Gov’t doubles down on hand-outs to fossil fuel mates

October 6, 2021
Extinction Rebellion action in WA in July. Photo: Alex Slamon

The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) set up by Scott Morrison last year was disbanded in May with the Prime Minister claiming the “emergency phase” of COVID-19 was over.

At the time, Morrison said he needed the NCCC to “guide” the post-pandemic economic recovery. The reality, however, is that the pandemic provided an opportunity to help fossil fuel corporations’ new gas projects.

Morrison selected corporate mining and energy sector CEOs, including Neville Power, a former director of Fortescue Metals Group, to advise cabinet — which they were eager to do. It was hardly a surprise, therefore, that the NCCC’s “recovery” plan was based around public handouts to the gas oligarchy. Last year’s October budget, for example, handed $52.9 million in direct subsidies to gas corporations.

With new fossil fuel corporations finding it increasingly difficult to find the finance, the Morrison government came to the rescue with public subsidies. The federal budget allocated more than $100 million in subsidies to fossil fuel projects, including $58.6 million specifically to the gas-fired “recovery”.

The priority gas projects are the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program (BCDP) — a $50 million fund for gas companies to drill in the Northern Territory; the Narrabri Gas Project in New South Wales and opening up gas exploration in the Galilee Basin in Queensland.

Morrison’s climate denier approach stands in stark contrast to other rich countries including Britain, Norway, France and New Zealand which, in the lead up the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, marks Australia out as a pariah nation.

After vetoing a $280 million Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility loan for a wind and battery storage hub in North Queensland in March, federal resources minister Keith Pitt agreed in July to grant $21 million to Empire Energy to undertake fracking for gas in the Beetaloo Basin.

The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) is challenging Pitt’s decision on behalf of the Environment Centre Northern Territory (ECNT). The judicial review in the Federal Court questions the lawfulness of the BCDP and the minister’s decision to grant the funding.

On behalf of the ECNT, the EDO sought an undertaking from Pitt that he will not grant the agreement with Empire Energy and/or transfer public funds to the company until the court has ruled on the legality of his decision. Empire Energy chair Paul Espie is a regular donor to the Liberal Party.

Undeterred, Pitt said on September 7 he had asked his department to proceed with the Empire Energy agreement regardless of the legal challenge. Federal Court Justice John Griffiths, concerned by the minister’s decision, ordered Pitt’s legal team to explain the reasons for the minister’s “sudden” decision to enter into the grant agreement.

The Gudanji, Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Jingili, Mudburra and Alawa Traditional Owners have campaigned against the controversial BCDP since it was first announced. A group of Traditional Owners also travelled to Canberra in June to request support. Advocacy groups First Nations Social Justice Team, GetUp! and are assisting the Traditional Owners.

A Senate committee, set up to investigate the BCDP, tabled an interim report which reveals how it works with some government ministers. Empire Energy gifted the Minister for Energy and Emission Reduction Angus Taylor a return charter flight and hospitality for his visit to the Beetaloo fracking site.

It has also been revealed that between October last year and this March discussions were held between government ministers and Empire Energy prior to the grant being awarded. Evidence presented to a Senate Committee led to the Greens tabling a disallowance motion in the Senate, designed to cancel the Empire Energy grant and cancel the $50 million Beetaloo Fund.

But, as the motion needed the support of Labor and that was not given, it failed. Labor agreed to refer the administration of the grants process to the Auditor General, but it supports gas and, in particular, its exploration in the NT against the wishes of the Traditional Owners and in a climate emergency.

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