Labor is sending mixed messages on energy – and some of it sounds like climate denial | Adam Morton

The Albanese government has a decision to make: does it want people to think it takes the climate crisis seriously? Because at the moment it’s sending mixed messages.

On one hand, it is telling a story of progress. Its ascent to power has, along with the rise of the teas and the Greens, reset the way the country thinks about dealing with the problem.

The 2030 national emissions reduction target (a 43% cut by 2030, compared with 2005) is not what the evidence says is needed or possible, but it is a step in the right direction. It is expected to soon be legislated, which if nothing else is a signal of intent.

Led by the climate change minister, Chris Bowen, work is under way on policies to cut carbon pollution from big industry, drive the uptake of electric vehicles and create an offshore windfarm industry. The national carbon credit system, which has been sharply criticized, is under review.

The hard decisions lie ahead – we’re still in the broad intentions phase – but there are policies that could start the long-delayed transformation to a cleaner economy if well-designed. That’s worth some cautious optimism.

But this is only part of the story. The other part is more familiar from the past nine years, and sounds a lot like climate denial.

It was on display last week when the resources minister, Madeleine King, announced the release of new areas along the Australian coast for the oil and gas industry to explore and potentially exploit.

This wasn’t a surprise – sites for offshore petroleum exploration are released annually, and work on the current batch was under way before the May election – but the underlying message from King’s media statement was that nothing has changed since Labor replaced the pro-fossil fuel Coalition.

King claimed the new exploration areas would “play an important role in securing future energy supplies” and the petroleum sector was “vital for the economy and meeting the energy needs of Australians”. The traditional line about gas playing a “key role as a transition fuel” also got a run.

It is, of course, true that Australian households and businesses use gas for heating, cooking and some electricity generation and high-temperature industrial processes. The message from King is that she sees no need to drive change away from that.

We should break down what we are talking about here. Gas is a fossil fuel, with higher greenhouse gas emissions than is often claimed. Australia already has several contentious new gasfields proposed for development. The Climate Council estimates 28% of the country’s land mass is covered by gas exploration permits or applications for gas exploration.

New fields are proposed despite the head of the International Energy Agency warning that no new oil and gas reservoirs should open if the world is to do what was agreed in the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement. A study last year found 90% of coal and 60% of oil and gas reserves need to stay in the ground to give just a 50% chance of limiting global heating to the global goal of 1.5C.

While there is a debate about whether Australia faces an impending gas shortage, a case exists that new reservoirs will not be needed if the country better manages what it already has available and starts to reduce demand by replacing it with renewably generated electricity. As Bowen told the Energy Insiders podcast: “We’re going to have to electrify everything that can be electrified.”

The new oil and gas exploration areas, nominated by the industry and covering nearly 50,000 sq km off the coast of the Northern Territory, Victoria and Western Australia, are in addition to what is currently being considered for development. They would likely take years to prove up, years more to get to a point where gas was extracted. It is quite possible none will reach that stage.

But King made the acreage release a bigger deal than it was by implying a scenario under which multibillion dollar fossil fuel reservoirs across 10 areas could be opened through the decades ahead. Her media statement her reads like a bet the world will fail on climate change.

The minister has a get-out-of-jail card: carbon capture and storage (CCS). She last week awarded two new offshore storage areas – one off Darwin, the other off northern WA – to the major gas companies Inpex and Woodside, the idea being they will capture emissions from new developments and bury them under the seabed.

King described CCS as a “proven technology that can support the petroleum sector in its low-carbon transition”, repeating a line from gas industry proponents. But as yet there is little evidence to support this.

According to the Global CCS Institute, existing plants across the globe have the capacity to store just 40m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. One new gas field can add hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere across its lifetime.

If CCS technology does develop – and let’s hope that it does – it will be needed to store greenhouse gas from industries in which it is difficult to cut pollution. Cement production, for example. Scientists say underground storage sites will also be needed to store CO2 drawn down from the atmosphere using direct air capture.

But for now, CCS announcements are used to justify new fossil fuel investments that are adding to global pollution. They are basically a black box, allowing companies and governments to claim they have plans for net zero emissions, never mind the details.

To some extent, King’s stance on gas – and the split in the government’s climate messaging – is explained by geography. The resources minister is from WA, where the gas industry is hugely influential and its links with the Labor party run deep. The state’s energy emissions have increased by more than 50% since 2005, largely due to a huge expansion in gas exports.

The story is slightly complicated by gas being relatively cheap in WA, and Western Australians getting more than 30% of their electricity from gas-fired plants.

It is a different story in the east, where there is hardly any gas power in the grid, gas prices are ridiculous and the energy transition will be a straight jump from coal to renewable energy with backup.

Surveys suggest a majority of Australians are on board with this idea, are increasingly worried about the climate crisis, and see it as an economic opportunity that should be embraced. Recent history shows voters will re-draw the electoral map if a government claims to be acting while pulling in the opposite direction.

Labor would be wise to avoid heading further down that path.

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