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Gaslit Futures: How Gas Giant Woodside Gets What It Wants

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 11/08/2022 - 12:01pm in

Growing up in Perth in the 1970s and 80s, proud awareness that the city thrived in hotter conditions than the southern capitals of the ‘eastern states’ was part of our parochial identity. But still, there were limits. Temperatures in the 30s were fair game. Beach and pool. Bat and ball. Above 37 was considered a bit of a stinker, because people remembered that 37-and-a-bit had been 100 degrees under the old system. Not so much fun anymore. Pretty bloody hot. In the schoolyard it was rumoured that once the temperature had broken the Fahrenheit century, teachers were obliged to send you home—though I have no recollection that the ambiguously emancipative action of releasing children from their classrooms to face the blistering sun was ever actually taken. In the upper reaches, anything beyond 40 was considered an outlier—maybe one or a few per summer, tops—and noteworthy for that.

On one memorably scorching day, just over thirty years ago, I was among the mad West Australian dogs who were out in the midday sun. It was 23 February 1991, and my suburban cricket team faced a crucial match with top-of-the-table opponents at Brown Park, an unassuming but pleasant set of adjacent sports fields located in the low hills of the east of Perth’s metropolitan sprawl, where the Swan Valley begins to meet the Darling Scarp. We lost the toss, and the relieved opposing captain invited us to have a bowl. I can’t remember what maximum was forecast, but the situation was already pretty severe and getting worse by the time play commenced. At least one of my teammates walked fully clothed into the showers, then straight onto the field in his saturated whites, while others confined their drenching to hats and shirts. That we went ahead with the match was ridiculous: a vanity of young men, too proud, obsessed with the game, and enmeshed in macho sporting ideology to simply walk away from the dangerous and idiotic. In his first or second over, one of our fast bowlers collapsed on his run and had to be assisted from the field. We battled on gamely in a shared daze as the opposition compiled a wearying score against our crippled efforts. Perth’s temperature reached somewhere in the mid-40s that afternoon. We lost the match and missed out on the finals as a result. Thankfully, nobody required hospitalisation. In a decade or so of playing cricket, that is the only time I remember playing in such extreme conditions.

Acts of memory about what weather and climate used to be the norms of human experience are essential and innately political acts in the face of circumstances that are rapidly being altered. It is, sadly, not rose-tinted nostalgia but data-driven reality to acknowledge that when my generation was young, the earth was blessed with a kinder and more stable climate. Last summer, Perth experienced thirteen days above 40 degrees Celsius, six of which were consecutive. Local forecasters reported being hard pressed just to keep up with the number of records broken. I live in Sydney now, but friends and family out west sounded meteorologically punch-drunk when describing the unremitting run of heat. Unfortunately, things are now on an accelerating continuum, with any prospect of future stabilisation dependent on actions taken now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at emergency speed and scale. According to the Western Australian government’s own projections, Perth currently averages twenty-eight days per year above 35—a figure likely to increase to 36 by 2030, with potentially far worse to come.

This is an essay of attribution. Global warming, caused mainly by the extraction and burning of coal, oil and gas, is driving the radical destabilisation of our climate. It is as if the weather is now smashed on drugs, our atmosphere spiked by the tampering hands of the big polluters. In Western Australia, a handful of corporations is responsible for a large proportion of the climate pollution produced there. One of these, Woodside Petroleum Ltd, is Australia’s largest independent, publicly traded oil and gas exploration and production company. Woodside owns Western Australia’s single most greenhousegaspolluting infrastructure facility, ranks as the second highest emitter in the state overall (Chevron is currently the largest), and is poised to become the absolute worst once a planned merger with BHP Petroleum has been fully consummated and the fossil fuel ‘assets’ of the two entities are combined. Woodside is also planning a vast new expansion in the form of the proposed Scarborough–Pluto project to extract gas from multiple wells located around 375km off the coast from Karratha in the West Pilbara. And Scarborough–Pluto is just stage one of an even greater agenda of expansion, which would also include the Browse gas field off the Kimberley coast. At a time when the International Energy Agency (IEA) has called for a total moratorium on opening any new coal, oil or gas projects to avoid climate disaster, Woodside is hell-bent on locking in increasing greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come.

Woodside is systemically significant for other reasons, too. If you aren’t from Perth, it’s a bit hard to convey the extent to which Woodside is everywhere: on kids’ bathers; on the guernsey of one of the city’s two AFL clubs; on the skyline; visibly plugged into elite networks of power; and deep in some local communities. Woodside is a huge polluter with a business model that contributes to a grim vision of rising death and devastation in Western Australia and around the world, but you wouldn’t easily know it, because the truth about the company’s business strategy is obscured by layers of technical obfuscation, slick messaging, reputation-washing, political lobbying, and the sheer short-term convenience for vested interests of maintaining the status quo. Woodside as a corporate actor is both deeply embedded within and structurally important to the reproduction of the Fossil Fuel Order—that array of power that functions to malform Australian culture, politics, economics, law and society, enabling the ongoing exploitation of coal, oil and gas despite the well-understood appalling consequences.

Woodside: Zones of extraction, sacrifice, domination and burning

First registered as a company in 1954, Woodside began exploration of the North West Shelf of Western Australia in the 1960s, made major gas discoveries in the 1970s, and, with other venture partners and the connivance of the state, put in place the vast legal, engineering and financial apparatus necessary to begin offshore gas extraction and export in the 1980s. The spatiality of the enterprise might be understood as a number of concentric imaginaries. The first is the far ‘offshore’, from whence the gas is extracted from deep beneath the waves and underneath the submerged earth. The second is the ‘onshore’ of processing on the Burrup Peninsula, to which five First Nations groups, the Ngarluma, the Mardudhunera, the Yaburara, the Yindjibarndi, and the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo, assert various rights and interests.

