Environmental groups have warned of the need for vigilance over the influence the fossil fuel industry is exerting over the Morrison government’s economic response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Greenpeace Australia and 350.org Australia have both issued fresh warnings of the level of success the fossil industry has had in winning concessions from the government in the form of relaxed regulation, tax cuts, and the spreading of misinformation about the impacts of climate change.
In particular, 350.org Australia has called on the government to improve the transparency of the hand-picked National Covid-19 Coordination Commission, which has been leading the Morrison government’s economic agenda, but has as membership stacked with business leaders with ties to the fossil fuel sector.
The National Covid-19 Coordination Commission has been tasked with advising the Morrison government on its economic response to Covid-19, and has generally sought to coordinate the private sector’s recovery efforts.
Concerns have been raised over the membership of the national Covid-19 commission, which is chaired by gas industry executive Neville Power, includes EnergyAustralia managing director Catherine Tanna and is advised by oil industry executive Andrew Liveris who is an independent non-executive director of oil mega company Saudi Aramco.
It’s a lucrative role for those on the commission, with staff from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet telling a Senate committee that members were compensated up to $2,000 per day, and Neville Power as chair, who is a non-executive director and deputy chair of gas company Strike Energy, receiving $500,000 for his six month engagement.
PM&C tells COVID senate select Ctee that chair of COVID Commission is paid $500,000 for six months. Half a mil for a gas guy to tell the Govt to invest in more fossil fuels – Big Gas really has this lobbying/donor revolving door sewn up nicely #auspol #covidctee
— Larissa Waters (@larissawaters) May 13, 2020
The commission also established a ‘manufacturing working group’ which includes two representatives of Manufacturing Australia, chair James Fazzino and executive director Ben Eade, a body that campaigned fiercely against the carbon price introduced by the Gillard Government and most recently lobbied for the Liddell Power Station to be kept operating.
350.org Australia has compiled a list of 38 policy changes that have been requested by the fossil fuel industry, which includes cuts to environmental regulations, tax cuts and the fast tracking of new fossil fuel projects.
The environmental group found that almost two-thirds of these requests have either been enacted or have been agreed to by the Morrison government. These include cuts to environmental protections under federal laws, cuts to royalty fees to be paid by coal, gas and oil projects, as well as special concessions to exploration approvals.
In the electricity sector, fossil fuel incumbents have also been urging regulators to delay the implementation of rules – such as the demand response initiatives and the switch to 5-minute settlements, rather than 30 minute settlements – that would likely favour new technologies such as battery storage.
Federal energy minister Angus Taylor has embraced the gas industry as being part of the government’s plans for a ‘gas-led’ economic recovery, while also working to relax regulations on the oil sector, as a way to prop-up the industry through a period of historically low prices.
“Our investigations reveal that the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission membership is stacked with fossil fuel company executives and gas ‘kingmakers’ whose vision for Australia is framed by pipelines and fracking wells, which will lead to runaway climate change,” CEO of 350.org Australia Lucy Manne said.
“We are calling for three crucial measures to be put in place to ensure the community can have faith in the NCCC: a transparent conflict of interest register and process for managing conflicts of interest; fairer representation of the Australian community; and full transparency of operations of the NCCC and its recommendations to Government.”
“The NCCC was hand-picked by Prime Minister Morrison at the peak of the crisis with no accountability to the Australian people, no transparency, and no commitment to care for communities or our climate.”
“Australians deserve better than to be fed a short-sighted pro-gas agenda, whilst they are trying to get through a global pandemic,” Manne added.
On Wednesday, the commission came under the scrutiny of a Senate committee examining the Morrison government’s Covid-19 response, with secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister Philip Gaetjens unable to provide information to the committee about how the members of the Covid-19 commission were chosen.
Mr Gaetjens believes that members of the National #COVIDー19 coordination commission were chosen for their "networks across business".
Why does the commission place such an emphasis on business, particularly the energy sector, and not community? pic.twitter.com/5GmiJg4DSC
— Rachel Siewert (@SenatorSiewert) May 13, 2020
The warning has come as new research outlines the role that political influence played in undermining the impact of scientific research used in the decisions to approve Adani’s Carmichael coal mine.
In a paper published in the journal Nature Sustainability, a team of Australian researchers found that government decision makers repeatedly ignored scientific advice and warnings about the impacts of the Adani coal mine particularly on nearby groundwater resources, while being heavily lobbied to approve the mine.
“We argue that this echoes other examples of scientific evidence being ignored where findings clash with political or economic objectives, and warrants urgent review of decision-making processes for developments with major environmental consequences,” the researchers said.
In a follow up paper also published in Nature Sustainability, law experts from the Melbourne Law School said that the process of developing scientific findings and recommendations on new proposals for major fossil fuel projects needed to be protected from political interference.
Without such protections, the researchers warn that there was the potential for a ‘feedback loop’ to be created, where ongoing political influence from the fossil fuel sector increasingly erodes the proper use of scientific findings.