The bulk of the response to the Russia-Ukraine crisis has been a move to replace dangerous energy from Russia with dangerous energy from elsewhere.
In the UK, Boris Johnson compared Vladimir Putin to a drug dealer who’d got the west “hooked on hydrocarbons” … and then proceeded to plead with Saudi Arabia (who recently executed 81 men in 24 hours) to increase oil production. In the US, president Joe Biden boasted of record levels of fossil fuel production and signed a deal with the EU to ramp up fossil fuel exports to the region. And on Tuesday last week, Australia’s energy minister, Angus Taylor, announced $50m in funding for new domestic gas projects, explicitly linking the need to increase local supply of fossil fuels to the war in Europe. Never mind that both Australia and the US are huge exporters of gas, but drill we must.
The calls for increased production are awkward for the industry, who would rather talk about intent without changing anything. CNN recently revealed recordings of shareholder calls with major overseas companies admitting they would rather keep production low and cash in on crippling energy prices to reward shareholders.
Goldilocks zone for oil companies
Oil and gas producers are in their Goldilocks zone: demand for their products barely changes at all, they keep getting bags of taxpayer cash, and they carefully limit production to maintain prices at a crippling level.
As was predictable, Taylor hasn’t held back in linking Australian fossil fuels to Ukraine. “I tell you what, I bet a number of countries in Europe right now wish they’d had a gas-fired recovery”, he told Sky News Australia earlier this month. He was talking up the Beetaloo Basin gas extraction project, one of the sites eligible for the new funding – but also a gasfield years off actually producing any gas and of limited use in the immediate squeeze generated by Russia’s invasion.
Falcon Oil and Gas, which is 16% owned by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, is a minority partner in the Betaloo exploration. After several days of awkward silence, the Australian government sanctioned Vekselberg.
The deeper heart of this story is that the simpleminded switching from Russian carbon to other carbon worsens reliance on conflict-ridden fuels, and helps warmongers strengthen their position.
And Australia’s leadership team has set itself to deepening reliance on conflict fuels with extreme dedication in recent years.
The Coalition’s May 2019 election campaign leaned heavily on an anti-electric-vehicle message, as did the prime minister’s (Scott Morrison engaged recently in an effort to deny this ever happened). Despite scaling back the attacks on non-fossil cars in the three years since, the Coalition has brought about no structural change in Australia’s terrible transport emissions.
There is plenty of will, with many Australians keen to buy electric. But thanks to sustained policy inaction, the price of second-hand EVs is climbing, while months-long delays exist for new cars.
For some time, transport emissions have been growing faster than population growth, and without any new policies, the government’s own forecasts show that these emissions will stagnate rather than fall.
It isn’t just oil that’s crippling Australian families at the moment. A quietly growing problem is that the coal and gas that still dominate Australia’s grid are both also becoming more expensive, resulting in higher electricity prices (as highlighted by RenewEconomy’s Michael Mazengarb on Twitter). While some of that is masked by the price-reducing impact of renewable energy, that effect isn’t limitless.
A missed opportunity
Imagine if they’d spent the past three years enabling greater access to public transport, walking and cycling. Or if they’d created and deployed programs to make electric vehicles significantly more affordable to the vast numbers of people already keen to make the change. What if they’d truly dedicated themselves to uncoupling Australian life from fuels that cause conflict in their extraction, and atmospheric catastrophe in their usage?
There are already tentative efforts to blend increased energy independence with rapid decarbonisation. Queensland has introduced subsidies for low-cost electric vehicles, and a recently-announced network of renewable hydrogen across Australia’s eastern states could fuel heavy transport and logistics. The Canberra Greens are pushing for a range of trials of ‘active transport’ options. The opportunities are plentiful and readily available.
But without a federal acceleration, Australians will have no choice but to rely on a conflict-ridden, air-polluting and climate-disaster-causing fuel to power their lifestyles and move around.
Instead of rescuing citizens from that disgusting and self-reinforcing trap, Australia’s leaders are openly and happily celebrating the crippling high prices for fossil fuels.
Every crisis of the past – oil shocks, the collapse of the USSR, the GFC and Covid – placed a sad little dent in rising emissions, immediately followed by a continuation of the long-term trend. There is still time to make this one different.
The atrocities being inflicted on the people of Ukraine must be stopped as soon as possible. Civilians are being slaughtered deliberately. Children are losing their lives. But Russia’s fossil-fuelled geopolitical strength won’t be truly countered if we just play musical chairs with our total reliance on climate-wrecking fuels.
We must destroy the deeper system that’s in place. The one that locks us all into relying on fuels that sandwich a brief moment of benefit between conflict-ridden extraction and physically destructive usage.