Conceiving of distances in Western Australia can be challenging. As the crow flies, from Perth to the West Pilbara where Woodside’s industrial operations are located is not much less than the distance between the shores of England and the mainland of the African continent. The Burrup is characterised by great piles of heavy red igneous rocks that shift in colour with the light from terracotta brown and marmalade orange to vermillion and plum, broken up by low valleys of spinifex and a few small trees. The natural cairns of the Burrup are home to an astonishing and vast gallery of ancient art consisting of many thousands of individual petroglyphs. Distance, and an implicit and appalling disregard for First Nations’ law and culture, were no doubt fundamental to the corporate and government decision to situate industrial development on the Burrup, which was treated in effect as a sacrifice zone. As Robyn Davidson wrote in The Monthly,

The WA government was searching for a port site to service the mining boom in the Pilbara. Various proposals were put forward; strangely, the Burrup was chosen. After the port, the loading terminal, the town, the iron-ore and salt operations came the North West Shelf Venture gas project, initiated in the early 1980s; petroglyphs in their thousands were bulldozed during each wave of industry.

The right and power of governments and corporations to do what they want on the Burrup has become more contested, with a complex and evolving history of engagement with First Nations peoples of the region that includes displacement and return, litigation and negotiations, agreement-making and conflict. Nonetheless, ‘the onshore’ remains very far away from the polis: the Burrup is a place to which few Australians have actually been, an intensely affecting promontory of stone and deep meaning that is hard to have any real sense of without witnessing.

The third spatial zone is Perth itself, which Woodside has approached with something like an agenda of benign subjugation. The corporation’s aim has always been to secure whatever financial investment, legal permissions and political support was necessary and optimal. In 1988 Woodside gave physical expression to the power of its Perth presence with a new purpose-built office at the main eastern entry to the city, at 1 Adelaide Terrace. Comparatively low-rise at seven floors, the round white Woodside Building settled on Perth’s gateway like an alien spacecraft. The business has moved twice since then to accommodate growth, most recently to a new high-rise dubbed Mia Yellagonga, positioned just a few hundred metres from the state’s parliament. The name is taken from a leader of the Whadjuk Noongar whom the invading colonials encountered in the early 1800s. When the new building opened, a Woodside representative noted with apparent pride that the thirty-two-storey dark-glass edifice sits on top of what was once a fresh spring and a Whadjuk Noongar camping ground.

The eastern states’ capitals comprise the next layer. In Canberra, Woodside also has an agenda of getting what it wants and needs, and is the largest national political donor from the oil and gas sector. In November 2021, Scott Morrison told the Business Council of Australia that when Woodside announced final investment for the Scarborough–Pluto project he ‘did a bit of a jig’. More distant are the overseas imaginaries: the great and profitable Asian markets, including Japan and China, where the gas is shipped and sold, and the countries where Woodside has international developments, including Canada, Senegal and Timor-Leste. Under global carbon accounting rules, the greenhouse gas emissions from production here are counted as ‘Australian’, but what is emitted from burning is attributed to the nations where the substance is eventually used. This is a very convenient arrangement that allows Australia—one of the largest exporters of LNG and of all fossil fuels combined on the planet—to not only dig up and sell fossil fuels for vast profits but also be absolved of all responsibility for the damage that is being done as a consequence of the final burning. The ‘Asian markets’ imaginary in particular has played a very specific role in one of Woodside’s chief justificatory strategies.

Natural poison

Gas has for a long time snuck along as the least noticed of the three categories of fossil fuel. Just like coal and oil, gas is created when intense heat and pressure is applied to subterranean layers of decomposing plant and animal matter over millions of years. Literal invisibility has perhaps spared gas the scrutiny and opprobrium derived from the more publicly tangible foulness of the smogs and slicks produced by coal and oil. The invisible can seem ‘clean’ even if it has the ability to kill you. The attachment of the empty signifier ‘natural’ to dangerous, polluting methane gas has no doubt significantly helped to obscure the hazardous qualities of the vapour too. Plenty of things that are poisonous, deadly and foul—including fossil gas—occur ‘naturally’ in the world. The initialised ‘LNG’ also serves to linguistically elide the reality that the substance is a fossil fuel. The gas industry has capitalised on these euphemistic epithets, cynically attempting to position the dangerous substance as part of the clean energy future, entirely contrary to the real position.

The climate-positive alternative to coal is not gas but rather rapid transition to renewable energy backed by battery storage. However, the gas sector has audaciously and tenaciously attempted to position itself as less polluting than coal and oil because it produces less carbon dioxide (CO2) in the burning phase. This tendentious argument relies on ignoring upstream and leaked emissions during the extraction and production of fossil gas. As the Climate Council has noted in a paper on these issues, once these counting corrections are made, ‘the supposed climate benefit of gas often disappears’. The chemical composition of what we call ‘gas’ is largely methane (CH4)—which in greenhouse terms is almost 100 times more potent than CO2 in the short term. According to the UN, methane traps eighty-six times more heat than CO2 in the short term (between ten and twenty years). Over a 100-year warming period, methane has a warming potential twenty-eight to thirty-four times that of CO2. Fugitive emissions—methane that leaks during the process of production, transmission and storage—are also an enormous problem that is vastly undercounted by the gas industry, including in Australia.

Woodside: Making deadly pollution part of the community

If you squint, Woodside’s white corporate logo looks a little like the mask of a cartoon villain, with pupil-less red eyes staring back through narrow fissures against a background of bright red, the colour of heat and danger. Encountering Woodside always requires a metaphorical narrowing of the gaze, because, as Tim Winton observed recently, in these days of climate emergency the communications strategies of fossil fuel corporations amount to ‘trafficking in cognitive distortion’. Once upon a time, coal, oil and gas companies may have been more inclined to simply attack climate science. It is well documented that fossil fuel majors have in the past funded campaigns and pseudo-research with the purpose of undermining the findings of climate scientists in the public realm. However, strategies have now largely shifted. As science historians Naomi Oreskes and Jeff Nesbit wrote last year,

[N]ow that outright denial is no longer credible, they’ve pivoted from denial to delay. Industry PR and marketing efforts have shifted massive resources to a central message that, yes, climate change is real, but that the necessary changes will require more research and decades to implement, and above all, more fossil fuels. Climate delay is the new climate denial.

