Morrison’s COVID-19 gas ‘recovery’ formalises corporate-government rule

Gas is often sold to the public as a clean fossil fuel alternative - but it is far from being so.

In late March, Neville Power and the executive board of directors who made up Scott Morrison’s newly established National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) were a bit stumped by their mandate — to coordinate a post-pandemic economic recovery and frame it around fossil fuels.

The issue was that 20% of mainland forest had just burnt to the ground, due to fires of a scale that no one had ever seen before. Changing climate was becoming a widely shared truth: tens of thousands of people were taking to the streets calling for a just transition to renewable energy.

Sure, the PM had shut down parliament, so there would be no opposition coming from there.

But the public had become sceptical about the leader’s intentions, as he’d once pirouetted in parliament with a lump of coal, and nicked off for a Hawaiian holiday mid-bushfire crisis.

NCCC members were scratching their heads, trying to work out how to keep fossil fuels on the agenda, when one board member had a bright idea: considering the calls for a just transition, why not set out a plan to shift from coal but change the end goal from renewables to gas?

But, Nev and company were not too sure whether they’d be able to hoodwink the public so blatantly. So, in May, they leaked a draft report subtly spruiking a post-COVID-19 gas-based recovery.

While there was a bit of an outcry, most of the population had been too rattled by the lockdown to notice.

A different beast

Fast forward to July 27 and the PM announced the commission was being renamed the National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board, or the NCC. This was to reflect its new role as an advisory board, embedded in government, to provide a business perspective on the COVID-19 recovery.

Morrison told reporters that the NCC will now “form part of the cabinet deliberative processes”. In that capacity, the unelected non-politicians will be fiddling around with the economy, as well as the budgetary implications of what’s proposed, ahead of the delayed budget, now set for October.

The NCC is chaired by Power who, until late May, was the deputy chair of gas company Strike Energy, until he was forced to stand aside due to conflict of interest concerns. He is supported by a board of mainly company directors, with a number of new additions, including the former national secretary of the pro-gas Australian Workers’ Union Paul Howes.

A draft NCCC Manufacturing Taskforce interim report was leaked in May. It recommends a taxpayer-funded gas-led recovery, with the removal of “green and red tape”, said to be impeding gas development and the construction of pipelines connecting the Eastern states to the north and west of the country.

The Guardian recently reported that the PM’s department has refused to release 1100 documents relating to the COVID-19 Commission’s discussions on gas projects, as well as a further 690 files dealing with its conflicts of interest, which were all requested under freedom of information laws.

Dirty gas

Gas is often sold to the public as a clean fossil fuel alternative. This is because when gas is burnt it produces 50% less carbon emissions than coal.

However, natural gas is predominantly made of methane which, as a greenhouse gas, is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Around 25% of human caused global warming is as a result of methane being produced by the oil and gas industries. A study released by Nature in February revealed that the methane being emitted by these industries had previously been underestimated by up to 40%.

Two science papers released in mid-July outline that there has been a dramatic increase in the level of human-produced methane in the atmosphere since 2000, caused by the production of fossil fuels, meat production and landfills. One said on July 15 that annual methane emissions are up 9%, or 50 million tons per year, from the early 2000s, when methane concentrations in the atmosphere were relatively stable.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the leaked NCCC report is that it fails to address climate, just months after Australia experienced such ferocious fires that the entire globe stopped to gasp. The PM’s think tank — as well as himself — don’t give a damn about the future.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Understanding Global Warming of 1.5°C two years ago. It sets out that the Earth has already warmed by 1°C above pre-industrial levels, and that this is likely to increase to 1.5°C sometime between 2030 and 2052.

Dramatic changes to the climate are already taking place and, unless pivotal action is taken now, the effects of the planet overshooting the 1.5°C mark would be devastating for millions of people and species, due to the heating, drought, rising sea levels and increased precipitation.

By cover of COVID-19

In early August, federal Greens leader Adam Bandt and independent MPs Andrew Wilkie, Zali Steggall and Helen Haines, condemned the NCC's gas-led recovery push, citing a Melbourne University study that estimates that failing to keep below a 2°C temperature rise will lead to $2.7 trillion in damages.

It seems the federal government may be using the NCC’s pandemic recovery plans as a convenient ruse as, prior to its inception, during the last bushfires and the first COVID-19 restrictions, there was enough evidence to show that a federal push to transition to gas was already underway.

In January, Morrison cut a deal with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian involving funds in exchange for increased state gas production which, as Stop CSG Sydney spokesperson Pip Hinman pointed out, is the same amount of coal seam gas Santos says it will produce from its proposed Narrabri project in the Pilliga Forest in north-west NSW.

In mid-March, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews lifted his state’s ban on new onshore gas projects and exploration. Extinction Rebellion spokesperson Jane Morton said in early May that she understood this move was due to intense pressure coming from the federal government.

End of times?

The COVID-19 pandemic, with its resulting lockdown and restrictions, has put a months-long end to the ever-increasing on-the-street presence of large numbers of people demanding action on climate.

Accompanying this, the Morrison gang has planted a corporate body inside government, with the aim of further expanding the nation’s reliance for energy on the fossil fuel industry. This serves to condemn society’s youngest members to a very bleak future. Renowned climate activist Greta Thunberg has repeatedly asserted that the current crisis warrants system change.

For the federal government to promote more fossil fuels, after a fifth of the country had burnt to the ground, is clear evidence that the system is broken. The newly-formalised corporate-government rule will only make things worse.

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