An unholy alliance of carbon farmers and Big Gas lobbyists are quietly shaping Australia’s emissions reduction framework to maximise their take of taxpayer money while increasing emissions as much as possible. Callum Foote follows the money.
It’s a perfectly devious plan by the cabal of powerful fossil fuel corporations, greenwash which lends the appearance of action on the climate and emissions front while actually ramping up emissions and subsidies for a sunset industry.
Australia’s primary policy to address climate change and achieve net-zero emissions is the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF). New research from The Australia Institute shows ERF is being exploited by a close-knit group of carbon farmers and the oil and gas industry. Key among these figures is Grant King, former CEO of Origin Energy and the doyen of Australia’s gas sector.
Grant King and Susie Smith, the CEO of the Australia Industry Greenhouse Network and former Santos executive, were asked to conduct a review into the ERF by Energy Minister Angus Taylor. The review resulted in 20 recommendations with the aim of making carbon credits quicker to accredit.
These recommendations, which have been accepted by the federal government, have contributed to a regime of low quality and poor integrity carbon credits, causing emissions to increase rather than decrease, according to The Australia Institute.
Both Smith and King were appointed as chair and member respectively of the Climate Change Authority (CCA) in 2021. The CCA carries out periodic reviews of the ERF.
Polly Hemming, one of the Australia Institute researchers who authored the report, said that “the appointments in these “nominally independent” government bodies ranged from being perceived conflicts to being potentially in breach of relevant legislation. Regulatory and statutory bodies should be at arm’s length from the industries which they oversee.
“Yet in the case of the ERF, industry appears to be actively being invited in to design and shape policy that benefits it.”
GreenCollar collars profits
King is also on the board of directors of GreenCollar, the largest carbon aggregator operating in Australia.
The carbon market is made up of carbon aggregators who create carbon credits by signing contracts with farmers or waste collectors to either not conduct harmful polluting activities or to sequester carbon through specific processes such as the controversial and largely discredited Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).
Carbon Aggregators want to make it as easy as possible to create and sell carbon credits in spite of how much carbon is actually saved by big emitters such as the oil and gas industry. Industry wants carbon credits to be as cheap as possible so that they can reach their net-zero commitments on paper as cheaply as possible while expanding their polluting activities.
However, these same carbon aggregators have been closely involved in the design of the ERF.
Key carbon culprits
The largest carbon aggregators operating in Australia are GreenCollar, Corporate Carbon/AgriProve and Climate Friendly.
Together these companies fund an industry group called the Carbon Market Institute (CMI) which works very closely with the Clean Energy Regulator to design new carbon credits.
CMI is also funded by the largest oil and gas players operating in Australia. Companies such as Woodside, Energy Australia, AGL, Inpex, BP Shell and Origin are paying members of the industry body.
In an unusual turn, the CER and the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources have a close financial relationship sponsoring events run by CMI and paying the organisation to run ‘education and training services’ on its behalf. The Institute has been paid $700,000 for these services, according to Austender.
The ERF has been co-opted and designed alongside the companies and industry bodies which stand to profit the most from the $4.5 billion taxpayer-funded program.
CMI has refused to respond to a request for comment.
Stacking the regulators
Beyond Grant King, the fossil fuel influence over emissions reduction policy is not restricted to close consultation with the government but actually with who makes up the executive roles in our key regulators.
Another regulatory body which closely oversees the ERF is the Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee. The Assurance Committee which was established to ensure the integrity of the ERF has also been stacked with fossil fuel executives.
The Australia Institute found that these appointments included David Byers, a former senior executive at the Minerals Council of Australia, BHP and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), and Brian Fisher, long-time consultant to fossil fuel industries and former head of the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE).
Under Fisher’s leadership, ABARE’s economic modelling of climate policy was overseen by a steering committee that included the Australian Coal Association, the Australian Aluminium Council, BHP, Exxon and other fossil fuel interests.
Kate Vigden, the former chair of major gas and oil producer Quadrant Energy, was appointed to the board of the Clean Energy Regulator in May 2021.
Polly Hemming questions the lack of regulation over these appointments: “There is legislation that explicitly says that individuals must not engage in any paid employment that conflicts or may conflict with the proper performance of their duties. Clearly the government has determined that being employed by the same industry that you’re regulating or providing advice on is not an issue, but I’d seriously question whether the taxpayer would be equally comfortable with this arrangement if they knew all the details.”
Illustration above: Michael Mucci