For Woodside, the aim is to maintain an ambient plausibility that is consistent with broader hegemonic formations to enable the deadly show to go on—for a giant polluter to keep extracting and selling fossil fuel for decades. The consequence is that landing on Woodside’s website is like crossing through the looking-glass to a different plane of (il)logic: a grotesquely insincere topsy-turvy in which Western Australia’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter is somehow—to quote the company’s tagline—‘part of a better future’.

Co-opting the moral tone

Rather than contesting the need for climate action, Woodside now prefers a strategy of appropriation. According to Woodside’s current landing page, ‘a better tomorrow needs action today’, a slogan you can almost imagine on the sign of a climate activist. As you scroll down, ‘better’ is defined as ‘energy that is cleaner, cheaper and more reliable’, which sounds good—but when used by Woodside these words are empty signifiers. According to Woodside’s current CEO Meg O’Neill, ‘We know that climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face today and recognise that as an energy producer we have a very important role to play in helping the world decarbonise’. Again, this sounds good, until you realise that Woodside’s plan is to continue—and massively expand—the extraction of gas, which is one of the fossil fuels driving climate change. As I was writing this article, O’Neill appeared at the IEA 2022 Ministerial Meeting in Paris, themed as ‘The Year of Implementation: Accelerating Global Action on Clean Energy and Energy Security’. Again, there was no denying the imperative to climate action, but O’Neill took the opportunity to caution the audience that the ‘pursuit of perfection’ should not be allowed to ‘get in the way of good progress’.

Technical trickery

Underneath the co-opting of tone and language, a morass of technical obfuscation and carbon-accounting trickery acts as a second layer of deflection. Despite the fact that the proposed Scarborough project is intended to lock in gas exports for thirty years, O’Neill claims that this huge new fossil fuel infrastructure is ‘an appropriate investment from a decarbonisation perspective’ because of some hoped-for alchemy when the product reaches Asian markets. According to O’Neill, Woodside expects that ‘LNG produced from Scarborough will be a contributor to the decarbonisation efforts of our customers in Asia, particularly given the increased push away from coal’.

Back in 2019, Woodside funded the CSIRO to investigate the claim that increasing gas exports could reduce emissions in Asia by replacing coal with gas. Contrary to Woodside’s supposition, the iconic Australian research agency found instead that ‘increasing Australian gas supply could prolong coal, displace renewables and increase emissions in Asia without a global carbon price’. The report was promptly suppressed, only coming to light in March 2022 following FOI requests by journalists at the Nine Entertainment papers. Research conducted by the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) looking at historic trends reached a similar conclusion: that gas had not materially displaced coal use in Australia’s key export markets, and that it risked crowding out renewable energy.

In December 2021, the Perth-based researchers Climate Analytics compiled the first publicly available analysis of the full impact on emissions of the entire Woodside Scarborough–Pluto project. The authors isolated numerous instances where they alleged that Woodside had relied on ‘flawed abatement, offset and reduction plans’ to reduce the projected impact of the project. The overall conclusion of the Climate Analytics team was damning: if Scarborough–Pluto went ahead, the resultant emissions would be significantly larger than the company estimated, increasing Western Australia’s total emissions by around 10 per cent—and this was just a fraction of the pollution that would result, most of which would be emitted when the gas was finally burned overseas. Woodside relies heavily on offset schemes, attempting to create the impression that it can plant enough trees to ameliorate the pollution it is producing, which is simply not true. According to Climate Analytics, Woodside’s proposed Scarborough–Pluto project is ‘not 1.5°C consistent’ and ‘represents a bet against the world implementing the Paris Agreement’.

Washing a filthy product

Woodside’s declared purpose is to be ‘society’s trusted energy partner’. In publicly listed for-profit companies, the ideological device of ‘corporate purpose’ invariably acts to obscure reality, which is that the real objective of the business must be to maximise shareholder returns. In Woodside’s case, the purpose of being ‘trusted’ seems especially ambiguous given that the corporation’s main business activity is inherently harmful: it is a massive polluter with no plans to turn away from fossil fuel production any time soon in the midst of global climate emergency. But then, as any swindler knows, there are plenty of ways to win trust.

Reputation-washing describes the use of positive activities to distract from or legitimise negative actions or operations, and to manufacture social licence. Greenwashing involves falsely conveying that a given product, service or corporation meaningfully factors environmental responsibility into its business operations and strategy. Woodside, boasting of a six-star energy rating for its new corporate headquarters Mia Yellagonga, is engaging in greenwashing, because any emissions mitigation produced by the building is utterly dwarfed by the greenhouse gases emitted as a consequence of the business’s core operations, but it makes the company sound good. A puff piece about the new HQ that featured on the long-running (1994–2019) Western Australian commercial television current affairs program Today Tonight in December 2018 featured the following exchange:

Reporter: Going Green is taken seriously with a total of eight-and-a-half thousand plants!

Woodside representative: A learning on this project for me was that you can’t just buy eight-and-a-half thousand plants, so we had to buy the seeds and grow them.

[Shot shifts from office plants to bicycle storage]

Reporter: How’s this for the biggest bike shed you’ve ever seen, with storage space for 600 bikes! It all contributes to a six-star energy rating.

Woodside representative: A six-green-star energy rating is very rare in Australia, and we are the only one in Perth that has it.

Other forms of ‘washing’, including sportswashing and artswashing, are also invested in by Woodside. It is not that the positive activities are bad per se. They clearly can benefit the organisations, teams, communities and individuals who receive them in a direct sense. There’s also every likelihood that the Woodside employees who are responsible for administering the programs have the best of personal intentions. Indeed, ‘washing’ has an internal dimension too, furnishing employees with narratives of meaning about their employer that create a plausible veneer over what the core of the business actually involves, like destroying the stability of the world’s climate. Scrolling through ‘Meg’s activity’ on the Woodside CEO’s LinkedIn page, you find yourself squinting again. Glancing down the feed is like being exposed to an ideological strobe light as climate-destroying oil and gas news is darkened by the flashing liberal positivity of ‘likes’ of Reconciliation Week, International Women’s Day, Pride Professionals and Ronald McDonald House, along with someone’s post noting that the ‘Hawaiian Ride for Youth has a RECORD number of female riders this year’.

