NEWS FROM THE FRONT DESK: According to energy finance analyst Tim Buckley, the Ukraine war has sparked a torrent of war profiteering by the fossil fuel companies. But if other states and the federal government were as smart as Queensland, they’d be earning a nice whack of income from those windfall gains.

After all “someone’s gotta pay”, Buckley says, paraphrasing Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and referring in this case the devastating cost of the floods in Queensland and New South Wales, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated he’s not much inclined to pay for (perhaps reasoning his electoral chances will get a much better fillip with the money spent elsewhere).

But actually should the PM – AKA we, the taxpayer – fork out for the damage, or should it be that the companies that caused the damage pay for the damage?

Let’s not forget for a minute that much like the tobacco companies, the oil companies have known for decades exactly what their product was going to do to us.

So, how’s it going with getting at least some public kick back from the bounties we allow private companies to make by extracting our finite public goods – our natural resources?

According to Buckley, Queensland cleverly has a sliding scale – the higher the coal price the higher the royalty, while NSW and Western Australia are happy with flat fees no matter what the price.

Our research finds that NSW’s royalties range from 6.2 per cent for deep underground mines to 8.2 per cent for open cut, while WA has a flat royalty of 7.5 per cent for its mining resources. But smart Queensland asks miners to pay more for windfall gains, such as are being made now, based on a sliding scale.

Coking coal, he says, has tipped $US600 a tonne and thermal coal $US400 a tonne.

Much of this price surge has been since the Ukraine invasion. But it’s also tied up with Putin’s gaming the gas supplies to Europe in the preceding six-to-12 months. And when the price of gas goes up people will substitute coal for it and then the price of coal goes up.

“The Queensland government’s done the right thing and put in a sliding scale. Why don’t the Feds do it on gas and why doesn’t NSW do it? All the governments can [then] get a large percentage of the profits when there are extreme price surges.”

Buckley was out on a short break between phone calls in his new gig, an independent version of what he was doing before – a finance and energy think tank and consultancy.

The previous crowd, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, had “grown enormously in the past four to five years and with that growth comes bureaucracy,” he said. “I had a brilliant operations director and when she left I had all the staff management issues… and at the end of the day I want to be talking to people and doing research.”

He’s also an independent finance expert for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So, just a tad busy.

Among his most recent projects is a major report on the Narrabri coal mine extension and its capacity for massive methane emissions.

The argument from the coal company that the mine would add costs of $1 million to the environment was ludicrous, Buckley says.

There were similar arguments advanced by the Federal Court when it knocked back the challenge by a group of young people to the expansion of the Vickery coal mine in NSW, on the basis that the federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley had a duty of care to future generations. But the court did not agree there would be a significant impact. It was too hard to attribute significant climate damage to a single coal mine.

Chief Justice Allsop said that the harm stemming from an individual mine approval was “decades away”, not “reasonably foreseeable” and that: “There is a lack of proportionality between the tiny contribution to the increased risk of harm, the lack of control of the harm, and liability for all damage by heatwave, bushfires and rising sea level to the whole of the Australian population under 18, ongoing into the future.”

Another of the justices, Justice Jonathan Beach, said there was not “sufficient closeness or directness” between the minister’s actions and any harm arising from the mine.

Imagine if we used that principle to excuse toxic waste being piled into our drinking water. “It’s just a few hundred litres, she’ll be right, Y’r Honour”. Or, if the same principle was applied to just a little bit of theft from Harvey Norman.

Since when can the Federal Court be a scientific arbiter of climate impact from coal?

Damage and pollution are damage and pollution. We had no idea the Federal Court was a scientific arbiter of how much damage is okay and what is not.

Buckley thought the argument at Narrabri was ludicrous. We think the same of the Federal Court.

Conservatives have labelled legal challenge lawfare. In what world is it okay to denigrate the seeking of justice for a wrong inflicted? Perhaps we should disrespect all legal cases brought and won on any number of issues because, well, we don’t like those people so it’s just lawfare.

Surely it should be lawfair.

The Federal Court decision overtuned  Justice Mordecai Bromberg finding in May last year that the federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley had a special duty of care to protect children from climate change harm when approving new mining projects.

Chief Justice James Allsop said combating climate change was an issue for the government, not the courts. But what happens when the government doesn’t actually care and fails to protect us and our future generations? If our courts can’t help, who can?

We really thought the legal system was there to protect our rights and enshrine some semblance of justice. And especially when our governments fail because let’s face it they are made of mere flawed mortals, while the judiciary was meant to be made of logic and consideration and evidence.

But it looks like it’s simply wiggling words to protect “just” the status quo.

Buckley says the decision “summarised the federal government’s lack of consideration for intergenerational equity and their need to deliver on their donors’ requirements.”

At Narrabri the proponents used a similar argument – that the cost to climate was just $1 million.

“I calculated that scope one and two emissions alone and ignoring scope three, which are by far the largest, had a value of $2.4 billion.”

The proponents, he said, were using “spurious accounting manipulations to argue that cost’ that climate damage is immaterial.

“Tell that to the people who’ve had their towns destroyed by floods,” Buckley says.

“At a time when the federal government is refusing to pay for the damages of extreme weather events that are more frequent and more intense energy companies like Peabody, Woodside, and Whitehaven are war profiteering.”

“The bill from climate change is coming for our children.” And, as Josh Frydenberg likes to say, “someone has to pay”.

There’s an upside from the Ukraine war though, dire though the situation is for those poor people on the ground.

“In one respect it’s positive to see democracy, which, when push comes to shove,  is not as weak as Putin gambled on.”

And the divestment and financial and economic sanctions shows that divestment works.

“It seems to be pretty effective and immediate.”

It requires strong doses of moral fortitude and courage, sure, but it does work, he says.

The other big message coming from the war is the energy security and the supply chain security are key issues that have to be taken into account, alongside decarbonisation. Because the capital flight from fossil fuels has now left the world vulnerable to fossil fuel supply shocks and much gouging and profiteering while the price of renewable energy hasn’t changed at all.

In time this will accelerate the move transition to renewables and “finally break the back of the fossil fuel mafia”.

– Tina Perinotto