Revealed: northern Australia’s fossil fuel plans push climate goals beyond reach

Revealed: northern Australia’s fossil fuel plans push climate goals beyond reach

Adani’s plan for the first phase of the Carmichael mine has been significantly scaled back, from 60m to 10m tonnes of thermal coal a year, but opponents say even a small mine has the potential to open up the vast Galilee coal basin for wider development.

Climate Analytics estimates if all seven mines proposed for the basin were fully developed they would add 857m tonnes of heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, equivalent to more than 2% of annual global emissions.

Few people expect development of the Galilee to happen on that scale. Doubts are growing about the future appetite for exports of thermal coal, which is used to burn in power plants. There has been a 75% fall in the number of new coal plants planned across the world since 2015, largely due to a shift by investors away from coal after the Paris deal.

But influential federal and state minerals lobby groups and companies, some led and advised by former cabinet ministers, continue to push for approval and support for new developments. The chief economist’s office last year listed 53 new or expanded coalmine proposals across the country. Official government projections assume Australian coal exports will continue to increase until at least 2050.

Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal and rivals Qatar as the biggest exporter of liquified natural gas. Coal exports have more than doubled since the turn of the century, while gas sales have grown even more rapidly from a low base this decade. The progressive thinktank the Australia Institute found the country had become the third-largest exporter of fossilised carbon after Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Dunlop said the proposed developments “would guarantee we are going way over 2C”. He added: “The reality is that climate change is now an immediate existential threat to human civilisation as we know it.

“It is patently obvious we’ve been taken for fools by our politicians. We are in a position where they will maximise short-term financial advantage if they can get away with it, even if it destroys the Australian community in the process.”

Adani mine
The Adani mine is the highest profile of Australia’s proposed fossil fuel expansions, and has become emblematic of the country’s battle between fossil fuel developments that could bring jobs to regional communities and combating the climate crisis.

After its approval, Rolling Stone described it as “the world’s most insane energy project”.

It finally received the green light from the Queensland Labor government shortly after the May federal election, when its party was thrashed across the state by the Liberal-National Coalition, particularly in regional areas where support for coal is strong.

Despite cross-party support, with the exception of the Australian Greens, its development remains under a cloud. Activists are being trained at protest camps to block construction.

A recent report by the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a pro-clean-energy thinktank, found Adani was relying on $4.4bn subsidies and tax concessions and would not be bankable without them. A royalties deal with the state government was unresolved at the time of writing.

The company disputed the institute’s report and said it had not received special treatment. It did not respond to an email requesting a response to the facts in this story.

A key question for whether the Adani project could lead to further development of the Galilee basin is the infrastructure it would bring, including a rail line to a port more than 185 miles (300km) away, a port expansion and an airport.

All have been dropped or shelved, with the company now proposing a rail spur to an existing freight network with limited carrying capacity.

At its revised scale, Adani would export coal that when burned would emit about 26m tonnes a year, equivalent to about 5% of Australia’s current annual emissions.

The argument in favour of the Adani development is similar to the one used in many developing countries – that coal is a cheap, reliable fuel needed to help lift people out of poverty.

But environmentalists are already worried about Australia’s emissions, which have been rising since 2015, when the Coalition repealed a national carbon pricing scheme that required polluters to pay for their emissions.

Government analysis has blamed most of the increase on the expanding liquified natural gas industry, particularly in northern Western Australia. Yet the most significant liquified natural gas proposal is still in development.

Known as the Burrup Hub expansion, it would tap gas from the Browse, Scarborough and Pluto basins off the north-west Australian coast and use existing facilities to process it for export. Companies involved in the development include Shell, BP and BHP.

A new analysis by the Conservation Council of Western Australia, based on data from the proponents, has found the total emissions from the new gasfields and the expanded liquified natural gas processing facilities that make up the Burrup Hub proposal would be nearly 20m tonnes a year. It says there would be at least another 80m tonnes a year in “scope three emissions when the gas is burned overseas.

The Conservation Council director said over a proposed 50-year lifespan that could mean up to 5bn tonnes of emissions from the hub. Piers Verstegen said: “When you add in the international emissions it is staggering what kind of contribution this will be making. We’re looking at something across its entire lifecycle that is far bigger than the Carmichael mine at the scale Adani is currently proposing.

The proposal comes as oil and gas companies fight attempts to force them to pay to limit the impact of their pollution. The Western Australian Environment Protection Authority (EPA) recommended in March that new or expanding projects offset their emissions, but a campaign against the proposal by Woodside, Chevron, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association and the West Australian newspaper led to the state government putting the carbon-neutral proposal on hold.

A spokesperson for Woodside Energy said the state EPA proposal was flawed because under the Paris agreement Australia was committed to a national approach, and it caused uncertainty that would make it harder to invest in cleaner projects.

The company said the Conservation Council analysis ignored that the world needed more energy, and natural gas had a big role to play because it was clean, reliable and an “ideal partner” for renewable power.

The Morrison government has also countered criticism that its support for liquefied natural gas exports is pushing up local emissions by arguing that gas is good for the climate. It says Australian liquefied natural gas exports reduce global carbon dioxide pollution by 150m tonnes a year, more than a quarter of the country’s national emissions. No evidence has been given to support the claim beyond a back-of-the-envelope calculation that assumes all the liquefied natural gas Australia exports is displacing black coal in Japan, China and Korea.

While cheap gas has displaced coal in the US, the government’s Office of the Chief Economist suggests this is not the case with all Australian gas. In the example of Japan, Australia’s biggest liquefied natural gas market, it has found its gas is increasingly competing with nuclear and renewable power.

Fergus Green, an Australian researcher who was an adviser to the climate economist Nicholas Stern and is now headed to the Ethics Institute at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, said it was a familiar story.

He said Australia was simultaneously trying to claim it was serious about climate change policy and massively increasing the fossil fuels it sold to developing countries.

Other countries are increasingly critical of this, including the leaders of island nations at the Pacific Islands Forum in September, at which Morrison was accused of being insulting and condescending to other leaders, he added.

“It just doesn’t pass the sniff test. The country is on a path contrary to the spirit of the Paris agreement and certainly inconsistent with the global pathway we need to be going on if we are going to meet 2C or 1.5C.”


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