“Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics.”
You might think the big news story of the Xmas break was that Australia won the Ashes. But in the same month you were relaxing and watching the cricket, the new Liberal/National Government quietly continued attacking climate policy, following a long-standing tradition of announcing such decisions in December. Here’s a wrap-up of some of the things that happened over the holidays.
The Government released terms of reference for a new energy white paper, which sounds like it’s all about growing fossil fuel exports, reducing energy prices, and deregulation. Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane accused the former Labor government of having “bungled its Energy White Paper process [by introducing] the carbon tax and mining tax, and new layers of regulation and red tape” – code for saying it wasn’t fossil-fuel-friendly enough. The only technology Macfarlane mentioned was liquefied natural gas (LNG). Macfarlane had previously stated the government’s intention to ensure “every molecule of gas that can come out of the ground does so”, despite Abbott having said in opposition “if you don’t want something to happen on your land, you ought to have a right to say no”. It doesn’t take a genius to work out which of these two contradictory imperatives is the government’s priority.
On the same day, Trade Minister Andrew Robb announced a (draft) Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement including investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), which would give multinational corporations the power to sue a government for any policy that hurts their profits in an unaccountable tribunal with unlimited powers. The deal is not yet finally signed and sealed, but is expected to be presented to Cabinet in February, and only then will it be released to the public. Robb says the ISDS clause will not apply to “public welfare, health and the environment”, but this claim cannot be verified while the agreement is kept secret, and similar safeguards in the Peru-US Free Trade Agreement failed. You can sign a petition telling other Cabinet Ministers not to approve the deal here.
After the Senate passed a Greens motion ordering the Government to publicly release the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade negotiation text, the Government refused to do so. It looks like free trade talks are being used as an opaque avenue to sneak through policies advancing corporate power which can’t be achieved through democratic domestic political processes. Leaked drafts of the TPP have revealed a radical agenda including ISDS. Any number of policies in the public interest could threaten corporate profits, and hence could be overturned through ISDS. This represents an attack on national sovereignty and democracy at a time when we need accountable government more than ever. An Australia Institute survey found only 11% of Australians know about the TPP, almost 90% want the details of such deals made public before they are signed, and 75% oppose allowing American corporations to sue Australian governments. There are a number of petitions against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example here, here, and here.
The Government also released terms of reference for an agriculture white paper which failed to mention climate change. It is not clear how the Government expects Australian agriculture to prosper in the face of the impacts of the greenhouse gas emissions and coal seam gas development promoted by the Energy White Paper. Clearly the Government adheres to the Financial Review school of thought that food security is not an issue in Australia.
That night, Labor helped the Government pass legislation preventing Australians from legally challenging projects approved before 1 January 2014 on environmental grounds. This effectively allowed the Government to dodge accountability for ignoring expert advice on the environmental impacts of any project approved prior to 2014.
Fortunately, after splitting the Government’s climate action repeal bills into three components, the Senate rejected the bill to repeal the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), surprisingly with the help of independent Nick Xenophon and Democratic Labor’s John Madigan. Effectively this postponed the battle over CEFC until July, when new Senators will take their seats. The Government continues to argue CEFC is a waste of money, while CEFC counters that it can help cut emissions and actually make a profit. The other repeal bills, the Climate Change Authority (CCA) and the carbon price, remain to be voted on. On the signature issue of the carbon price, the Government continues to try to repeal it, Labor continues to advocate moving early to an emissions trading scheme, and the Greens continue to defend the present laws under which emissions trading is scheduled to begin in 2015.
The same day, the Greens successfully moved for a Senate inquiry into the Direct Action Plan, which Greens leader Christine Milne says “will expose Direct Action as a ploy to distract Australians from the government’s refusal to take the advice of experts.” Submissions to the inquiry close 20 January.
Meanwhile, hundreds rallied with Environment Victoria against the Victorian government’s plan to create a local brown coal export industry by allocating mining permits for 13 billion tonnes of reserves and spending $90 million subsidizing new mines. Climate Code Red blogger David Spratt said at the rally:
[The Victorian government] can protect the Victorian people and their way of life, their land and farms, their water and food security by keeping fossil fuels such as coal and coal seam gas in the ground and build the clean, renewable economy. Or they can head into a dirty, export coal rush. They can’t do both.