Structurally, publicly listed companies will only do things—particularly things that cost money—when there is a business case for taking the action. When Woodside says it ‘has an active role to play in contributing to the well-being of our communities’, it is doing so to maintain and enhance social licence: to become ‘trusted’. So it is that giant polluter Woodside garners social acceptance through sponsorships, including of the Fremantle Dockers (one of Western Australia’s two AFL teams); West Australian Ballet; the West Australian Symphony Orchestra; Barking Gecko Theatre; the Western Australian Museum; Curtin University; the University of Western Australia; a COVID ‘community fund’; any number of small community projects; and Surf Life Saving WA’s junior surf awareness and beach safety program for children aged five to twelve, which is known as Woodside Nippers. On joining ‘Woodside Nippers’, every child receives ‘a FREE Woodside Nippers uniform, including a high-vis vest; age group skull cap; wide brim hat; and mesh sling bag!’

Corporate patronage also carefully cultivates Woodside’s aim of being seen as caring about humanity’s future. The company sponsors a Future Lab Network that ostensibly aims to ‘accelerate growth for better ways of working, a better workplace, and a better world’ and a Woodside Development Fund animated by ‘one global vision: every child thrives in their development, learning and life’. At the 2022 Perth Festival, it sponsored an orchestral event entitled Become Ocean, a piece inspired by the composer’s rumination on the impacts of climate change. In a celebrated intervention at an associated writer’s event, Tim Winton made plain the perversity of a fossil fuel company being permitted to sponsor a concert about ocean ecology, saying, ‘You reckon a brewery would put itself forward for a show about foetal alcohol syndrome? How about tobacco sponsoring ventilators for lung patients?’ Winton reflected that the event exemplified ‘how far and how wide and how deep we’ve let the influence of fossil capital seep through our culture’.

Maintaining elite consensus

Woodside’s board members and executives participate in networks of power, enabling the ongoing laundering of the business’s reputation among elites. In addition to sponsoring major events and prestigious institutions, Woodside’s penetration of the upper echelons of culture and society is also perpetrated through the participation of individuals on various boards and committees—O’Neill, for example, is a director of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (which performed in Become Ocean). Execs from Woodside are also frequently prominent within peak industry bodies: Fiona Hick, Vice President Operations at Woodside, is currently also President of the WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy. Woodside’s own board also reflects its deep lateral links to the broader business and political communities, as it includes one-time Liberal federal resources and energy minister Ian McFarlane and former Labor state treasurer and Minister for Finance, Energy, Aboriginal Affairs and Lands Ben Wyatt, the latter of whom joined the Woodside board (as well as those of Rio Tinto and the Perth Festival) only months after his retirement from politics.

Writing for Guardian Australia, Gold Walkley-winning journalist Anne Davies reported on the close relationship the current WA Premier, Mark McGowan, has with Woodside, which included having dinner with the company’s board just prior to WA’s Environmental Protection Agency finalising a key policy position. Later, McGowan threatened to overturn environmentally grounded legal challenges to the Scarborough–Pluto project should they be successful. Reflecting on these and other revelations, Davies wrote acidly,

Should we be surprised that the premier of WA was invited to dinner with the Woodside board? … That perhaps depends on one’s perspective on the role of our elected representatives. When it comes to projects with enormous economic, environmental and social impacts, perceptions of independence and the maintenance of public confidence in government impartiality are critical. In WA, the close relationship between elected representatives and businesses that form the economic engine of the state is so familiar it almost goes without comment.

The apparent normalisation of a vested interest like Woodside enjoying cosy relations with government was evident when The West Australian headlined that, far from it being a cause for concern, ‘Ben Wyatt should be applauded for his board appointments’. Western Australia’s only daily print newspaper was in effect sanctioning revolving doors between the fossil fuel industry and the highest levels of government as ‘the way things are done around here’—both expressing and replicating the hegemonic power of the Fossil Fuel Order.

Ambient plausibility—having a readymade communications line to resolve the contradictions—is crucial to the maintenance of Woodside’s purchase among the powerful. Political and cultural elites rely on Woodside to maintain the charade of responsible corporate citizenship—the gaslighting sleight of hand that promises that extracting and burning more fossil fuel for decades will somehow magically make a positive contribution to tackling climate change—to ward off reputational embarrassment or being held to account. In February this year, Dan Gocher, Director of Climate and Environment at the ACCR, noted caustically that the gas industry’s ‘unsubstantiated claims’ about emissions reduction ‘are routinely repeated by gas companies, industry associations, politicians, analysts and the media verbatim’. A fortnight later, Mark McGowan illustrated the point by uncritically regurgitating the industry line that ‘obviously gas exports can supplant coal and that actually reduces carbon emissions in countries like Japan and China and India’. The pretence is not true in any meaningful way, but it is highly convenient as an apologia for a political-economic complex of power in which the urgency of climate action is discursively conceded but the climate-destroying ongoing expansion of gas extraction is taken as presumed.

Avoiding Woodside’s dystopia

According to CEO of Climate Analytics Bill Hare, if all countries act on the same principles as Woodside, the world is ‘headed for a temperature increase of between 3C and 4C’, something not seen for fifty-five million years, which would have catastrophic consequences for the entire globe. In this Woodsided World—a future built on Woodside’s principles as outlined by Hare—Western Australia is a permanent disaster zone of extreme heat waves, droughts, fires and storms. Tropical diseases have spread south. Deaths from heat stroke are legion and the state’s amenity has been drastically reduced. Much of its magnificent wildlife has disappeared, as have the vast majority of the forests, destroyed by repeated intense blazes and drought from which there is no recovery. Local ecology is in collapse. The Wheatbelt is no longer giving a reliable harvest. The vines are gone from the Swan Valley and Margaret River. Ningaloo Reef has disappeared, along with all of the creatures that once graced the opalescent waters. Low-lying areas are inundated.

