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After the Bushfires and Amid the Pandemic, Australia’s Fossil Fuel Industry Is Gaining Steam

In early April, while we were fixated on flattening the curve, the global fossil fuel industry launched a lobbying blitzkrieg. The Australian oil and gas sector, struggling with plummeting prices and demand, joined the chorus crying poor. They asked to be prioritized in the post-COVID-19 recovery, demanding both subsidies and deregulation. Their friends in federal government happily obliged, pushing for expansions of coal mines, one of which is under Sydney’s water catchment, as well as a massive and subsidized expansion of natural gas production, including fracking.

There isn’t much hope that the Liberal Party of Australia will steer away from the hothouse-earth dystopia they seem hell-bent on driving us into. State governments, however, have all set targets of net zero by 2050. Out of seven states and two territories, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) holds government in five; they’re in a position to fill much of the yawning climate-policy vacuum, yet there’s not a state Labor government on track to meet its own targets.

It’s not just a question of lethargy. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews is from the left of the ALP and is sometimes hailed as Australia’s most progressive state leader. He is also one of the most popular premiers in the country, his already impressive lead bolstered by his government’s decisive response to the pandemic. Despite abundant political capital, for every step taken to mitigate climate collapse, he has taken two steps backward. Analysis in 2019 showed that under Victoria’s existing trajectory, it won’t reach net zero until 2062.

Worse, under the cover of COVID-19, Andrews has expanded logging and lifted the moratorium on new onshore gas exploration. These moves risk locking Victoria into fossil-fuel dependency for decades to come.

Thanks to decades of industry and government promotion, Victoria consumes 65 percent of the nation’s household gas, despite making up only 25 percent of the population. COVID-19 has made this worse: by keeping people indoors (where heating and cooking rely heavily on gas), Victorian gas emissions are set to reach the highest levels in a decade.

Thankfully, Victoria will soon constitutionally enshrine a ban on fracking that has been in effect since 2012. Simultaneously, the state recently lifted the moratorium on onshore gas exploration. The decision was made under pressure from within Victorian Labor ranks and following a federal government ultimatum to lift the ban or forego funding for other energy development.

In caving to this pressure, Daniel Andrews risks aligning Victorian Labor policy, in practice, with that of the federal coalition, which has been busy selling a gas-powered COVID-19 economic recovery. Andrews has also employed sleight-of-hand marketing tactics worthy of federal energy minister Angus Taylor. Australia Institute analysis reveals that the report the Andrews government used to justify lifting the moratorium didn’t include carbon released during gas burning, which accounts for 88 percent of emissions produced.

Gas advocates, who have long marketed gas as a “transition fuel,” are now using the COVID-19 crisis to call for gas expansion as a job creator. Australian Workers’ Union Victorian branch secretary Ben Davis echoed this several months ago, criticizing the now-lifted moratorium, saying that new gas projects would help boost employment.

However, even if something comes of this new gas exploration, it is unlikely to generate significant employment. According to Climate Council senior researcher Tim Baxter, linking jobs with fossil fuel expansion is a standard marketing spin:

On basically every fossil fuel project that I am aware of, when someone has paid attention to the jobs numbers and started to interrogate them, they’ve been shown to be incredibly heroic . . . and arguments based on heroism and nonsense don’t fly.

This is especially true in the heavily mechanized gas sector.

The premier’s own press release bought into the spin, promising that new gas projects could create 6,400 jobs. But on closer inspection, it’s more heroic nonsense. The report that forms the basis for his claim refers to 6,400 “job years” – that is, ten years of full-time work for 640 people, a far cry from 6,400 lifetime jobs.

Unlike the Labor Right or the Liberal Party, the ALP left genuflects to environmentalism. Pressured by environmentalists, Andrews has outlined plans to phase out native-forest logging by 2030. Yet Labor’s recent decisions show how beholden it is to the powerful forestry industry and the conservative forestry wing of the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU).

While we were distracted by the pandemic, Daniel Andrews extended agreements giving the timber industry exemption from conservation laws and opened up 3,500 hectares of fire-affected forest in East Gippsland and North East Victoria to salvage logging, which scientists say can “significantly impair the recovery of burned ecosystems.”