That night, Environment Minister Greg Hunt (who would be more appropriately titled the Anti-Environment Minister) approved Adani’s proposed T0 coal export terminal, as well as dredging for two other new terminals, at the (appropriately named) Abbot Point. T0 alone will export 70 million tonnes of coal per year. Abbot Point will be the world’s biggest coal port and open up the Galilee Basin, whose nine proposed mega-mines would export enough coal to produce potentially 700 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, almost twice Australia’s domestic emissions and greater than the emissions of all but six countries. Hunt simultaneously approved an Arrow coal seam gas processing facility on Curtis Island which will export 18 million tonnes of LNG per year, and a transmission pipeline to supply it. You can sign petitions against the Abbot Point approval here and here.
In his press release approving this, Hunt had the gall to say: “Today I am announcing new plans to protect the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef.” His plan consists of ensuring dredging occurs close to the shore – never mind that global warming is killing coral reefs as well as endangering the rest of the world. The approval process ignored climate change because two Federal Court cases over previous projects have found that overseas emissions are irrelevant to export approvals. Adani assures the Government it will “commit to reducing GHG emissions through its procurement and operations practices”. As ABC Environment’s Sara Phillips put it, “should we interpret this statement as meaning that we shouldn’t worry about the 700 million tonnes of CO2 facilitated by this project because Adani will be buying recycled paper?”
The Abbot Point and Curtis Island approvals came just a month after Hunt approved the Kevin’s Corner coal mine, and a year after the former government approved GVK’s Alpha coal mine. Alpha and Kevin’s Corner are the first two of the Galilee mega-mines, and together will produce 57 million tonnes of coal per year. Climate blogger Graham Readfearn has calculated this equates to 124 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, which over the mines’ 30-year lifetimes adds up to triple the lifetime emissions of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
Attorney-General George Brandis announced a law reform inquiry to “identify where traditional rights, freedoms and privileges are unnecessarily compromised”. It will focus largely on weakening environmental and other regulations because of their supposed infringement of corporate rights. Destroying the environment we depend on apparently does not count as an infringement of our freedom.
Fairfax newspapers reported that at the latest TPP meeting (where the secrecy intensified even further), Australia is failing to defend its plain packaging tobacco laws and is offering to agree to ISDS in exchange for greater access to sugar markets.
At the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), all states and territories signed up to take on responsibility for federal environmental assessment powers within 12 months (including Labor governments, despite federal Labor claiming to now oppose the policy). This makes official what began in September as a secret agreement between the federal Government and the coal state Queensland. State governments are notoriously pro-development, that is even more so than federal ones. As Greens Senator Larissa Waters points out: “If states had this power in the past, the Franklin River would be dammed, cattle would be grazing in the Alpine National Park and there would be oil rigs on the Great Barrier Reef.” The states continue to wind back their own environmental regulations.
With no remaining legal avenue to challenge approved mining projects, 120 protestors blocked construction at Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine in NSW. 350.org’s Simon Copland wrote about it afterwards: “It is unfortunate that it has to come to this, but we have no choice. When the Government fails, as it has so drastically with this mine and with so many other coal and gas mines around the country, it is up for the community to take a stand.”
The Government finally made good on its promise to release a full budget update with the Mid-Year Economic Forecast. Unsurprisingly there were a number of previously unannounced cuts, including to the Environmental Defenders Offices (which provide expert legal advice and representation on environmental issues and are thus opposed by mining companies) and Energy Efficiencies Opportunities Program (which like the CEFC actually makes money for the government, but is opposed by fossil fuel electricity generators because reducing energy demand reduces their profits). There were no cuts to fossil fuel subsidies. The document contained no mention of the Emissions Reduction Fund, the centrepiece of the climate Direct Action Plan. The only fully costed climate policy was $800 million over five years for the “Green Army”, which would employ 15,000 young people to do things like revegetation and clearing rivers, which will have no significant impact on global warming as it fails to target the fossil fuel industry.
Released on the same day was the Energy White Paper issues paper. It foreshadows possible consideration of investing in nuclear power and dividing up the Renewable Energy Target into bands including emerging technologies, consistent with the Government’s incorrect belief that existing renewables cannot provide 100% of Australia’s energy. The paper also says the major contributor to electricity prices, network costs, will continue rising, revealing the Government’s hypocrisy in complaining about the impacts of climate policies on electricity prices. This could be avoided by instead investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy, whose prices are falling rapidly as technologies are improved and deployment is scaled up. It seems the Government really wants higher electricity prices because that means greater profits for fossil-fuel-fired generators. Submissions on the energy white paper close 7 February.