This appalling future of foul dystopia, sponsored by Woodside, can still be avoided. As Tim Winton said earlier this year, the power and influence of fossil fuel companies is ‘neither immutable nor is it inevitable’. Despite the corporation’s ubiquity and multilayered strategy for manufacturing and maintaining consent, many West Australians are feeling high levels of disquiet about Woodside’s operations; public opposition is rising rapidly as the imperative for emergency action on climate change becomes ever more manifest.

One late night last summer, I was still awake in my home in Sydney, sitting on the couch, anxiously checking the status and location of various blazes that were burning out of control in Perth’s near hinterland. I still have siblings and mates living in the Darling Scarp and I was worried for them, as well as feeling sick about the destruction of nature and community in places where I’d knocked around as a kid. Experiencing fresh shock at the recognition of disaster coming home, I saw that Brown Park—the very oval where we’d toiled through that ill-fated cricket match in 40-something degrees more than twenty-five years ago—was one of the designated evacuation centres. Unfortunately, more and more of this—heat, fire, storms and the rest—is now inevitable. Deepening climate damage is what major fossil fuel corporations like Woodside have done to the planet: it is their true legacy. But humanity can still avoid the worst and build a bridge through to a world of regeneration and future flourishing if the likes of Woodside are now held to account. A better tomorrow needs action today.

* With thanks to Fiona Ivits, Jess Panegyres, Alex Krautil and Katrina Bullock for their expert comments and advice on drafts of this article.

Labor wants the energy market profiteers to deliver renewables transition

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 22/07/2022 - 12:52pm in

The energy market chaos and soaring power bills boost the case for a rapid transition to renewable energy. Surging gas and coal prices are driving up the cost of power globally.

But the problems in Australia are also due to privatisation, and an energy system run according to the market. Private companies should never have been allowed to turn the power system in a playground for profiteering.

When the cost of power generation sky-rocketed in June, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) seized control, temporarily nationalising operations.

But just over a week later it handed back control to the power companies.

Despite the concerns about market manipulation to boost profits, AEMO didn’t exactly punish the private operators. Instead it will pay them $1.5 billion in compensation under market rules, adding about $70 onto every household’s power bill, according to the Nine newspapers.

Instead of the market delivering lower prices, it has brought profits for big companies at our expense.

Plan for renewables

A new official energy system plan from AEMO banks almost entirely on private sector development of renewable energy expanding to supply 83 per cent of our power needs by the end of the decade.

The closure of coal power plants will accelerate, it says, with 60 per cent of them offline by 2030. This means further coal plants closing on top of the closures before 2030 of Liddell and Eraring in NSW and Yallourn in Victoria which have already been announced.

AEMO is the official body in charge of managing the electricity system and has mapped out the investment and planning necessary to keep the lights on through to 2050. Its plan is based, AEMO chief executive Daniel Westerman says, on the agency’s discussions with the major companies in the energy industry and “a wide swathe of stakeholders and they are telling us this is the most likely scenario”.

Renewable energy with storage is now the cheapest form of power there is.

AEMO still anticipates that gas will play a back-up role at times. Predictably, the gas companies tried to claim vindication for their plans to increase mining.

But the capacity of gas power plants needed will drop from 11GW to 10GW. And the actual use of the plants will decline further, with gas use dropping by around 40 per cent by 2025.

There is simply no need to expand gas production for power generation—or to open new gas fields like the Pilliga Narrabri, Beetaloo Basin or Scarborough. Yet Labor has thrown their support behind them.

AEMO’s plan is based on minimising the cost of investment. Gas could be phased out even quicker through spending more on renewable storage, or if the cost of battery technologies drop further. It also thinks it’s possible the cost of green hydrogen could drop sufficiently to drive an even more rapid transition.

The plan takes into account only existing government policies, including Labor’s “Rewiring the nation” plan to allocate $20 billion to connect renewable energy to the grid. It is expecting private companies to build all the new wind and solar power needed.

The Labor government is firmly on board with its approach. Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen called the plan “a world-class document”.

But relying on big business means there are no guarantees that the increase to 83 per cent renewables by 2030 will happen. A liveable future can not be left to the whims of the market.

And business will do nothing to protect workers in coal dependent communities who face losing their jobs. With a rapid closure of coal power stations predicted within eight years, it is only government investment that can ensure new jobs are available where they’re needed, and provide decent pay and conditions.

AEMO’s figure of 83 per cent renewable energy by 2030 mirrors Labor’s own target, which was set using the previous version of AEMO’s System Plan. It needs to be raised further in order to go beyond Labor’s overall reduction target of 43 per cent across the whole economy, which is far below the 75 per cent recommended by the Climate Council. Emissions can be cut more easily from electricity than any other area.

Labor’s goals are based on a conservative approach to change determined by what’s profitable for big companies. Government planning and investment could speed up the transition and take us rapidly to 100 per cent renewable energy.

Publicly-owned power could also guarantee lower power prices and end corporate profiteering. AEMO rightly calls the changes coming over the next decade “a once-in-a-century transformation in the way electricity is generated and consumed”.

Labor’s support for big business and the free market is seeing it miss this opportunity to take power back under public control.

By James Supple

The post Labor wants the energy market profiteers to deliver renewables transition appeared first on Solidarity Online.

Steering Away from a Car-Centric Society

by Mai Nguyen

Two lanes of car traffic in a city street.

Our car-centric society is in a jam. (CC BY 2.0, Oran Viriyincy)

Learning to drive scared me as a teenager. There was something terrifying about controlling a two-ton hunk of metal, and my drivers’ education teacher didn’t help by showing a graphic slideshow of injuries we could expect from a brutal car accident. This didn’t bother me much once I moved to the city; with buses, the metro, and bike or scooter shares, there are plenty of other ways to get around. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find these same options outside the city.

