Lies, damned lies and … Environmental Economics?

A single LNG development in Australia could raise the global temperature by a tiny amount. Should it be allowed? What has the ‘economics of substitution’ got to do with it?

By Peter Burnett

People frustrated by weak government responses to the Paris Agreement (with its goal of limiting global warming to ‘well below’ 2° Celsius and ‘pursuing efforts’ to achieve 1.5°’), continue to look for ways to pressure governments for stronger action. One strategy is to challenge fossil fuel developments in court.

In the latest Australian challenge, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) is challenging the federal approval given to Woodside Energy’s $16 billion Scarborough liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, off the Pilbara coast in Western Australia.

The formal basis for the challenge is, in essence, that Woodside obtained approval from the wrong federal regulator. Beyond that, it gets complicated. But it’s worth considering the details here because there are some very important principles at play.

Offshore Approvals and the Reef ‘carve-out’

Under Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) the federal environment minister would normally need to approve major developments such as Scarborough. However, in 2014, then environment minister Greg Hunt switched off this requirement for offshore projects by, in effect, accrediting the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) to approve projects in his stead.

The basis for NOPSEMA’s accreditation is that its regulatory regime was assessed as meeting the requirements of the EPBC Act. But the accreditation had several ‘carve-outs’, including for projects likely to have a significant impact on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). In other words, if a major offshore project was likely to have an impact on the GBR, then NOPSEMA could not approve it and the task but would revert to the minister for the environment.

ACF’s claim is that even though Scarborough is off WA, its total greenhouse gas emissions, especially the ‘scope 3’ emissions generated when the gas is burnt by overseas customers, will be so large that as to have a significant impact on the GBR, even though it lies on the other side of the country.

If the ACF win the case, this would trigger the carve-out and bounce the project back to Australia’s new environment minister Tanya Plibersek for a fresh approval process, something that could take years (which could well scuttle the proposal).

Overheating

An analysis by Climate Analytics found that the total emissions from the Scarborough project were just under 1.4 billion tonnes, three times Australia’s annual emissions. ACF argues that this will result in 0.000394 degrees of additional global warming that will harm the Reef.

Woodside may counter that this is not a significant impact, even on the back of existing emissions-driven climate change.

Is an extra 4 x 10,000ths of a degree significant? I think there is a good argument that when the GBR is already at a critical point, every additional measurable impact on the whole reef is significant. Keep in mind this is a single development which, by itself, has the capacity to create a measurable global temperature increase (at a time when the world is already overheating).

A second likely defence argument will be that 1.4 billion tonnes is a gross figure, which would be offset significantly, if not completely, by various factors, including that gas from Scarborough, relatively low in carbon intensity, will displace other fossil fuels with significantly higher carbon intensity. This is the ‘market substitution’ argument.

We have been here before. In 2015, environment minister Greg Hunt used a similar argument in successfully defeating ACF’s challenge to Adani’s huge Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. The Federal Court upheld the minister’s decision at both first instance and on appeal.

So, if this argument has failed before, why run it again?

Will the market substitution argument prevail?

The basic argument may be the same, but the legal context is different, notwithstanding that both cases concern the application of the EPBC Act. In the Carmichael case, the relevant arguments revolved around the meaning of certain words in the Act, including ‘relevant impact’.

However, the appeal judges did say that their decision was made on the basis of the particular arguments which ACF had put; they dropped a hint that a different argument might have led to a different result. With so much at stake, this alone is enough to make one think it was worth having another go at the market substitution argument.

I don’t know what arguments ACF and their lawyers have in mind this time around, but the Scarborough case turns on some different legislative words, especially on what is a ‘significant’ impact, as distinct from the meaning of ‘impact’ itself.

In this slightly changed context, I think the economic substitution argument could be attacked from a different angle to the one used in Carmichael. It goes like this:

If the total emissions from the Scarborough project, including scope 3 emissions, are ‘likely to have a significant impact’ on the GBR, the current approval from NOPSEMA is invalid and Woodside must refer the project afresh to Minister Plibersek.

Notwithstanding that significance must be decided on the basis of a likely net, rather than gross emission increase; the likelihood is that each of the factors said to offset the gross impact does not, on balance, reduce the gross figure significantly, for the following reasons.

Even if gas from Scarborough has a much lower carbon content than the fuel currently consumed by Scarborough’s customers, it is not enough to find that this low carbon gas would displace high carbon fuel for these customers. Rather, to achieve a net reduction, the high carbon fuel must be displaced from the entire market — ie, it must be likely that it will be left in the ground.

This is because, prima facie, if supplies of a fossil fuel are displaced by an alternative, basic economics (the principle that markets ‘clear’) suggests that the displaced fuel will be sold elsewhere, even if this requires a price reduction. This is especially true given that the global market for fossil fuels continues to grow, despite a Covid19-induced dip.

Then there is the policy argument, that because many countries have adopted Paris targets such as ‘net zero by 2050’, emissions from Scarborough will be offset by reductions that are driven by these targets.

Even if countries delivered on such targets in full and the 1.5° goal were achieved, the reef would still be under significant threat and Scarborough would still exacerbate that threat.

However, countries are not on a global trajectory for anything like 1.5°, so the backdrop to Scarborough’s impact is closer to a 3° increase. Worse, many countries have a history of promising more than they deliver, in some cases adopting targets that are little more than aspirations.

Finally, there is the argument that technological change will drive major emissions reduction through the shift to renewables. This is valid in some countries, but, globally, the renewables shift is more than offset by global increases in demand: otherwise, global emissions would not continue to rise.

At the end of the day, unless there is evidence that gas from Scarborough is leading directly to high-carbon fuels being left in the ground, the supposed offsets look rather vague at best, leaving it likely that Scarborough’s net emissions will be similar to its gross emissions.

Where are we headed with this?

I wouldn’t like to predict where the Federal Court will land, but I do think it is possible that the market substitution argument, at least under the EPBC Act, will prove to make little difference.*

If I were the federal government I would deal with cases like this by moving quickly to legislate a comprehensive climate policy regime, not to mention a wider and contemporary environment protection regime as recommended by the 2020 Samuel Review.

I would be thinking that it is better for governments to get on the front foot rather than risk the unpredictable results that can follow when people are driven to litigation by their frustration with outdated or missing laws.

*I know the argument has been rejected by the Land and Environment Court in NSW in the Gloucester Resources case (Rocky Hill). But the Court there had the power to review the decision on the merits, which makes a big difference, for reasons too complicated to explain here.

Banner image: New research shows global warming of 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial levels will be catastrophic for almost all coral reefs – including those once thought of as refuges. Should any new fossil fuel developments be approved in such a time? (Image by Maria Beger)

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