Meanwhile, Brandis appointed Tim Wilson from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) as “freedom commissioner” at the Human Rights Commission. The IPA is Australia’s most extreme proponent of right-wing libertarian politics and global warming denialism, and would prefer to abolish the Human Rights Commission. Unlike other commissioners Wilson did not have to apply for the job; Brandis just rang him up and asked if he wanted it. Wilson argues he is qualified because “Private property is in itself a human right, and one of the things that I have always focused on is free trade which is ultimately an extension of private property” and critics of his appointment “look at human rights as some sort of legal gift from government”. Wilson’s comment on Occupy Melbourne was “send in the water cannons”.
When asked about the upcoming review of the Renewable Energy Target (RET), Abbott said the RET was causing “pretty significant price pressures”, Australia should be an “affordable energy superpower”, and he would consult with his business advisor Maurice Newman, a denier who opposes the RET. In fact the RET has reduced wholesale electricity prices, a 2012 review found its cost impact was minuscule, and the major factor in rising retail electricity prices is over-investment in poles and wires. Again, the Government’s real concern is that the RET is reducing profits for coal-fired generators. Abbott’s comments are the Government’s clearest signal yet that the RET is likely to be scrapped or weakened. The terms of reference for the RET review have not yet been released, probably because the Government is waiting until it can abolish the pro-RET CCA so the review can be conducted by the anti-RET Productivity Commission. It looks like history is going to repeat itself: the last time the Liberals were in government, they sabotaged their own Renewable Energy Target.
The Friday before Xmas, the Government released the Emissions Reduction Fund Green Paper. I haven’t yet had time to examine the Green Paper in depth, but I intend to post more about it in future. Judging by the news coverage, it largely remains the same as the ineffective policy the Liberals took to the election (which I analysed here), though I am surprised to say (cautiously) that it may contain some improvements. Submissions on the Green Paper close 21 February.
Also announced was an Expert Reference Group which will convene regularly during the Fund’s design to advise the Government. Almost all of its members are corporate executives or lobbyists, supposedly selected for “their renowned sectoral expertise”. It includes the chief executives of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, Minerals Council of Australia, National Farmers Federation, Energy Retailers Association Australia, Energy Supply Association of Australia, Business Council of Australia, Australian Industry Group, and Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – all of which oppose strong climate action. It also includes the directors of Exigency Management and Frontier Economics, the consultants who helped the Liberals design and model their policy in opposition. (The other members are from the Clean Energy Council, Green Building Council of Australia, and Commonwealth Bank of Australia, as well as real experts from ANU and CSIRO.)
Late Friday afternoon, Hunt approved two more fossil fuel projects: billionaire politician Clive Palmer’s China First mine which will produce 40 million tonnes of coal per year; and the Surat Gas Expansion which will drill 6,500 wells. You can sign a petition against the China First approval here.
Meanwhile, a group of climate activists turned up at the ANZ Bank AGM. They asked why ANZ is funding coal export projects, to which the chairman responded that they are have no qualms about funding any coal mine that has been approved by a state government (which is meaningless because, as noted above, state governments approve all developments). The chairman then refused to allow questions from citizens who had travelled hundreds of kilometres to the meeting, refused to answer questions about the financial and reputational risk of investing in coal, and pointed to a sustainability index saying ANZ is the greenest of Australia’s big banks.
Palmer had promised in October to release his political party’s agreement with the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party as a Christmas present to independent Senator Nick Xenophon. But when the day arrived, Palmer refused/neglected to do so. When asked about it, Palmer told journalists he could not release the agreement immediately because he was busy fishing, while the Motoring Enthusiasts said it was “none of your business” and there was “nothing sinister to it”. When the agreement was finally published several days later, it explained little and appeared to have had paragraphs removed. I have included this because any secret agreement between Palmer and the Motoring Enthusiasts could well be related to climate.
Some team I’m supposed to support won a game that is somehow more important than all the above.
This government is only four months old, and already its level of secrecy, deception, misdirection, and irresponsibility is staggering. I know rationally that governments in other countries such as the US and Canada operate like this so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s difficult to accept that it’s now happening here in Australia. The only positive thing I can say is the Government can’t be accused of slacking off over the holidays.