A terrible week for the climate

This week’s events illustrate (not that further illustration was needed) that both of Australia’s major political parties are in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry, though Labor hides it behind a veneer of greenwash while the Liberals are overt about it.

On Monday in New South Wales, the Planning Assessment Commission approved the Ashton South East Open Cut coal mine in the Hunter Valley. The Commission had rejected the same mine last year, but the company, Ashton Coal, appealed the decision and it has now been approved with changes. The mine is still opposed by residents.

Meanwhile, the NSW government made very clear where its loyalties lie on coal seam gas (CSG). On Tuesday, NSW Resources Minister Chris Hartcher told an Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association conference that the “industry needs to get out there and sell the message”. On Wednesday, NSW Planning Minister Brad Hazzard reportedly told the mayor of the anti-CSG Lismore Council that CSG development would go ahead regardless of community opposition.

Also on Wednesday, federal Environment Minister Tony Burke approved the T3 coal terminal at Abbot Point, Queensland, which is joint-owned by GVK and Hancock. The decision is in spite of UNESCO having called for no new port developments to be approved before the completion of a plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef, and follows Burke’s approval of the associated Alpha mine and rail line. T3 will have the capacity to export 60 million tonnes of coal per year. Assuming each tonne of coal burned emits 2.7 tonnes of CO2, when the exported coal is burned overseas it will result in CO2 emissions of 160 million tonnes per year, equal to the emissions which Australia’s domestic carbon price is intended to save. I urge readers to sign this petition to Tony Burke to reverse his approval of T3.

Wednesday also brought a rare bit of good news in the opening of Australia’s first utility-scale solar PV farm in Geraldton, Western Australia. However, the occasion was somewhat spoiled by the same state’s Premier, Colin Barnett, calling for the abolition of the federal Renewable Energy Target (RET). In doing so Western Australia joins Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria, all controlled by the Liberal Party. This leaves the federal Liberal Party’s claim to support the RET with very little credibility.

A fourth thing that happened on Wednesday: the Senate passed an amendment to weaken recent legislation which established an independent scientific committee to look at the impacts of CSG mining on water. When the original legislation was passed in September, the Greens moved amendments to impose a moratorium on new CSG developments for the five years that the committee will take to investigate; to broaden the scope to include impacts on climate change, health, and the environment; and to increase the independence and transparency of the committee. Those amendments were voted down by the major parties (including the National Party, who claim to represent rural voters). In September, Coalition Senators did vote in favor of including impacts on “land and its uses”, as recommended by a multi-party Senate committee, but in the House of Representatives the Coalition narrowed it to merely “salinity”, the amendment that the Senate passed on Wednesday.

The Greens have put forward two more amendments, to give landholders the right to say no to CSG companies; and to give the federal government power over projects affecting water. Greens Senator Larissa Waters pointed out the federal government currently do not have the power to act on the committee’s advice because the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act does not include a water trigger (nor, unfortunately, does it include a climate trigger). In any case, the federal government has promised the business lobby that it will delegate some or all of its existing environmental protection powers to the states. The states are required to merely consider, not follow, the committee’s advice.

Waters also described it as “ridiculous” to establish such a committee and not wait for its advice before approving new CSG projects. Labor Senator Stephen Conroy made the following argument for a committee without a moratorium (my emphasis):

I think these arrangements will provide all Australians with greater confidence that projects will be subject to rigorous and objective scientific assessment. Independent assessment will help build greater trust and help build community confidence in coal seam gas and coal mining development in sensitive areas. Under these arrangements, the states will remain the primary regulators, the framework will apply to future licences and businesses will not be required to change the way they apply for a licence. The framework is not designed to add extra work or to increase the regulatory burden for upcoming projects but it does mean, however, that their applications will be subject to rigorous and independent scientific assessment by the committee before states grant an approval for a relevant activity.

I’m reminded of the Draft Energy White Paper:

Australia’s unconventional gas resources bring the promise of extensive economic opportunities for both regional areas and Australia collectively. To facilitate this development, concerns held in some parts of the community about the industry’s development need to be addressed through sound and consistent regulation based on scientific data and community engagement. […] The Australian Government’s recent decision to establish a new Independent Expert Scientific Committee (and associated new National Partnership Agreement) to provide scientific advice to governments on coal seam gas and large coal mining projects that have a significant impact on water, are important steps in seeking to address community concerns.

In other words, concerns about an industry’s development need to be addressed in order to facilitate the development of that industry – but in reality at least one concern, climate change, can only be addressed by preventing the development of the industry. The use of the word “concerns” itself implicitly suggests the Government does not take the issue seriously. It sounds to me like the independent committee is greenwash intended to quell opposition to the CSG boom without seriously threatening it.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed carbon price amendments with unclear and in some cases negative implications, but rejected a Greens amendment to review compensation to coal power plants. I discussed these events in detail on Friday.

Fortunately, some Australians are setting our misguided “leaders” straight on where our energy future should lie. On Friday, 730 members and supporters of Hepburn Wind called for the RET to be strengthened. And on Saturday, 3,000 protesters marched against CSG mining in Murwillumbah, New South Wales, while another 1,000 protesters in Sydney formed a human sign saying “Stop CSG”. This is the latest of many protests against Australia’s recklessly expanding fossil fuel industry, including a week of anti-coal protests in early September.

It’s time our politicians listened.

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