The public wants meaningful action to address climate change. The 2010 annual Lowy poll found that 86% of Australians support climate action. Forty-six percent said they supported strong action and a further 40% supported gradual steps.
Moreover, a 2011 poll by the 100% Renewable Energy Campaign asked 14,000 people their views on renewable energy and the government’s responsibility. It found 91% of respondents think the government should increase action to roll out renewable energy and that 86% think the government needs a plan to get to 100% renewables.
So the pressure is on for federal and state governments to deliver.
But what we’re getting is a lot of gas.
Carbon price promise misleading
Federally, the government points to its carbon price proposal as proof they are taking responsible action.
But climate change minister Greg Combet has clearly stated that — by design — the carbon price will drive a transition to gas.
In a March 9 Lateline interview he said: “For baseload electricity generation it will be gas-fired electricity that we see emerge, and for that investment to be committed, we need a carbon price in the economy,.”
The US and Europe are moving to baseload solar thermal plants with molten salt storage, but the Australian government is working to develop the gas industry, under the guise of climate action.
Even the recent announcement that the government will invest in a new “solar” power plant in Chinchilla in Queensland — near controversial coal seam gas field and pipeline projects — is based on outmoded technology and needs gas backup.
Mark Ogge from Beyond Zero Emissions said on June 22: “While the government is quick to suggest they are not in the business of ‘picking winners’, the Solar Flagships announcement has actually shown they are picking losers.”
In fact, building this “solar” plant in this location simply serves to justify destructive coal seam gas mining on prime agricultural land as part of cutting emissions, even though gas backup is not needed for baseload solar thermal plants.
Ogge said: “Renewables don’t need gas as backup, leaving no more justification for any further development of the dangerous gas industry.”
In eastern and south-eastern Australia, any expansion of gas-power means an expansion of coal seam gas — 83.6% of known gas reserves in the region are coal seam gas.
And many suspect even more coal seam gas reserves are available. A 2011 draft report from the Australian Energy Market Operator said known coal seam gas reserves rose by about 900% in five years after exploration in Queensland and New South Wales.
As more coal seam gas exploration goes ahead, the amount of known reserves will rise.
With exploration now approved in Queensland, Western Australia, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, the government is not simply driving a transition to gas, but coal seam gas.
Indeed, the CSIRO has estimated enormous coal seam gas reserves in eastern Australia — enough to power a city of 1 million people for 5000 years.
And it’s not just the federal government driving this shift. The Queensland and New South Wales governments are also backing the industry.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh told The Australian that coal seam gas is an important transition fuel, needed over the coming decades as the world seeks “viable” energy alternatives. This is despite international evidence that it’s both unnecessary and outmoded.
In New South Wales, coal seam gas mining operates under an act that does not even mention coal seam gas. Applications for exploration can be approved without an environmental impact statement.
This is despite the fact that exploration licences now cover most of New South Wales and the industry poses serious risks to water, agricultural land, biodiversity, climate and health.
The coal seam gas industry in New South Wales also has a five-year exemption on making royalty payments.
Just who dominates the gas industry and benefits most from this rollout? The same fossil fuel companies whose profits are at risk from meaningful climate action: ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and Chevron.
So while government rhetoric notes concern about climate change and our environment, the steps being taken under this banner are designed to make a dangerous and unnecessary transition, and maintain industry profits.