There’s little doubt greenhouse gas emissions from a new $16bn mega gas project off the Western Australia coast will be enormous after it drills into a vast new reservoir of fossil fuels.
But just how high will the emissions be from the Scarborough development – confirmed by Woodside and BHP this week?
On Tuesday, Woodside’s chief executive, Meg O’Neill, appeared to confirm estimates from environmental campaigners that the project would release about 1.6bn tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere over its 30-year lifespan.
That number is more than triple Australia’s current annual greenhouse gas footprint. More than 90% of those emissions would be generated when the gas is burned, mostly by the project’s customers in Asia.
On ABC Radio in Perth, O’Neill was asked what the total direct and indirect emissions would be for the life cycle of the project. “I believe it’s in the order of 1.6bn tonnes,” she said.
But this number is almost double what Woodside reported in February last year to the government’s National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority.
In that report to Nopsema, Woodside said total direct and indirect CO2 emissions over the life of the project would be about 878m tonnes.
A spokesperson for Woodside told Temperature Check that O’Neill had “inadvertently repeated the incorrect 1.6bn tonnes figure” from a report from the Conservation Council of WA and The Australia Institute.
The correct figure, the spokesperson said, was 880m tonnes. This is still a huge number – almost double Australia’s total annual emissions.
So why the discrepancy?
According to The Australia Institute’s Mark Ogge, who helped pull the report together, the capacity of the production facilities Woodside will be running is greater than the amount of gas the company has reported it will extract from the Scarborough gasfield. The report projected the emissions if the facilities extracted to their full capacity.
A Woodside spokesperson said the claim Scarborough would produce 1.6bn tonnes of CO2 was false and the method to reach the number was flawed.
The spokesperson added: “The development of Scarborough does not change Woodside’s net emissions reduction targets and our aspiration to be net zero by 2050 or sooner.”
Will gas really help a net zero goal?
Woodside has come under concerted attack by environmental groups for pursuing the giant gas project at a time when the world needs less fossil fuel, not more.
But Woodside is arguing the gas it produces and sells will help the world reach net zero.
The International Energy Agency – an influential global advisory group – published a report earlier this year setting out how economies around the world could shift so that greenhouse gas emissions would be at net zero by 2050.
O’Neill said the IEA’s net zero 2050 report showed “significant ongoing investments in oil and gas” were needed to meet the world’s energy needs.
“Scarborough is just a part of that,” she said.
But the IEA’s position comes with some important caveats. In its scenario for reaching net zero, the agency says gas use actually falls by almost 3% a year from 2020 until 2050.
The agency says while there will still be about 1,750 billion cubic metres of gas being used by 2050, more than half of this would need to be attached to carbon capture and storage facilities.
Woodside has also said gas will help lower emissions because it’s being used in the place of coal in power stations.
In its Nopsema report, the company again cited an IEA report that showed that coal-to-gas switching had avoided 100m tonnes of CO2 in 2019.
This, argued Woodside, “lends significant credence to the expectation that natural gas, including from sources such as Scarborough, will continue to lead to lower net atmospheric concentrations of GHGs [greenhouse gases] than would otherwise be the case.”
But what the IEA said was that the 100m tonnes CO2 reduction had taken place in advanced economies, mostly in the United States where more than 100 coal-fired power plants have converted from burning coal to burning gas in the past decade.
When burned in a power plant, gas causes roughly half the emissions of coal.
But if gas is being burned to satisfy increasing demand in new power stations, or for heating and cooling, then this is competing with renewables and risks locking in fossil fuel infrastructure for decades.
On the ABC, O’Neill said: “What’s important to recognise is how these emissions [from Scarborough gas] would compare [with] other sources of energy.”
If those other sources of energy are coal, then O’Neill has a valid point. But the reality is that renewables are cost competitive with fossil fuels and in many cases cheaper.
According to Woodside’s own reporting, using Scarborough gas for electricity would emit between 400 and 550 kg of CO2 for every unit of megawatt hour, compared with renewables that are close to zero.
As the IEA wrote in a report about switching from coal to gas: “Beating coal on environmental grounds sets a low bar for natural gas, given there are lower-emissions and lower cost alternatives to both fuels.
“The falling cost of renewable technologies in the power sector is the clearest case in point. In many power markets, wind and solar PV are already among the cheapest options for new generation, and the role of gas is coming under pressure as a result.”
No to vaccines and climate science
The Guardian has revealed that Queensland Liberal senator Gerard Rennick’s Facebook following has blown out by more than 500% in the last few months following posts about other people claiming severe side-effects from Covid-19 vaccines.
Rennick admitted he couldn’t verify the stories and said the testimonials may not be “100% accurate”.
While Rennick’s Facebook audience has grown, so have the number of people exposed to the senator’s views on climate science which, in a generous description, might also be described as not 100% accurate.
Last month, Rennick told his audience the Earth’s temperature was dictated by the energy output of the sun. Anyone advocating for net zero emissions of greenhouse gases (like, for example, the Morrison government) was pushing “junk science”.
What Rennick doesn’t mention is that the amount of energy reaching Earth from the sun has actually been falling since the 1980s, while temperatures keep rising. The extra CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is the reason why.
On Monday, Rennick joined four other Coalition senators to vote for One Nation’s failed attempt at a bill to prevent vaccines being mandated across a swathe of sectors.
There’s plenty of antagonism towards climate science among this throng too. One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts claims there is no evidence that human emissions of CO2 can change the climate.
South Australian Liberal senator Alex Antic has been claiming on Sky News that international climate summits will “aid and abet the deindustrialisation of the west”.
In April, Antic said “the left” had changed the term global warming to climate change “when the facts didn’t match the statistics”.
Clearly Antic hasn’t heard of Frank Luntz.
An influential US Republican pollster, Luntz was advising the energy industry and the GOP in 2000 on how to deal with the climate change issue in the upcoming presidential election that would see George Bush defeat Al Gore.
What did Luntz tell the Republicans?
It was time to change the language, he wrote, because the term climate change “is less frightening than ‘global warming.’”