Opposition grows to COVID-19 Commission’s gas-fuelled recovery plan

Image: Viv Miley

Given the composition of the National COVID-19 Coordinating Commission (NCCC), it is little wonder that its pandemic “recovery” plan is based on public handouts to the corporate gas sector. The hand-picked body comprises corporate mining and energy sector CEOs and a former Australian Council of Trade Union leader Greg Combet, who was a sub-contractor with Australian gas giant AGL.

The draft interim manufacturing task force report, leaked on May 19 to The Guardian, describes itself as a “modern industrial policy”. It wants public money to underwrite a massive expansion of the domestic gas industry for two key objectives: “Creating a globally competitive sustainable industry and a globally competitive domestic gas market”.

The Manufacturing Taskforce is a joint union-corporate body. It comprises Australian Manufacturing Workers Union national secretary Paul Bastian and national secretary of the Australian Workers Union Dan Walton along Manufacturing Australia heads Ben Eade and James Fazzino and representatives from the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, the Australian Industry Group and Viva Energy. Taskforce chair Andrew Liveris is a former CEO of Dow Chemicals and a director of global gas and oil giant Saudi Aramco.

The report recommends that state and territory governments “remove barriers” to growing Australia’s gas market by cutting “red and green tape” and lifting fracking moratoriums. AWU leader Walton is pushing for a domestic gas reservation policy “to develop a supply of low-cost energy that would boost [manufacturing] industries across Australia”.

It regurgitates the old, disproven arguments that gas is key to “driving down energy prices”, that despite large gas reserves the market has “failed” and that by unlocking gas Australia will head towards a “high paying jobs bonanza”.

It argues that gas reserves in the Betaloo Basin (Northern Territory); Narrabri (New South Wales); Bowen Basin (Queensland) and Perth Basin (Western Australia) must be opened up “immediately”, the pipeline network be expanded “with urgency” and the “operating market” be “simplified”. Finally, it argues that: “gas is central to the more rapid adoption of renewables at least cost”.

Going backwards 

The COVID-19 public health crisis has provided the fossil fuel lobby with a gold-plated opportunity despite its climate change impacts.

As Giles Parkinson put it in Renew Economy on May 22, its centrepiece is “a mad proposal to resuscitate a widely discredited multi-billion dollar plan to build an east-west gas pipeline, locking in a white elephant at taxpayers’ expense for decades to come”. He said the scale of government subsidies — public money — “beggars belief”.

“The reach and sheer audacity of the proposals unveiled over the past week is extraordinary, and the lasting impact on Australia’s future may dwarf anything that Tony Abbott and his Far Right cheerleaders may have done."

He said the Commission is demanding that the federal government: underwrite new gas generators; push state governments to further underpin gas supply; provide cheap capital for smaller companies; provide tax incentives for gas infrastructure; directly finance new pipelines and gas hubs; and jump regulatory barriers to fast-track the investments.

He described the proposals as “disaster capitalism”, saying that the fossil fuel industry and its backers “have decided to throw a live grenade into Australia’s own economic bunker, and its environment”.

Silence from Labor

The deafening silence from the federal Labor Opposition speaks volumes. Support for gas projects by Labor premiers in Victoria and Queensland and the administrator in the Northern Territory underline that the alternative major party is standing shoulder to shoulder with the federal government on this critical issue.

On March 17, the Victorian government lifted its moratorium on the exploration of onshore conventional gas reserves, while maintaining its ban on fracking and unconventional gas mining.  The NT government is assisting Origin Energy and Australian-based Santos to push ahead with plans to mine shale gas.

On May 15, the Queensland government announced that it has made an additional 6700 square kilometres in the Bowen and Surat basins between Blackwater and Goondiwindi open to tender for gas exploration. The mines minister said the decision was to “support our post COVID-19 economic recovery”.

Many groups, including Friends of the Earth (FOE), energy experts and others oppose the push for old and outdated fossil fuel technology at the expense of clean technology like renewables and storage. Cam Walker from FOE said that “if this is the calibre of the work” by the Manufacturing Taskforce “it should be disbanded and a new set of experts appointed to such an important role”.

Renew Economy reports that energy experts have described the plan as “nuts” and an “outrage”, “destined to saddle the country with higher costs, higher emissions and stranded assets”. Former PM Malcolm Turnbull, long a renewable advocate except for his time as prime minister, has added his voice to the dissent.

It is also important to note that the NCCC did not call for public submissions, nor hold any public enquiries. It confined its consultation to fossil fuel adherents. Outside of this bubble, there is broad support for a post COVID economic recovery which is sustainable, economically viable, socially useful and addresses climate change and emissions reduction.

On May 15, 14 diverse groups sent a letter to the National Cabinet, federal and state energy ministers and NCCC chairperson Nev Power asking for a sustainable jobs-rich path to stimulate the economy. Signatories include the heads of the Business Council, the Property Council, the Australian Energy Council, the Australian Industry Group, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Australian Council of Social Service, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

They say any sustainable recovery must include measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate the transition to clean energy.

Beyond Zero Emissions, which first launched its fully costed 10-year plan for the country to transition to renewables in 2010, is now working on a “million jobs plan” that it says could make Australia a renewable energy superpower. Its plan will include “nation building, transformative projects” that can “upgrade our economy, modernise our industry, reskill our workforce and deliver a bright and vibrant future — economically and socially”.

The leaking of the NCCC Manufacturing Task Force report has demonstrated that a dangerous fossil fuel cabal is in the driver’s seat of the post-COVID-19 recovery and, even more dangerously, it has the support of some powerful union leaderships with close connections to the Labor Opposition.

It is going to take a mighty united front effort to stop this powerful tripartite coalition, but science and economics are on our side. Cancelling the $29 billion subsidy to the fossil fuel industries and redirecting it towards a “green recovery” is an essential first step.

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