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Speech on Labor's Safeguard Mechanism

On Wednesday 8 March 2023 I made a speech in Federal Parliament highlighting the many problems with Labor's proposed changes to the Safeguard Mechanism. You can watch the speech here or read the full transcript below.

E WATSON-BROWN: A couple of Fridays ago the Labor government approved 116 coal seam gas wells in Queensland, Santos gas wells. The approval is active until 2077. Santos is a major long-term donor to the Labor Party—but I will come back to that. The Labor government say that they are taking action on climate change, but they have just approved a significant gas expansion until 2077. The Labor government say that they are putting forward legislation that will end a decade of inaction on addressing emissions; yet they have approved a significant gas expansion on prime agricultural land to run for 2077.

The Labor government say that they are going to end the climate wars. But what does that even mean if you are going ahead and approving 116 new gas projects to 2077—an expansion of a project that already has over 10,000 wells? The Labor government know that we need rapid emissions reductions, and that means at least no new coal and gas mines. They have been briefed by the best of the best on the science on all this repeatedly. They know and yet they have just approved 116 new coal seam gas wells for another 50 years. The government have seen the increase in bushfires and floods devastating our country, and they just approved 116 new gas wells for another 50 years. Forgive me for labouring that point, but this is absolutely crucial.

A recent study by the International Energy Agency has shown that the methane emissions from coal and gas projects have been underestimated. They are in fact 60 per cent higher than Australia has reported. Methane is far more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This means there is a high chance that the domestic emissions of even existing projects could wreck our chances of achieving even Labor's weak emissions reductions target, and yet the government have just gone ahead and approved more and have said that they intend to keep doing so. There are 117 new projects in the approvals pipeline.

Let's look at those donations from Santos to the Labor Party that I mentioned. Over the last 10 years, Labor has taken over $700,000 in donations from Santos. In return, it seems Labor approves their gas projects. And what were Santos's profits last year? They have doubled—$3.7 billion last year alone. In fact, Labor has taken over $6 million in donations from coal, oil and gas companies over the last decade. And it is not just donations; these corporations by access to senior Labor staffers. These cash-for-access meetings and business forums mean that often senior Labor people are hearing more about the interests of coal and gas corporations than they are hearing about the interests of everyday people.

Then there is the personnel swapping between coal and gas corporations and the Labor Party—the revolving door, as it is often called. Labor 's Queensland senator Anthony Chisholm worked for Santos between working as a strategist for the Labor Party and when he was elected to the Senate in 2016. Do you know what his role was? His role was providing advice on maintaining mainstream political support amid an ongoing campaign against the coal seam gas industry by environmental and landholder groups. That was his job description. And there are other examples from my home state in Queensland. Cameron Milner, a senior Labor strategist for a few years, was, while in his role in Labor, a lobbyist for coal and gas companies, including Adani. He is now a columnist for The Australian but that is a different story.

So with the donations, the cash-for-access meetings and the personnel swapping, perhaps none us should be surprised when we get presented with a bill by the government that will be more in the interests of the coal and gas corporations than in the interests of the rest of us, more beneficial for the ongoing profits of coal and gas corporations than in line with what we know, and what they know from the science, we need to do to tackle the growing climate crisis. Those who have approved of this bill include Origin, Rio Tinto, Shell, Woodside. The Prime Minister boasted about this. If it seriously affected the operations of these fossil fuel corporations, which is what any climate legislation worth the paper it is written on would have to do, would these corporations be lining up behind it? No.

Who has not approved of this bill? A report by research firm Climate Analytics concluded that, instead of reducing emissions as is urgently needed, this proposal would provide an avenue for fossil fuel companies to continue polluting at the expense of Australians and indeed the world facing worsening climate change impacts. The Climate Council are concerned that even existing coal and gas projects risk blowing the budget under these reforms. Greenpeace has also said that these reforms are way too weak and will not be effective in reducing emissions from our biggest climate polluters like Woodside, Chevron and Ampol. From the Australia Institute, '…there is a huge risk that by designing the Safeguard Mechanism to skyrocket demand for junk carbon credits, total emissions will actually increase.'

