Politics Opinion

The gas-fired recovery swindle

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(Cartoon by Ned Toons)

The COVID-19 pandemic facilitated the rollout of a plan to keep gas relevant which had been developed prior to the crisis, writes David Paull.

THE RECENT Four Corners program, Fired Up, posed some disturbing questions in relation to the rollout of a “gas-fired” recovery and claims it is essential to rescue our economy. While the aims and some detail of the recovery have been laid out by the COVID-19 Commission, the narrow economic focus of the Commission has led to suspicion that other options had been blindsided and that perhaps the recovery plan itself was conceived prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence presented here shows that this is indeed the case.

Australia is overrun by petroleum sector lobbyists and their lobby organisations, representing oil, gas, infrastructure and their financial interests. There are at least a dozen active petroleum sector lobby groups in Australia. The lobbyists themselves, it seems, often hold current positions in the companies they represent and so the distinction between an expert, a lobbyist and a benefactor is usually blurred.

This fact doesn’t seem to worry our government, which is made clear if we look at recent government appointments to energy and climate policy bodies:

  • Neville Power, Chairman of the COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board, is currently Deputy Chairman of petroleum explorer Strike Energy Ltd and with substantial personal holdings;
  • Andrew Liveris, Special Advisor to the COVID-19 Commission and co-Chair to the Northern Territory’s Economic Reconstruction Commission, is Vice Chairman of Worley Services, a petroleum sector service consultancy;
  • Andrew Liveris, now on the board for the Climate Change Authority (CCA), currently holds the position of Manager of Climate Change and Sustainability for Santos Ltd and has been the CEO of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network (AIGN) since March 2017, a mostly gas sector lobby group; and
  • Grant King, ex-President of the Business Council of Australia (BCA) and until 2016, Chair of Origin Energy, now also with the CCA.

It was while Mr King was with the BCA that we first see a working group established to link future infrastructure development with a growing gas sector in Australia, the Infrastructure and Sustainable Growth Committee, first established in 2014 while King was still with Origin. He was the Chair of this committee. It consisted of a who’s-who in the petroleum sector in Australia, with local and international gas corporations, pipeline companies, construction and financial corporations known to have strong lending histories in this sector. It is what you would call “stacked”; the 26 participant list is here.

What was discussed or any reports from this committee is not on the public record — all history of this committee has been erased from the BCA website. But Mr King pops up again in 2020 as head of a government panel commissioned by Angus Taylor’s department and who published a report on ‘additional sources of low cost abatement’. It calls for a ‘goal orientated co-investment program’, calling on the Government to assist with the development of technologies such as carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and industrial heating. Principles used by the panel call for policy designed to ‘favour economically productive activities or activities where there are co-benefits’ and that ‘policies and institutions should be technology-neutral and complementary’.

The co-author of this report, which received glowing reviews by department officials, was Susie Smith, who now sits with King on the Climate Change Authority. It seems her work at the lobby group AIGN has not been in vain and some of the ideas of the government-commissioned report reflect her work while “chief spin doctor” for Santos on climate change.

Another report commissioned in 2018 by the United States Study Centre (USSC) which also may have been influential was titled It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way: Australia’s Energy Crisis, America’s Energy Surplus, which highlights the essential role of gas in manufacturing and how we can fix our energy price problem by opening up gas supply. A lesson by our American friends on how to get those petro-dollars rolling, with policy shift and de-regulation cornerstones to this outcome.

A financial supporter of this report was Dow Chemical, at the time Andrew Liveris was still Chairman of the company. Dow’s support for this work probably facilitated by the fact that Mr Liveris is a long-standing patron of the American Australian Association, the parent body for the USSC. Liveris’ public comments since becoming Special Advisor to the NCC strongly reflect the sentiments of this report, as does the Prime Minister’s comments such as “we need to get the gas from under our feet”.

It seems the range of expertise in “gas-jacking” the economy is a small one, yet there is little doubt these earlier works have informed the gas-fired recovery to rescue our country. But it seems clear. Rather than the gas recovery being a response to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, it seems the crisis has facilitated the rollout of a long thought-out plan to keep gas relevant in a rapidly changing energy future, that probably had its inception around 2014 when Mr King first gathered the petro-cartel for secret meetings.

A closer inspection of the gas recovery assumptions suggests a number of misconceptions, however. The co-benefits of gas to industry and manufacturing are limited. Proposed methods of emissions abatement will be expensive. In terms of outcomes being “technology neutral”, the market has already decided in favour of renewables. And it seems at no time in the development of this strategy were other alternatives to gas given equal treatment as possible solutions. As the cost of renewables and storage rapidly decreases and the technology rapidly improves, it seems that the plan for a gas-fired recovery is already out of date.

David Paull is an Australian ecologist. You can follow David on Twitter @davesgas.

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