What the carbon lobby wants from Morrison
Business Council of Australia's Grant King and Jennifer Westacott with Prime Minister Scott Morrison

It’s not good news. The carbon lobby is real, it’s powerful and it’s determined to keep coal as the centrepiece of fuel for Australia. 

CONTRIBUTOR: Throughout the 2019 federal election campaign, Australia’s carbon lobby was loud and clear about what it expected an incoming government to do on climate and energy policy.

The “carbon lobby” is not some mysterious club. It is made up of a handful of powerful lobby groups, including the Minerals Council of Australia and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association. The members of these groups, who fund this lobbying, include many of Australia’s largest companies.

And, now that the Coalition has been re-elected, each of these lobby groups are putting their demands directly to the Morrison government. Some of those demands are explicit (Start Adani!), while others are more general or euphemistic.

First, the specific. 

The most headline-grabbing demand from the carbon lobby this federal election was to fast-track the Adani project. The pro-Adani lobbying has been coordinated largely by the Queensland Resources Council (QRC), whose chief executive is former Liberal Resources Minister, Ian Macfarlane. Throughout the election campaign, the QRC demanded that candidates running for North Queensland seats explicitly state their support for the resources sector, and led the criticism of Bob Brown’s ‘Stop Adani convoy’. 

The Resource Industry Network (RIN) followed the QRC’s lead on the ground in Mackay, disputing climate science and organising counter protests against the Bob Brown convoy (RIN members list). The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) joined in, even claiming that the mine will not “make too much of a difference on global emissions”. Post-election, the newly appointed chair of the MCA, former Liberal senator Helen Coonan, said one of her key priorities would be to speed up approvals of mining projects.

The second major demand from the carbon lobby this federal election was around the use of Kyoto carryover credits. According to climate policy experts, using Kyoto carryover credits would weaken Australia’s 2030 target from 26-28 per cent to just 15-16 per cent, and undermine the entire Paris Agreement. Early in the election, Labor announced that it would not use Kyoto carryover credits, triggering responses from the most powerful groups within the carbon lobby. 

The peak petroleum body, APPEA, said that not using Kyoto credits could “significantly” raise the costs of meeting emissions reduction targets. The Business Council of Australia’s (BCA) Grant King said it would impose a “huge additional cost” on the economy, while the MCA regularly criticised Labor for its decision not to use Kyoto credits. 

Third on the carbon lobby’s list is to extend the use of coal-fired power stations. The BCA’s “Plan for a Stronger Australia” demands that “existing energy sources be improved and upgraded”. 

BCA chief executive officer Jennifer Westacott clarified this innocuous-sounding ask in an interview with Sky News in March, saying “we’ll make sure that the existing coal-fired power stations, which represent 60 per cent of all energy use, stay open. And that there are incentives for people to invest in those, and that we’ve got supply of coal coming into those power stations”. 

Since Rio Tinto threatened to leave the Minerals Council of Australia for its overtly pro-coal advocacy, the MCA has been careful not to undermine the role of renewable energy. But in response to the Greens’ announcement of a 100 per cent renewable energy target, the MCA responded by saying we need a “diverse energy mix” to lower emissions. To the MCA, this means coal-fired power fitted out with prohibitively expensive carbon capture and storage.

The NSW Minerals Council meanwhile, has been far less ambiguous in its advocacy for existing coal-fired power stations. Its CEO Stephen Galilee penned an op-ed in April implying that NSW would suffer blackouts if AGL proceeds to close the Liddell coal-fired power station in 2022, despite AGL’s plans to replace Liddell with a mix of gas, pumped hydro and renewables.

Business lobby groups also vehemently oppose “green schemes”, and not just because they are perceived as government intervention in the market. The BCA’s “Plan for a Stronger Australia” includes a demand to “scrap unnecessary subsidies” for what it calls “taxpayer-funded green schemes”. To the BCA, “green schemes” include renewable energy targets and rebates for household solar panels.

In yet another opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph, NSW Minerals Council CEO Stephen Galilee didn’t mince his words, declaring that “it’s no fantasy, green schemes drive us broke.”

The final piece of the puzzle for Australia’s carbon lobby is the development of new onshore gasfields, for which APPEA continues to be the loudest advocate. During the federal election campaign, APPEA welcomed the NT government’s plans for oil and gas development (particularly the Beetaloo Basin), and called on other states to lift moratoriums on onshore gas development.

Once again, the BCA’s “Plan for a Stronger Australia” demands that “state and territory governments [lift] their unscientific moratoriums on gas development and exploration to bring much needed gas supply to market”. The Energy Users Association of Australia also chimed in, stating that any “ideas that accelerate gas into the east coast are a great step forward”.

While many of the carbon lobby’s asks relate to specific policies or even specific projects, these groups also seek to influence the public narrative. And their goal is simple – to weaken Australia’s climate ambition. The language is repetitive and familiar – we need a “balanced” or “sensible” approach to emissions reduction. Conversely, policies that deliver the cuts in emissions that the science demands would be “economy wrecking”, “deindustrialising”, or “job-destroying”. 

While this is by no means a conclusive list of the carbon lobby’s demands, they will set the scene for the seemingly endless battles over climate and energy policy ahead.

Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility’s new project, LobbyWatch, seeks to track these groups’ efforts to influence climate policy in a systematic way. Only through relentless scrutiny will the companies that fund these groups be held accountable. Investors have a huge role to play in using their influence to drive change within these companies. If the carbon lobby can be restrained, we may have a chance of ambitious climate policy.

Dan Gocher is the director of climate and environment at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility. www.accr.org.au.

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