Australia considering more than 100 fossil fuel projects that could produce 5% of global industrial emissions

The coal and gas works, if approved, would result in a nearly 30% increase in emissions within Australia

Australia has more than 100 fossil fuel developments in the pipeline that could result in nearly 1.7bn tonnes of greenhouse gases a year – equivalent to about 5% of global industrial emissions – if all were to go ahead, an analysis says.

The Australian government lists 116 major coal and gas projects under development, each valued at more than A$50m and with the potential to reach a final investment decision in the next five years.

Not all will be built, but a new report says it is an indication of the fossil fuel development that continues in Australia, including with taxpayer support, despite the Morrison government committing to net zero emissions by 2050.

Launching a plan for the country to reach the target last week ahead of the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said the government would “not shut down our coal or gas production”. The plan said the country’s fossil fuel export industries would continue “through to 2050 and beyond, supporting jobs and regional communities”.

Angus Taylor, the emissions reduction minister, has also promised to use Cop26 to promote Australia as a safe and reliable place to invest in gas and hydrogen.

An analysis by the Australia Institute, a progressive thinktank, found the most recent data from the energy and resources department’s chief economist, published last December, listed 72 coal and 44 gas and oil projects with the potential to be developed.

The institute also included the proposed Beetaloo Basin gas field in the Northern Territory, which the government has committed up to $224m to develop as part of what it calls a “gas-fired recovery” from the pandemic.

Based on the estimated annual capacity of each proposal, it found together they could add about 146m tonnes to emissions within Australia (equivalent to a nearly 30% annual increase) during extraction and processing. The overwhelming bulk of the emissions – about 1.6bn tonnes – would be released offshore after the coal and gas was sold and burned for energy.

About two-thirds of the coal projects were listed as at feasibility stage. Government officials noted there was a growing preference for mine expansions over greenfield projects and that some lenders and investors would no longer finance thermal coal, which is used in electricity generation.

Richie Merzian, a former Australian government climate negotiator now with the Australia Institute, said the country continued to pursue an aggressive expansion of fossil fuels with potential emissions on the list equivalent to more than 200 coal-fired power plants. “Australia cannot claim to be acting on climate change while simultaneously expanding fossil fuel projects,” he said.

The Morrison government’s position on fossil fuels is that cost and global markets will dictate the pace of the shift to cleaner technology. It has approved the expansion of four coalmines since September and in July granted a $175m loan for a new metallurgical coalmine in Queensland. On gas, it has said it hoped to develop four more basins after Beetaloo. State and territory governments under both the Coalition and Labor also back fossil fuel expansion.

Hugh Saddler, an energy analyst and an honorary associate professor at the Australian National University, said the federal government was “just plugging on absolutely business-as-usual” on fossil fuels.

“There’s been no thought about how you fit that into some supposed plan to reach net zero by 2050,” he said. “We know the important thing to stop the most catastrophic climate change is to stop fossil fuels, but Australia is putting its foot on the accelerator to develop coal and gas as quickly as it can and putting taxpayers’ dollars into doing that.”

The government’s 2050 net zero emissions plan has been criticised for not including new policies and relying on new technology to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in the 2030s and 40s. It says it is committing $20bn over a decade to help lower the cost of some technologies. Most of the spending is a continuation of long-standing funding for clean energy agencies.

The government has backed carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology – burying greenhouse gases from industrial sites kilometres underground – to extend their life, and committed $250m to a “CCS technologies and hubs” program.

Australian governments have previously committed about $4bn in funding for CCS, but it has failed to prove commercially viable. The country has one operating CCS plant, at Chevron’s Gorgon gas development in Western Australia. It has suffered delays and operational problems, and captures only a portion of the emissions at the site.

The gas company Santos confirmed on Monday it would proceed with a $220m CCS development at the Moomba gas reservoir in South Australia after the Morrison government approved it to earn revenue from carbon credits for storing emissions below ground. Santos said the project could store 1.7m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from 2024.

The gas industry group, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, said the Australia Institute’s analysis should not be considered “objective, scientific or reasonable” as the thinktank had made its opposition to the industry “very clear”.

Its chief executive, Andrew McConville, said it would be more constructive for people to listen to those that had recognised gas had a role to play in a low-emissions future, including the International Energy Agency, the United Nations, and Australia’s former chief scientist Alan Finkel.

Some have backed gas – which has about half the emissions of coal when burned, and more when methane leaks during extraction – as playing an ongoing role as the world moves away from coal, but few have backed opening new gas fields.

The head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, earlier this year said there should be “no new investments in oil, gas and coal from now” if governments were serious about the climate crisis.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday said Australia had to “face up to the fact that we’ve got to stop burning coal and gas”.

“The proposition that seems to be fashionable in some quarters here that we can keep on burning coal, and indeed exporting coal, and that somehow is consistent with getting to net zero by 2050, is nonsense,” he told the ABC’s RN Breakfast. “The reality is if we keep burning fossil fuels we will fry the planet.”


Adam Morton and Bec Pridham

The GuardianTramp

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