The trouble with gas

The Coalition’s ambitious plans for gas are in direct opposition to a UN report that says we must curtail its extraction and use to avoid dangerous climate change

“I insist on getting things done,” Angus Taylor told an interviewer soon after entering federal parliament in 2013. “I do delivery.”

So we should take the minister for energy and emissions reduction seriously when he talks up the role of natural gas in Australia’s energy future, including spending huge amounts of public money on supporting a gas industry. And we should be very concerned indeed.

Last week’s Budget included nearly $60 million to support “critical” infrastructure projects in Queensland. NSW and Victoria, for general gas planning and investment support, and to “empower gas-reliant businesses to negotiate competitive contract outcomes”.

These sums seem small in this multi-billion-dollar Budget spend, but they are far from the whole story. The government has been promoting gas as being integral to Australia’s energy future since the newly-elected PM promoted Taylor to his present job in 2018.

Both these men have form in this space: Taylor has campaigned against wind power and Scott Morrison is famous for waving a lump of coal in parliament. They no longer behave like this, but can’t bring themselves to abandon fossil fuels. So now it’s gas, as if nothing else matters.

The Coalition’s gas commitments so far add up to something approaching $1 billion. The past three years have seen a steady stream of announcements about support for exploration and extraction – notably in the Northern Territory’s vast Beetaloo Basin, but also in eastern states – and infrastructure for transport and processing. 

Gas was once thought to have a longish future in Australian energy, and globally too, thanks to what was assumed to be a lower level of emissions from extracting, processing and burning it, plus a competitive price. But that bright picture is now dimming, at an accelerating rate.

A shift in the relative economics of gas and renewables over the past five years has seen solar and wind energy costs come down while gas has risen. The Australian Energy Market Operator has repeatedly advised that the role of gas in the Australian market is steadily shrinking, a trend that it envisages will continue indefinitely. 

But the biggest cloud over gas’s future is increasing evidence of the climate risks posed by extracting and using it. It is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas which on release is many times more potent than carbon dioxide. Unlike coal, it can escape into the atmosphere before it is burned. 

About 15 years ago it looked as if global methane emissions might be plateauing, even declining. But since then they have risen at an increasing rate, about 60 per cent from human activity. A large spike over the past year has been driven mainly by fugitive (escaped) emissions from methane extraction by fracking – the rock-fracturing technique now used globally – and its processing and transport.

Neither the PM nor his energy minister are known to take much notice of UN reports, but if they tuned in to this month’s Global Methane Assessment’s, a UN report on current research into methane emissions, they would find it troubling. 

Its implications for the future of natural gas are immense. Bringing together years of work by thousands of scientists across hundreds of institutions, it addresses the crucial question of whether we can hold warming below 2C, or better still, below the much safer level of 1.5C. And would you believe, it concludes that we can.

There is a major caveat. Achieving this near-miracle would require drastic reductions in emissions from agriculture, waste, and fossil fuels, especially natural gas. In short, the UN is saying that to keep warming within safe levels we must curtail the extraction of methane. 

The rapid growth of the gas industry here is the main reason Australia’s national greenhouse gas emissions remain stubbornly high. But if Angus Taylor and his government get their way, what has happened up to now will be insignificant compared to where we’re headed.

If the federal government is serious about cutting carbon emissions, the last thing it should be doing is spruiking a “gas-fired recovery”. But in one more example of the political establishment’s distance from real-world issues, no-one in its ranks seems to have grasped this.

It is, however, well understood by our country’s youth. In 2018 Australia turbo-charged Greta Thunberg’s global “school strike for climate” movement when school students took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands.

This Friday they are doing it again, marching for a better future in cities, towns and villages around the country. The national theme for this event is “Fund our future, not gas”. The Hobart event starts on Parliament Lawns at 12 noon.

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