Australia exposed at Climate Week

Climate Economy

Australia exposed at Climate Week

Share on

Scientists took aim in a full-page ad and CNN confronted the Foreign Minister, but back at home, it’s fossil fuel lobbying as usual

It was moderately embarrassing for Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong, to be press-ganged by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour as she headed into United Nations headquarters in New York during Climate Week. Amanpour confronted Wong with questions about Australia’s poor climate change track record just as the nation promotes claims that, in partnership with its Pacific neighbors, it would make a great host for COP31.

Despite Australia being the world’s third largest exporter of fossil fuels, and still approving new coal and gas projects, there has been little media coverage at home about the UN summit. Indeed, a letter from 220 world scientists and experts – including Michael Mann, Peter Kalmus, Bill Hare, Cathy Whitlock, David Ho, Joelle Gergis, Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Dr. Farhana Sultana, Sunita Narain, Richard Heede and writer and climate activist Bill McKibben – expressing grave concern about Australia’s fossil fuel expansion got almost no airplay. It did, however, make headlines in the South China Morning Post and the UK’s Daily Mail.

In the ad, scientists called on the Australian government to “accelerate climate action, not climate annihilation.” It did, to be fair, get a robust run in Australia’s national outlet ABC news with the story: “Australia shamed on climate change in full-page New York Times advert.”

Even more embarrassing, Australia was denied a speaking spot in the keynote session of the UN’s Climate Ambition Summit – a session reserved only for countries that could demonstrate leadership and credible action in response to the climate crisis. With its intention to co-host COP31 with neighboring Pacific countries. It’s not a good look.

Polly Hemming of The Australia Institute, the organization that created the ad, pointed out that “Back in Australia the federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek was in federal court defending the government’s right not to consider the climate impact of fossil fuels when approving new coal and gas projects.” Since taking office, Plibersek has approved four new coal mining projects. In February, she quietly approved a Santos gas project of 116 wells that will operate until 2077.

The new Australian government released 47,000 square kilometers of new oil and gas exploration areas in its first three months.

Even more embarrassing, Australia was denied a speaking spot in the keynote session of the UN’s Climate Ambition Summit – a session reserved only for countries that could demonstrate leadership and credible action in response to the climate crisis.

Follow the money

A good deal of the blame for Australia’s stubborn refusal to stop, or even curb, new fossil fuel projects can be attributed to powerful lobbying by Australian Energy Producers (AEP), the oil and gas lobby formerly known as the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA). While tenacious in its pursuit of politicians and policymakers, AEP has been remarkably shy with journalists they can’t control. Even to the point of breaking the law by failing to provide required public financial statements.

After months of pestering AEP for its ‘public’ financial reports, Michael West Media’s research revealed what the gas lobby has been up to in the last two years. 

The Australian federal government released 47,000 square kilometers of oil and gas exploration areas just three months after assuming office on a strong climate action platform. The Queensland government, known for supporting mining over environmental protection, has agreed to put its taxpayers on the hook for rehabilitation of fracking land once foreign corporations have drained the gas.

The AEP actually lists these as “achievements” in its 2021-2022 financial report. 

It is little wonder that AEP has been hiding its annual financial statements from the public. They are embarrassing for the politicians they lobby. It is also little wonder that AEP rebranded earlier this month, stripping the word ‘petroleum’ from its name to become Australian Energy Producers. It’s the ultimate in greenwashing – we call it ‘Ozwashing’ in Australia. In fact, the AEP membership and board show that this organization is really a front for foreign energy giants – it’s not ‘Australian’ at all. Even the three key Australian gas producers are majority foreign owned: Santos, Origin Energy and Woodside.

The Australian government has been priority number one for the AEP. In the words of the lobby group’s CEO, Samantha McCulloch, “The APPEA [now AEP] team worked tirelessly in the lead up to the [last] federal election to ensure bipartisan support for our sector.” Indeed their even-handed generosity to the major political parties, and their corporate members, suggest they have influence over whoever is in power.

Does stripping the word ‘petroleum’ from its name tell us something?

While the current Labor government led by Anthony Albanese has been far more progressive in its support for renewable energy than the previous government, its policies expanding the gas industry, approving new projects and fracking especially in the northern part of the country, suggest that both parties continue to be committed to gas expansion despite the country’s Paris Agreement commitments. 

Business as usual

The newly named AEP’s directors are a who’s who of fossil fuel company executives: They include Frank Calabria, CEO of Origin Energy; Kate Callaghan, former advisor to previous Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and general manager of corporate affairs at Chevron Australia; Khoa Dao, President of ConocoPhillips Australia; Kevin Gallagher, CEO of Santos; Dylan Pugh, Chairman of ExxonMobil Australia; and Meg O’Neill CEO of Woodside Energy, among others. These are the A-league of fossil fuel stalwarts. And they’re playing to win — no matter who loses.

Despite the AEP’s power over Australia’s political parties, the public has not been allowed a look inside the organization since 2020. AEP hadn’t filed legally required financial statements with Australia’s national regulator for two years. 

Why? Because in November 2020, the lobbying group informed the regulator that it was now a small company and not obligated to lodge financial reports.

Under Australia’s Corporations Act, which even applies to foreign multinationals, a company limited by guarantee with annual (or consolidated) revenue of A$1 million or more is required to “prepare a financial report.”

Following pressure from Michael West Media, however – including its reports that AEP was in breach of the Corporations Act by not filing public accounts – the financial statements have finally been lodged with the corporate regulator. It shows revenue hovering around A$14 million (US$8.9 million) a year for the past two years.

That is a lot of financial muscle – on top of the lobbying by the gas players themselves – spent mostly on courting politicians every year.

Carbon captured

AEP CEO Samantha McCulloch, who joined the lobby group in 2022 after running the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) carbon capture unit since 2018, detailed the lobby group’s successes in her Director’s Report.

Despite being a front for some of the world’s largest fossil fuel corporations, who pay little income tax in Australia, and despite being a lobbying group, the AEP has an exemption from paying tax.

“We already have more than A$20 billion (US$12 billion) of new investments in supply announced nationally in the past two years and there is more to come if there is policy stability and investment certainty,” McCulloch wrote.

Additionally, the industry expects the record A$70 billion (US$44 billion) in LNG exports from 2021-22 to climb to another windfall revenue record of A$90 billion (US$56 billion) in the 2022-23 financial year. This has grown from A$30 billion (US$18 billion) in the 2020-21 financial year.

Regarding the lobby group’s greener aspirations, McCulloch believes that “Raising awareness of our industry’s commitment to emissions reduction will only further grow the strong public support for the role of natural gas, capturing community support and building trust and ensuring our social license to operate.”

This, despite uniform calls from the UN and the International Energy Agency that in order to maintain a 1.5 degree limit to the rise in global temperatures, there should be no new oil and gas developments globally.

The AEP revenue of almost A$14 million (US$8 million) in 2022 derives primarily from members’ fees and conferences. The lobby group increased its liquid assets to almost A$9 million (US$3 million).

Despite being a front for some of the world’s largest fossil fuel corporations, who pay little income tax in Australia, and despite being a lobbying group, the AEP has an exemption from paying tax. Is it any wonder that the Australian government continues to approve new coal and gas?

This story first appeared in Australia’s Michael West Media.

Written by

Callum Foote

Callum Foote is a climate and corruption journalist based out of Sydney, Australia. He reports on the intersection of politics and business and has covered the fossil fuel industry in Australia extensively.