Gas stench permeates the COVID-19 Commission

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Prime Minister Morrison announces the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) to be headed up by oil and gas man Neville Power (Right) on 24 March (Image via Dan Jensen)

There’s nothing quite like the stink of gas to tell you that something is very wrong. And the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) reeks of the stuff.

Along with coal and oil, gas is one of the three dirty fossil fuels that are the main drivers of global warming. As the Climate Council warned in a new report last month ‘gas is highly polluting, driving climate change’. Gas production creates emissions at every stage of production from mining to burning. There is no logical or decent case for gas, unless the object is to enrich vested interests on the fast road to wholesale planetary disaster. 

The reek of the future

The NCCC seems hell-bent on gassing our future. In the context of Australia’s recent history, the amnesia of the NCCC could be more dismally cynical.

The unprecedented bushfire crisis of the spring and summer of 2019-2020 was caused by climate change — and the greatest drivers of the climate emergency are the burning of fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas. The devastating bleaching of our Great Barrier Reef – the third in the last five years – that occurred late this summer was caused by the same lethal combination.

Even in light of the COVID-19 virus itself, the World Health Organisation has declared unequivocally that

'... climate change is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st Century.’

In a report published in 2015, the Australian Academy of Science warned:

'... many diseases are likely to spread and increase in incidence as the climate warms. A growing human population with high rates of interconnectedness is also at risk from newly emergent and exotic diseases for which we have no treatment or immunity.’

As the Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres said earlier this year, ‘we need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future’. On the other hand, if you want more and worse fires, more and worse coral destruction, more and worse infectious diseases, then go for coal, oil and gas.

So what is the NCCC doing? Let’s go through some of the evidence that has emerged so far.

... A leaked NCCC report revealed that the Commission was recommending that Australian taxpayers underwrite a massive expansion of the domestic gas industry ... The same report failed to ... even mention the existence of the climate emergency.

Fossil-fuelled Commission

First, the whiff of gas was in the air from the beginning with oil-and-gas-man, Neville Power, the captain's pick of Prime Minister Scott Morrison as the man to lead a commission that is packed with individuals connected to the fossil fuel industry. Joining the ranks with Power are managing director of EnergyAustralia, Catherine Tanna, former CEO of Incitec Pivot – a multinational corporation that manufactures fertiliser, explosives, chemicals, and mining services – James Fazzino, as well as former CEO and chairman of The Dow Chemical Company Andrew Liveris.

The stink of conflict

Second, despite these clear links to the gas industry and other vested interests, only one of the six NCCC commissioners has agreed to declare their conflicts of interest. Appearing before the Senate Committee on COVID-19, Power admitted that he can’t guarantee that none of the commissioners will benefit financially from the NCCC's gas-fired recovery planning. General concern has been expressed about the NCCC’s transparency and integrity.

Taxpayer-funded gas expansion

Third, leaks have confirmed that gas has completely dominated the NCCC’s deliberations. Last month, a leaked NCCC report revealed that the Commission was recommending that Australian taxpayers underwrite a massive expansion of the domestic gas industry — including helping open new fields and build hundreds of kilometres of pipelines. The same report failed to consider clean energy alternatives or even mention the existence of the climate emergency.

A whiff of "consultation"

Fourth, the NCCC has made some strange claims about consultation, trying to create an impression of openness that is undeserved given the obvious bias towards gas. It is true that, on 4 May, an invitation went out to 'Join the Business Council for Sustainable Development Australia and the Trans-Tasman Business Circle to hear from and ask questions of Nev Power, the Chair of the Australian Government’s National COVID-19 Coordination Commission in his first engagement with business', at a virtual event scheduled for a couple of days later on 6 May.

It was a weird forum at which various information restrictions were announced at the outset to the online audience. The participants at this meeting were muted and it was suggested that anybody who wanted to follow up personally should do so but that otherwise, the NCCC would be working through their contact lists. The event could not possibly be described as any form of meaningful consultation

Fifth, whatever other qualities Neville Power may have, he clearly either doesn’t understand or is willfully ignoring the scale of the threat and opportunity of the climate emergency.

Here’s some telling footage (plot spoiler: I didn’t take it) from the event described above, in which Power tells the audience:

"... Things like climate change were there before COVID and they’ll be there after COVID. Nothing’s really changed, and nothing should change in our agenda around addressing those broader impacts ... Once we are over this crisis period then the debates around climate change should continue".

If we are to avoid global climate disaster, we must make the rapid transition to clean energy. Sadly, Neville Power couldn’t be more obviously pro-"status quo", if he grew his hair long, put on a fan T-shirt and went on an air-guitar bender to 'Rockin’ all over the World', lip-syncing along to 'Oh here we are and here we are and here we go…'.  Except that locking in more fossil fuels is even worse than the status quo — it is deliberately applying retrograde pressure to pump out more fossil fuels against the tide of the essential global shift to clean energy.

We need to clear the stench of gas from our economy, society and democracy. Every stimulus dollar that is spent in Australia should meet the three conditions of being economically effective and jobs-rich, contributing to the rapid transition to clean energy and the restoration of nature, and increasing fairness and equality for all Australians.

The only true recovery from COVID-19 is one that puts us on a path to a fairer, cleaner, healthier nation.

David Ritter is an Independent Australia columnist and CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, adjunct professor at Sydney University and an honorary fellow of the Law Faculty at the University of Western AustraliaYou can follow David on Twitter @David_Ritter.

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