So the coal and gas corporations support Labor's legislation, but all credible policy institutes and green organisations say it is no good. It is no good because, in its current form, this bill will see emissions go up. Why? There are a lot of reasons but the main one is it will allow Labor to continue to open up coal and gas mines. It is not just me saying this. This was conceded by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water in a recent Senate estimates hearing. There are 117 new coal and gas projects in the pipeline with their recent approval of 116 coal seam gas wells, their support for fracking in the Beetaloo Basin, their support for Scarborough PIP 11. With all of these, it is clear that Labor will continue to give practically unconditional support to future coal and gas projects. They have said it themselves. They plan to approve more and more coal and gas projects.

The domestic emissions from these alone will wreck our chances of reducing Australia's emissions, not to mention that they will lead to a massive increase in the emissions overseas and hold back other countries from making the transition to renewable energy by shifting potential investment away from renewables. We also, let me be clear, do not need new coal and gas in this country. If we regulated the industry and did not just allow corporations to export for maximum profits whatever they wanted to, we would have enough coal and gas supply to power us while we rapidly transition to new energy.

We also don't need those exports for national wealth. The overwhelming majority of the wealth generated by these coal and gas mines goes offshore to wealthy overseas investors. A small fraction comes back to us, the Australian people. Most of these corporations pay little to no tax and they actually employ only a tiny number of individuals. Instead, with real investment in industries like green hydrogen, green steel, solar, wind and batteries, we could have a booming export industry that provides jobs, wealth and sustainable development in this country. We could be the clean energy superpower of the world, so come on, people.

The safeguard mechanism is a Tony Abbott scheme, and Tony Abbott wanted nothing more than to safeguard coal and gas profits. Labor has made a few tweaks to a Tony Abbott scheme, changed its hat and shoes, and said, 'We have a solution to the climate crisis.' It is not. It is Tony Abbott's policy with a new hat and shoes. Labor is doing the same thing that Tony Abbott did—protecting the profits of coal and gas corporations. This safeguard bill from the government as it stands will lead to more coal and gas opening up and Australia's emissions going up.

It's riddled with more holes. I just wanted to highlight two of them, because a full list would bore and depress the listeners to this speech outside this chamber. The first big issue is this: it relies heavily on carbon offsetting instead of direct emissions reduction. Carbon offsets mean that corporations pay others to not produce emissions. There are a number of major issues with this, obviously. Firstly, a coal and gas corporation can increase their carbon emissions while paying a company to not produce emissions that may never have been produced anyway. This will result in a net increase in emissions. Moreover, there are growing concerns that claims of offsetting just don't stand up to scrutiny. Recently, 90 per cent of carbon credits issued by Verra, which is a major carbon offset company used by Shell, were found to not represent real emissions reductions. Secondly, the cost of paying for these offsets is so low that many corporations will simply factor it into their projections, pay the cost and expand their emissions. Parliamentary Library analysis last year showed that the cost to big mining and gas companies to offset their emissions each year to be in line with the safeguard mechanism would amount to only 0.1 per cent of their annual profits.

The second huge issue that's not spoken about enough is this: it still uses carbon intensity, not absolute carbon output, to set the threshold before the company has to start buying carbon credits. That just means that, instead of getting an overall cap on emissions a project can produce, the government will set a cap per unit. If a company expands production while changing operations to produce less carbon per unit of production, its overall emissions can go up while still receiving carbon credits from the government that it can sell on.

After all of that and the many more holes that have been found, it's clear that Labor's tweaks to the safeguard mechanism will make the problem worse. Labor says we shouldn't make the perfect the enemy of the good. The hollowness of this phrase increases in direct proportion to its mechanical repetition, because this is not good legislation, and the Greens are not demanding the perfect. In fact, the Greens are demanding the good in the face of genuinely bad legislation that will actually take us backwards. All we're saying is, for now, let's just not make the problem worse. Let's ensure we don't open any new coal and gas mines.

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