Cars are ubiquitous in the USA, with 286.9 million registered vehicles on the streets in 2020. That’s almost 300 million gas tanks to fill. The EPA reported that the transportation sector accounted for 29 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Now, coming out (we hope) of the COVID pandemic, we’re seeing more traffic again with attendant emissions.

Some people are eagerly replacing their gas-powered cars with new, “green” electric vehicles. The intentions are a good sign, but we can’t “get sustainable” simply by exchanging some of the energy we consume.

How Bad Are Cars?

Cars are massive machines that require heaps of resources, from building the vehicles to fueling them for the road. The average vehicle requires 900kg of steel and 39 different plastics and polymers. A single tire requires about seven gallons of oil for its production. The aluminum content per vehicle is also steadily increasing, projected to reach 505 lbs in 2025.

Manufacturing is also immensely energy-intensive and complex. Stages of car manufacturing include extracting ores, transporting raw materials and components from around the world, and assembling the vehicle. Though each of these steps emit plenty of CO2, it can be difficult to put an exact figure on car-production emissions. Carbon footprint researcher Mike Berners-Lee breaks it down in How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, finding that the carbon footprint of manufacturing a car ranges from 6–35 metric tons.

And the environmental cost doesn’t stop there. It’s no secret that fuel consumption contributes to air pollution, but a 2018 study found that, globally, passenger road travel accounted for 45.1 percent of global CO2 emissions, or nearly six times as much as passenger air travel (8.1 percent). Americans used a grand total of 123 billion gallons of motor gasoline in 2020, corresponding with 56 percent of transportation sector emissions.

It’s Electric!

The ubiquity of gas-guzzling personal vehicles can’t be a part of a sustainable future. For some, the solution seems obvious: electrify vehicles to remove the problems that come from gas-power. Tesla kicked off its precedent-setting electric vehicle (EV) line in 2008, and today car companies like General Motors and Honda are edging into the competition. (Ironically, GM could’ve led the EV revolution as early as the 90s with their wildly popular EV1 if they hadn’t killed the model for profiting less than their gas-guzzling counterparts.)

Image of a fancy electric vehicle parked in a spot that reads "Electric Vehicles Only."

Are EVs driving us to a sustainable future, or are they another guise for green growth? (CC BY 2.0, marcoverch)

EV innovations do, in fact, look promising. Though not exactly carbon-neutral, EVs emit significantly less emissions than gas-powered cars, and they can handle just as much daily travel. EVs don’t run on empty, though. Depending on how your local power is generated, charging EVs can produce carbon emissions, and a worldwide shift to EVs would only exacerbate the global power demand. While it is generally accepted that emissions over the lifetime of an EV may be lower than a gas-powered car, the construction of EVs emits substantially more than the construction of traditional internal combustion vehicles. Specifically, a 2017 study found that the manufacturing of parts and assembly of EVs resulted in approximately 37 percent more emissions per vehicle than that of combustion vehicles.

Even though EV sales are picking up fast, we can’t bank on them and other “green” alternatives to solve limits to growth without a plan to fully transition away from fossil fuels and reduce consumption. Take the trendy plant-based alternatives filling shelves at grocery stores, for instance. Despite its massive carbon footprint, the U.S. meat market still dominates its plant-based competitors by almost $160 billion, and we’re simply “gifted” with more choices when we shop. The development of eBooks was similarly predicted to overhaul the publishing industry, but print books still outsell eBooks four-to-one.

Even if we all switched to EVs, we’d be exploiting yet another fuel source: lithium, the rechargeable battery’s key material. In 2021, global extraction of lithium was about 100,000 metric tons, about a 20 percent jump from 2020 levels. A worldwide switch to EVs would entail a 500-fold expansion of EV-battery manufacturing capacity. With the new mining boom, lithium and precious metal mining will simply replace (some) oil extraction.

The environment around South American deposits would be hit especially hard, bringing perils like wind drift of toxic chemical residue from the mines. This not only endangers the ecosystems along the Andes mountains—where the continent’s largest deposit is located—but threatens the livelihoods of farmers.

Chasing Us off the Streets

The problem with cars extends beyond their immediate environmental impact. We must examine why we find it so difficult to rid ourselves of them. Today’s suburban sprawl and congested highways didn’t come as a result of innovation for the masses; it’s more like the aftermath of an auto-industry takeover. Roads were once public spaces made for the people. Pedestrians freely crossed roadways without designated walkways and children played in the open space, while streetcars and railways catered to commuters and travelers.

Robert S. Kretshmar, Executive Secretary of AAA's Massachusetts Division; Commissioner Thomas F. Carty, Boston Traffic Department; and Mayor John F. Collins celebrate jaywalking legislation by Boston City Archives

Robert S. Kretshmar (Executive Secretary of AAA’s Massachusetts Division), Commissioner Thomas F. Carty (Boston Traffic Department), and Mayor John F. Collins celebrate jaywalking legislation. (CC BY 2.0, Boston City Archives)

It all changed with the mass production of cars in the 1910s. Over the next two decades the public was outraged at the rise of car-related fatalities, most of which involved children. A battle for the roads ensued between the masses and the auto industry. Unfortunately for the masses, car companies held sway.

A 1923 Cincinnati ordinance was proposed to limit auto speeds to 25 mph, but car companies killed the proposal—despite the 42,000 petitioners backing the plan—with a racist ad campaign mocking the city and rousing car owners. Other methods to overpower pedestrians included a slew of anti-pedestrian laws, indoctrinating children to stay out of the streets, and shaming jaywalkers.

The campaign for cars cuffed another rival, too: urban railways. Public transit has always been a key connector between low-income communities and thriving cities. It remains a major aspect of social mobility. But in the 1920s, car drivers were allowed over streetcar tracks, disrupting routes and making it nearly impossible for efficient streetcar operations. This drove transit passengers to purchase personal vehicles, further crowding the roads.

GM and other auto and fossil fuel companies bought up railways spanning 46 transit networks, only to dismantle them immediately. And while this isn’t the only reason why trolleys have fallen from grace in the USA, trolley companies were convicted of monopoly in 1949.