For the time being, a temporary court injunction has halted logging in twenty-six areas. The environmental groups who launched the lawsuit argued that there was a risk of “serious and irreversible damage” to threatened species after last summer’s bushfires. Further, a recent federal court ruling, which found that the state forestry body had repeatedly breached conservation laws, threatens to undermine the conservation-law exemptions Australian forestry has enjoyed in Victoria for more than twenty years. In response to the court’s decision, Australian hardware giant Bunnings has announced that it will no longer sell timber logged by VicForests.

Despite this, the Victorian forestry industry and sympathetic politicians are gearing up to fight the federal court ruling and the 2030 plan to close the native forest industry. VicForests has claimed that Bunnings’s decision will put 170 Victorian jobs at risk, exacerbating the economic impact of the pandemic in regional areas. Given Victorian Labor’s track record, there is every reason to fear that the coronavirus recession will make the Andrews government more likely accede to the forestry industry’s lobbying efforts.

In 2019, Australia deployed renewables at ten times the global average. Yet, overreliance on the private sector and insufficient government involvement has caused many issues, such as delays, connection problems, and cost overruns. Private companies have folded, leaving planned projects dead in the water. As Giles Parkinson has detailed, in recent years, several of the largest contractors and constructors of large-scale solar farms have pulled out of the solar industry due to financial risk and low profits. When RCR Tomlinson announced their bankruptcy in late 2018, they were responsible for more solar projects in Queensland than any other company.

The current economic downturn is throwing up more obstacles. Several months ago, independent energy research firm Rystad Energy reported that the Australian dollar’s decline against the greenback led to the postponement or cancellation of projects slated to produce up to three gigawatts of renewable energy. Although overall growth in Australian renewables may be maintaining a steady pace, the Clean Energy Regulator warns that the outlook is still shaky. At a time when 75 percent of Australia’s top twenty renewable energy developers are foreign firms, relying on the private sector is an increasingly dangerous wager.

Fortunately, massive government intervention has never been more popular. Everyone from economist Ross Garnaut to the executive director of the International Energy Agency is calling for ambitious green-Keynesian stimulus.

In addition to guaranteeing development of renewables, this could also fatally undermine the job-creation arguments used by fossil fuel advocates. For example, fixing grid connection difficulties, which are a significant contributor to the recent woes of the solar and wind industry, could also contribute powerfully to solving the unemployment crisis. According to Victorian Trades Hall just transitions organizer Colin Long, “There’s years of work in the grid infrastructure work that we need to do to get the grid ready for 100 percent or 200 percent renewables,” Long says, adding that such work is labor-intensive and can’t be offshored in any way.

More broadly, as Friends of the Earth renewable energy spokesperson Pat Simons argues, the renewable energy sector could be a massive source of “good, liveable jobs . . . whether that’s manufacturing wind towers or assembling wind turbine hubs, engineering, logistics, manufacturing electric buses, upgrading infrastructure.” For example, the planned offshore wind farm “Star of the South,” which seems to be moving ahead despite the economic shocks, could create two thousand direct jobs and ten thousand indirect jobs during construction. It would also provide enough electricity to allow an early closure of the nearby Yallourn power station, one of Victoria’s three surviving brown coal generators.

However, more government and union involvement in the sector is needed to address the ‘“wild west” labour culture in alternative energy that the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) has been fighting for years. Because renewable energy projects are “reverse-auctioned” to the private sector, winning companies minimize labor costs wherever they can, such as hiring unlicensed backpackers to carry out electrical work.

The ETU has shown there is an alternative. Last year, the union demanded that Queensland put off all large-scale renewable energy projects until it had put together a just transition plan that provided a “responsible, diversified public-owned renewable energy sector that provides jobs and job security.” The ongoing fight led to the launch of the publicly owned renewable energy developer CleanCo, which will start work on the first state-owned wind farm later this year.

As a first step, this could be replicated in other states. After all, the economic and political conditions of 2020 are better suited to ambitious democratic-socialist environmental policy than any in recent history. The response to COVID-19 has shown that governments remain powerful actors, not merely impotent managers of the flows of global capital.

Yet taking advantage of this historic opportunity calls for a government with both the concrete vision and courage to swim against the neoliberal tide. Daniel Andrews and his Labor left state government may be reluctant participants in the death march to climate collapse. But without a sharp and decisive break from neoliberal, market-oriented policies, the march will continue apace.

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