Coalition quietly adds fossil fuel industry leaders to emissions reduction panel

Adam Morton Environment editor
·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

The Morrison government has quietly appointed fossil fuel industry leaders and a controversial economist to a committee responsible for ensuring the integrity of projects that get climate funding.

Critics have raised concerns about whether some appointees to the Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee may have a potential conflict of interest that could leave its decisions open to legal challenge.

The overhaul of the committee follows the government indicating it plans to expand the industries that can access its $2.5bn emissions reduction fund, including opening it to carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects by oil and gas companies.

The new chair of the committee is David Byers, a former senior executive at the Minerals Council of Australia, BHP and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, who now runs CO2CRC, an industry and government-funded CCS research body. He replaced Prof Andrew Macintosh, an environmental law and policy scholar at the Australian National University, who resigned last year.

Related: Morrison’s tech roadmap flags more investment in carbon capture and storage

Byers is joined by the economist Dr Brian Fisher, a former head of the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics who has authored reports warning of the economic impact of emissions reduction targets and been accused of overestimating the cost of combating climate change.

Other recent appointees include Allison Hortle, a petroleum hydrogeologist and research group leader in CSIRO’s oil, gas and fuels program, and Margie Thomson, an agricultural economist and chief executive of the Cement Industry Federation.

A spokesperson for the emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, said committee members were “chosen for their skills and experience as required by relevant legislation”.

Bill Hare, the chief executive and senior scientist with Climate Analytics, said it appeared the government had appointed “mostly people concerned with the status quo” rather than aiming for a rapid shift towards zero emissions.

He said he was concerned the government planned to allow fossil fuel companies to receive climate funding for merely reducing emissions below inflated estimates of what their CO2 output otherwise might be.

“It really reflects the way in which the government has put fossil fuel interests in front of anything else,” Hare said.

How the emissions reduction fund is changing

The committee’s role is to assess whether methods used to earn carbon credits meet offset integrity standards – effectively, that they represent real and new emissions cuts that would not have happened anyway.

Companies that generate credits bid to sell them to the government via the emissions reduction fund for about $16 per tonne of CO2. Most credits have been earned by restoring or protecting vegetation. Some other methods – paying to burn methane emitted at landfill sites and particularly helping mining companies build fossil fuel plants – have proven contentious.

Taylor’s spokesperson said new methods were being developed that would allow carbon credits to be earned from carbon storage, soil carbon, blue carbon (storing CO2 in coastal ocean ecosystems), plantation forestry and biomethane, also known as biogas.

The push to allow CCS projects, which involve capturing emissions before they are released into the atmosphere and injecting them underground, is strongly backed by the oil and gas industry. Santos has said a decision on whether to go ahead with a $1.7bn CCS project at its Moomba gas plant in South Australia hinges on qualifying for carbon credit revenue.

Related: Up in smoke: what did taxpayers get for their $2bn emissions fund?

Rod Campbell, a research director with progressive thinktank the Australia Institute, said he believed some of the new appointments should not have been made.

He said in his view Byers had “a clear conflict of interest” as he was
paid to run a “CCS lobby group” and the committee would play a role in deciding whether CCS received climate funding.

Carbon credits legislation says Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee members are prohibited from engaging “in any paid employment that conflicts or may conflict with the proper performance of his or her duties”.

“The wording of the Act is very clear,” Campbell said. “It is completely inappropriate for someone in that position to be overseeing integrity standards. This isn’t carbon capture, its industry capture.”

Byers declined an interview request and directed emailed questions to the minister’s office. Thomson and Hortle declined to comment.

In an opinion piece in The Australian in 2019, Byers said a “100% renewables fixation and climate emergency panic” had narrowed the technology options the world was willing to consider.

He argued CCS should be given similar financial support to renewable energy and Australia’s response to climate change should start with a “genuine understanding that carbon management is not about renewables power generation, shifting our motoring fleet to electric vehicles and becoming a nation of vegans”.

“It is in tackling the hard challenge represented by low-emissions power generation and transport but also industries such as steel, fertilisers and cement along with our wealth-generating coal and gas export sectors where the true work lies,” Byers wrote.

Taylor’s spokesperson did not directly respond to questions as to whether the appointments could lead to potential conflicts of interest.

He said the committee played an important role, made objective decisions informed by robust evidence and analysis, and its members had experience across industry, carbon storage, agricultural science and economics.

The cost of cutting emissions

Fisher is not accused of having a conflict of interest, but several climate market analysts who spoke with Guardian Australia said they were surprised by his appointment given his climate analysis has been politically divisive.

The economist made headlines before the 2019 federal election after suggesting Labor’s climate policies, including its target of a 45% cut in emissions by 2030 compared with 2005, would reduce gross national product over the next decade by hundreds of billions of dollars, lead to lower real wages and employment and substantially increase the cost of electricity compared to what it otherwise would be. He said the Coalition’s less ambitious climate targets would have a lesser economic impact and did not assess the cost of not acting on climate change.

Related: Modelling that shows Labor’s climate policy could cost billions is ridiculous | Frank Jotzo

The government cited the analysis while accusing Labor of planning to put a “wrecking ball” through the economy. The then opposition leader, Bill Shorten, said the report should be filed under “P for propaganda”. In a piece for Guardian Australia, Frank Jotzo, a climate economist and professor at ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy, said Fisher’s modelling was based on ridiculous and outdated assumptions and ignored opportunities for cheap cuts.

Fisher this week told Guardian Australia he rejected criticism of his work and said he believed debate over climate action had become too polarised, but noted his 2019 analysis was based on government emissions projections that had since been superseded.

He said he was invited to join the committee based on his role as an author of three assessment reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and that his work had also been published in the journal Nature. He said the committee’s role was to ensure emissions reductions were measured “scientifically and appropriately”, and he was agnostic about the best way to achieve cuts.

The emissions reduction fund has so far operated with limited success in reducing national emissions. The government has paid $740m for emissions cuts and signed contracts for another $1.66bn. Despite this, national emissions had dipped only slightly since the Coalition was elected in 2013 prior to the Covid-19 shutdown.

Government data shows the small reduction was overwhelmingly due to the rise of solar and wind energy, which are not supported through the fund.