With the road cleared of obstacles, the auto industry set out to sell more cars. With the help of designer Norman Bel Geddes, GM debuted Futurama, a diorama portraying a car-centric future dreamed up by the company, at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and introduced millions of visitors to something closely resembling today’s America. GM proposed a future centered around the convenience of the personal vehicle, complete with a massive interstate freeway system, suburban sprawl, and the extinction of public transportation.

The masses were sold on a car-centric America, and in 1956 President Eisenhower, with the help of Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson (who also happened to be GM’s president), leveled entire city neighborhoods to make room for highways. Minorities and low-income families comprised an overwhelming cohort of these communities, and they’ve been hit hardest by the environmental effects of “urban renewal” and the widened divide from their wealthy suburban counterparts.

Our Future Without a Map

Transportation in a car-centric society is far from sustainable or equitable. Gas-powered cars have a history of ravaging communities, and the growth of EVs won’t take us the distance. But we still need to get around, so what can we do?

Auto and fossil fuel industries fought hard in the past for political influence, but we can still take back our future. We are not fated to bumper-to-bumper traffic for the rest of our lives, and we can recenter our cities and towns around the people.

Image of several bikers riding through carless streets, with three women standing nearby a store as they pass.

In a steady state economy, communities are walkable, bikeable, and personable. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, UrbanGrammar)

One thing we can do is improve public transit. Access to public transportation is the key to an equitable future, but the system is in constant danger of underfunding. U.S. rail systems are far behind places like Japan, where trains are so convenient that car ownership is on the decline. Japan’s car ownership hit a low of 0.96 vehicles per household this year, while U.S. numbers have been creeping past three per household.

Fortunately, U.S. cities like Los Angeles and Indianapolis are upgrading their public transportation. Los Angeles has spent five years and $80 million on infrastructural changes to put the first electric metro bus line on the road. Meanwhile, Indianapolis is being transformed by the expansive Red Line electric bus system. These cities have shown us that commuters will jump at the chance to use public transit over personal vehicles.

Not only do our communities need access to better public transportation, but we need to foster pedestrian and cyclist lifestyles. Since 2016, Barcelona saw a 25 percent drop in pollution around the Sant Antoni market after experimenting with “superblocks,” nine-block grids of cyclist and pedestrian-first zones. Children there have room to play now, and walking and biking has increased.

In the Horta neighborhood superblock, 60 percent of survey respondents said they had become more comfortable walking on the streets and that accessibility had improved. People within the Poblenou superblock reported that the reduction in noise pollution resulted in more tranquility, improved sleep, increased social interaction, and overall improved mental wellbeing. One study estimated that widespread execution of superblocks could prevent almost 700 deaths annually.

Taking the roads back from auto and fossil fuel industries will be difficult. We‘ll have to re-envision the world around us; a world without the destructive congestion of cars. Our spaces need to be just that, our spaces, instead of streets and parking lots, dealerships, gas stations, auto parts stores, and repair shops. These profound structural and sociological changes will occur not by incentivizing the “greener” electric alternative, but by disincentivizing car culture altogether.

Widely-adopted free public transportation would be a huge step in connecting communities and promoting social mobility. We need to demand of our governments sustainable transportation for the people; that is, the expansion of our electric public transportation webs. Cars should be increasingly marginalized.

A carless society is one that is walkable, bikeable, and accessible for people with disabilities. Urban planners should prioritize the safety and mobility of the people, not cater to the automotive and oil industries. They should help us achieve a kinder, carless culture.

Mai Nguyen, editorial intern for Spring 2022 at CASSE.Mai Nguyen is the spring 2022 editorial intern at CASSE, and a junior at George Washington University.

The post Steering Away from a Car-Centric Society appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

Gas export giants make billions but pay no tax

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 29/04/2022 - 3:13pm in

Offshore gas companies are fleecing Australian taxpayers, making massive profits while paying practically nothing under the government’s Petroleum Resource Rent Tax (PRRT).

The Greens have proposed changes that would raise $24 billion over the next four years by fixing the scheme, the Parliamentary Budget Office estimates. Last year’s tax data shows that there were 27 gas companies that earned $77 billion in revenue between them without paying any tax at all, The Greens’ analysis shows.

The PRRT was designed to impose higher taxes on mining companies that profit simply from digging up highly profitable resources out of the ground. But the scheme allows them to deduct everything they have spent developing the project from the tax they owe.

Some of these costs in exploration and investment occur many years before a project is in production. Until 2019, deductions accumulated in previous years were allowed to grow at the long term bond rate, currently 3 per cent, plus 15 per cent a year!

As a result gas companies now have $282 billion in deductions that they can use to avoid paying tax under the scheme. This means many will never pay anything. Instead of cancelling these accumulated deductions, the government in 2019 simply reduced their rate of growth in future years.

Chevron, which owns almost half of the Gorgon gas project, 64 per cent of the Wheatstone project and 16.7 per cent of the North-West Shelf, had $15 billion in revenue last year but paid no tax. ExxonMobil paid nothing on $15.5 billion in revenue.

Christensen rorts taxpayers to fund retirement

George Christensen has jumped ship from the Liberal National Party to One Nation, announcing he will join an unwinnable position on their Senate ticket after deciding not to stand again in the Queensland seat of Dawson.

The move will see him collect an extra parliamentary “resettlement allowance” of $105,000. The deal will help One Nation too, with any extra votes he pulls increasing their election funding.

Christensen has been a prominent promoter of COVID conspiracy theories and called for parents not to vaccinate their children. Last year he appeared on notorious far right conspiracist Alex Jones’ Infowars show.

Fossil fuel subsidies still growing

Fossil fuel subsidies cost government $11.6 billion last year, a study by the Australian Institute has revealed.

They increased 12 per cent in the last year, with the federal government pouring in another $6.7 billion in subsidies since the 2019 election. Even as floods and climate disasters sweep the country, the total amount committed over the next four years between state and federal governments is $55.3 billion, or 11 times the balance of Australia’s Emergency Response Fund.

