The Scarborough Gas Project threatens to unleash as much as 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over its lifetime, the equivalent of 15 coal-fired power stations or three times the country’s entire annual emissions.
The Western Australian government has bent over backwards to support both Scarborough and the oil and gas industry.
The WA Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) suggested in 2019 that the big gas projects should, at the very least, provide offsets for the emissions produced in the processing of gas. Labor Premier Mark McGowan immediately declared he would not heed this advice.
The industry was alarmed that a government body should even dare shine a light on its emissions. Woodside ran a series of full-page ads in The West Australian attacking the EPA and, within a week, McGowan was summoned to a meeting with Woodside, Shell, Santos and Chevron, after which he re-stressed that no offsets would be required.
When the Conservation Council of WA challenged the environmental approvals for Scarborough last November in the Supreme Court and as grassroots groups blockaded the Burrup Hub, McGowan said he would intervene to guarantee Scarborough if the court action was successful.
While Anthony Albanese’s victory was heralded as a “climate election”, federal Labor’s support for Australia’s most polluting new fossil fuel project was never in doubt.
Two days before, Madeleine King, now the Minister for Resources, addressed the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association conference, declaring it a “privilege” to witness Scarborough’s development. She assured the gas industry bosses: “I want to be clear how enthusiastic I am, and Labor is, for this industry.”
King told the ABC’s 7.30 Report after the election that the development of Scarborough is consistent with the federal government’s climate policy. “[Woodside] have [sic] an ambition themselves for net zero emissions by 2050, just like the government does,” she said.
Woodside now proposes to reduce its emissions by 30% by 2030 and to be net zero by 2050 through a combination of efficiencies, carbon capture and storage and offsets. This is too little too late, and does nothing about the CO2 emissions when the gas is burnt by the end user.
Labor’s support at the federal and state level for Scarborough and the climate-destroying proposal to frack gas in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin illustrate how the election only brought about a change in rhetoric. Labor’s climate policies are not substantially different to Coalition’s.
The previous federal government resisted serious action on climate change by pandering to climate denialism and falling back on Australian exceptionalism.
Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison squeezed out every inch out that approach, but the horror run of bushfires and floods over the past three years finally brought it to an end as climate change was thrust into people’s lives.
Labor’s challenge, however, is more complex.
It wants to be seen to respond to the widespread desire for serious action on climate while actually smoothing the way for new coal and gas mega projects.
Labor’s acknowledgment that climate change is “real” is not enough. Only in a country like Australia, where politics is dominated by fossil fuel corporations, does this seem like a major step forward. We need targets based on science.
Net zero by 2050 is a political target designed to deflect attention away from the action we need. Significant new fossil fuel projects, such as Scarborough, are inconsistent with the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C.
The International Energy Agency stressed last year that immediate action is required to meet 2050 goals and that this means no new coal or gas.
Faced with growing scrutiny on gas, the WA government is seeking to pump up its environmental credentials by ending logging in native forests and committing to close two state-owned coal-fired power stations in 2030, already near the end of their lives. No date has been given to close the remaining privately-owned coal- and gas-fired power stations.
It is also trumpeting a plan to cut government emissions by 80% by 2030. However, these only account for about 7.3 million tonnes — 9% — of the state’s total.
These measures are only meaningful if they become stepping stones towards far more ambitious targets. WA needs to halve its total emissions by 2030 to even come close to making a fair contribution to meeting the Paris targets.
The WA and federal governments will not be able to smother the growing opposition to the Scarborough project. Apart from growing criticism from climate scientists, community activists are challenging Woodside’s “social licence”.
The company attaches its logo to every kind of sporting and cultural activity in WA. But push-back is springing up across the community. After a series of guerrilla art performances, Woodside’s sponsorship of the Perth Fringe Festival was not renewed last year.
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) launched legal action in June asking the Federal Court to stop Scarborough because its greenhouse gas emissions will significantly impact the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef. ACF also argues that the project must first be approved under national environment law.
The Traditional Owners of Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula) in the Pilbara are also incensed at the terrible damage being done to the 40,000-year-old rock art by the out-of-control gas industry. They oppose all new industrial development at the Burrup Hub, including the gas processing plant for the Scarborough field.
[Sam Wainwright is part of the Scarborough Gas Action Alliance in Western Australia.]