reductions is going to take credit for the role Australia's gas plays in global emissions, then will he also accept the responsibility that increased coal exports play?
It's not just coal - Australian governments place all fossil fuels squarely in the national interest. Last Thursday provided a clear example of this, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison stepped up the country's military presence in the Strait of Hormuz because "Australia will defend our interests wherever they may be under threat". Unlike our fellow fossil fuel mega-exporters, Russia and Saudi Arabia, Australia is a net importer of oil. Australia imports 90 percent of its liquid fuels, and a substantial chunk of the global market for oil goes through the Gulf.
Australia is rushing into the costly endeavour of sending defence assets to the Gulf, escalating geopolitical risks and doing nothing to reduce oil reliance. A ministerial forum on fuel efficiency standards - to improve the efficiency and so security of our fuel use - has been spinning its wheels since 2015. The forum chair, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, stated he "is not going to rush into a regulatory solution".
Who could forget the start of the federal election campaign - when the Prime Minister warned electric vehicles will "end your weekend". How could quiet Australians possibly use quiet, high-powered electric vehicles to tow their boats and caravans to Bonnie Doon? Given fossil fuels' pride of place in Australia's national interest, the fair dinkum course of action to secure "the Australian way of life" is to drill, baby, drill. At the slightest mention of oil insecurity, Resources Minister Matt Canavan donned his hardhat and was on the shores of the Great Australian Bight - despite the government's own fuel security review showing the Bight is no solution, and despite the potential for an oil spill that could put BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster to shame.
But fossil fuel boosterism is deeply embedded in government. To the Morrison government, to hold a podium place in fuelling global carbon pollution through our fossil fuel exports is a source of pride.
Australia's export credit agency doesn't see itself constrained by climate concerns when it invests in global fossil fuel infrastructure - fuelling world carbon pollution for more fair dinkum coal and LNG. However, survey after survey shows a growing majority of Australians are ready to transition away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy - it's just a question of how quickly.
Last week the leaders of 16 Pacific island nations asked Australia and New Zealand to join them in their existential battle against climate change. Australia had already agreed that climate change was the single greatest concern to the region. Yet that all came crashing down when Pacific Island leaders asked Australia not to open any new coal mines.
According to the hosts, Australia left one Pacific leader in tears and others fuming. I saw the frustration in Australia's lack of credible climate policy first-hand, as I spent Thursday with the former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong. Anote Tong wondered what it would take to shift Australia's position on fossil fuels. Even the perceived threat of China in the region appears insufficient.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison went to the Pacific to cement Australia's position as a Pacific family member and strategic partner of choice. Yet when given the choice between promoting the expansion of the coal industry or opposing the expansion of China in the Pacific, the Prime Minister chose coal.
But Australia will have to reconcile its clear pride in being a "massive energy exporter" with the realities that come with being the world's third largest trader in pollution - on par with Saudi Arabia. To suggest that Australia has no role to play is a huge abrogation of responsibility
The next test for the Prime Minister will be at the UN Climate Summit in New York on 23 September - where most leaders will come with additional climate action commitments, not stubborn defences for fossil fuels. There is still a question of whether Morrison attends or skips out, though we know he will be in the United States for his stately dinner with President Trump. Former president Tong of Kiribati certainly hoped Prime Minister Morrison would attend and stand in solidarity with the Pacific and our shared interests, not serve the interests of Australia's fossil fuel industry.
Richie Merzian is the climate and energy program director at independent think tank The Australia Institute @RichieMerzian