An industry’s epic fight for survival

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it, wrote the US novelist Upton Sinclair in 1935. That in a nutshell is the biggest threat to government and public life, everywhere. 

It barely needs saying that money – the fear of losing it or the promise of getting more – is the root cause of corruption and disinformation within and between public and private sectors. But that bad behaviour is heading for a whole new level, both in scale and reach. And it all comes back to energy and climate.

From Sinclair’s single individual, money’s corrupting power can be extended to all manner of collective enterprises, from local businesses to massive global corporations, politicians, even whole governments. And the bigger and more powerful the corporate body, the more damaging the corruption.

In Australia and in most developed democracies there are ethical conduct codes to deal with misbehaviour. For instance, under “revolving door” rules ministers and agency heads leaving their public sector job have to wait at least a year or more before taking up any new private employment. 

Enforceable rules prevent the tweaking of public decisions for private benefit. Doubtless they seem draconian to some ministers and senior public servants, whose fortnightly pay – generous to most Australians – is a fraction of what someone with their inside knowledge of government can get from private interests always on the lookout for a profitable deal.

It goes without saying that a robust democracy allows all individuals, civil society groups, companies and industry bodies the right to help shape public policy by lobbying. But over a couple of decades, doors have quietly been opened to powerful interests and individuals to use their financial muscle to “persuade” governments at all levels to see things their way.

Nowhere is this more prevalent, or more dangerous to the long-term public good, than in the vast, labyrinthine world of fossil fuels – the backbone of economic activity in the developed world now and well into the future, just as it has been for centuries. 

Fossil fuel industries industries rely on the ability to extract carbon resources from publicly owned land. No matter how big, their reserves are useless if they lose  access to them. 

For this they need official sanction, and to retain that key to their future they employ huge numbers of well-paid lobbyists whose workplaces, to all intents and purposes, are the offices and corridors of the world’s governments and legislatures.

We’re at a crunch point. As it has for all of living memory, the world’s economy continues to depend on oil, gas and coal, but the pendulum has shifted. Climate change has left those industries in an epic, increasingly intense fight for survival.

Since early on in the climate debate, fossil fuel industries have been pushing green credentials as if their life depends on it (which it does). Big oil has promised to cut its emissions using carbon capture and storage, knowing that this can’t happen. All of today’s CCS projects, if they’re ever fully realised, will sequester less than 15 per cent of the five billion tonnes emitted annually by the industry.

With anti-greenwashing lawsuits piling up, US and Canadian regulators have now joined Europe in regulating against such false environmental marketing. That is driving oil fossil fuel corporations to avoid scrutiny by simply refusing to release their climate commitments, a trend that tripled last year. California’s response is a new law, as of last week, that requires full disclosure of companies’ emissions.

Oil and gas exploration and production remains a mighty force in the global economy, the second biggest industry behind telecommunications with expected revenue above $US5 trillion this year. But unprecedented revenue declines – 20 per cent in 2023 alone and a projected 14 per cent this year – are taking huge chunks out of its market share.

To prevent that slide turning into an avalanche, the industry is prepared to push boundaries in every deal it makes with regulators. The pressure on politicians and public servants to bend or break rules, and on our legal and political systems as a whole, is greater than it’s ever been.

In Australia, the main focus of the industry’s drive to secure and maintain public funding is the Middle Arm gas hub outside Darwin and its associated gas exploration in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin. 

The resignation of NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles a week before Christmas was over manganese mining shares, unrelated to Middle Arm, but it came just months after she was forced to sell undeclared gas industry (Woodside) shares. 

This is just the beginning. We’re in for quite a ride.

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