Liberals stuff the AAT with party mates

The jobs come with massive salaries attached. Former NSW Liberal Minister Pru Goward and former Chief of Staff to Scott Morrison, Ann Duttfield, scored roles that pay $333,000 a year full-time for up to seven years. Two former Liberal MPs in the WA parliament who lost their seats in March were also gifted jobs.

The Coalition have again stacked the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) with Liberal appointees on the eve of an election.

There were six Liberals among the 19 appointments made. Antoinette Younes, former adviser to the Minister who made the appointments, Michaelia Cash, was elevated to an AAT deputy president job paying $496,000.

She at least has a law degree, but former Liberal candidate Denis Dragovic, who got the same position, has no legal qualifications whatsoever.

The AAT reviews government decisions in areas such as immigration visas, NDIS packages, social security and Freedom of Information applications.

Labor claims that 85 of those appointed to the AAT since 2013 have links to the Liberal or National parties.

Things they say

Labor’s historic task is to move more people into the middle-class, to appeal to small business and if we don’t do that Labor won’t be successful.
Anthony Albanese, who clearly doesn’t have much grasp of Labor’s history or the fact that it’s supposed to be a working class party

I would say there is no-one in the Parliament who has closer credentials and more friends in senior members of the business community than myself on either side of politics.
Albanese may be delusional, but at least he knows who’s side he’s on

The more coal and gas we produce, the harder things will be for Putin.
Queensland Nationals Senator Matt Canavan sees war as a marketing opportunity for fossil fuels

Matt Canavan is becoming like that Japanese intelligence officer, Onoda, who refused to accept that WWII was over and hid in the jungle for 30 years
Nationals MP Darren Chester, on Canavan’s boast that the Coalition’s 2050 net zero climate target was dead because of the Ukraine war

This is why the disability community quite often struggles to make constructive gains is because there is lying underneath it a significant, almost permanent rage machine
Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes on the response to Morrison’s comment that he was “blessed” not to have disabled children

She’s standing for something really important
Scott Morrison on Katherine Deves’ bigoted campaign against trans women in sport

I cannot be clearer than this: If people attempt to come to Australia by boat, they will not make it. Their boats will be turned back or they will be sent to Nauru
Kristina Keneally on how a Labor government would handle refugees

The post Gas export giants make billions but pay no tax appeared first on Solidarity Online.

How We Stand Up to Putin and Stop Climate CatastropheHow do we...

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 25/04/2022 - 6:30am in

How We Stand Up to Putin and Stop Climate Catastrophe
How do we stand up to Putin and avert a climate catastrophe at the same time?

Quitting our addiction to fossil fuels. Here’s how we get there.

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the West has snapped a series of sanctions into place.

Russia is the world’s second largest crude oil exporter and the primary source of global natural gas. Regardless of the short-term effects on our pocketbooks, over the longer term we need to transition to renewable energies if we have any hope of keeping the earth habitable, and freeing our economy from the influence of geopolitical foes.

This is where carbon dividends come in. 

******

Btw, if you’d like my daily analyses, commentary, and drawings, please subscribe to my free newsletter: robertreich.substack.com

******

It works like this. We put a hard cap on the amount of carbon we allow into the economy. Permits up to this cap would be issued, and energy companies could buy them in quarterly auctions. At every mine, refinery, and port of entry, these companies would have to use a permit for every ton of carbon dioxide that would be released into the atmosphere once that fuel is burned. 

When they run out of permits, they cannot extract or import any more carbon-polluting fuel. 

To keep the climate from rising 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels – the goal of the Paris Climate Accord – we need to slash emissions by roughly 90%. Accomplishing this by 2050 would demand reductions of 7.5% per year.
Currently we’re decreasing at a rate of 1.2% per year

With a carbon cap, in order to ensure we meet our goals, we could simply decrease the amount of permits issued by 7.5% every year. 

But how would we do that without Americans getting clobbered by higher prices at the gas pump? That’s where the carbon dividends come in. The revenue from selling the permits will be distributed back to the public as direct payments, no strings attached. 

For the majority of middle class and poorer Americans, the dividend will more than cover any increase in fuel prices, and they’ll come out ahead. The people who produce the most carbon emissions are by and large wealthy, and can afford the hike in prices. 

The earth’s capacity to absorb carbon is a natural resource, one we should share equally, instead of giving the wealthy and oil profiteers free reign.
Plus, everyone benefits from a cleaner planet. 

One study found that a quarter million premature deaths would be prevented over the next 20 years in the United States with a carbon fee and dividend program.

I know what you’re thinking right about now. Sounds nice, Bob. But it’ll never happen. Don’t be so sure! The idea is notably popular across the political spectrum. 

Carbon dividends were first proposed in 2009 in a bipartisan bill, and subsequent plans have come from both Republicans and Democrats

And there’s already precedent for parts of this program. Since 2009, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has capped and sold carbon permits to power companies in 11 Northeastern states. It is boosting their economies and has proven politically resilient. 

And in Alaska, every resident receives between $1,000 and $2,000 annually from the Alaska Permanent Fund, which invests the state’s oil royalties. Over 80% of Alaskans say it improves their quality of life. 

We treat gas prices as something out of our control, giving dangerous amounts of power to petro-states like Russia – with alarming consequences. By weaning ourselves from gas dependence, we’d gain relief from dirty air that kills millions globally; relief from the constant hemorrhage of government subsidies for fossil fuels and from wars for oil; and, above all, relief from the ongoing destruction of the earth’s climate. 

None of this is impossible. 

The best way to contain Russia, and build a sustainable future, is with a carbon dividend.

Gas Prices and the History of Energy Shocks

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/03/2022 - 3:19am in

Tags 

Energy, gas

In this episode, Niki, Neil, and Natalia discuss rising gas prices and the history of energy crises. Here are some...

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Indigenous Risk for Complacent Companies

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 19/11/2014 - 9:11am in

New Report Brings Shared Value to Aussie Miners

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 05/11/2014 - 9:11am in