The decision to permit the $3.6 billion Santos Narrabri Gas Project to proceed was not unexpected in the light of the Independent Planning Commission’s findings and the strong support for the project in recent months by state and federal government leaders.
However, the debate over the related issues of climate change and energy policy in Australia and the world at large still has a long way to run.
It may be said with a high degree of confidence that climate change concerns rank high in the minds of most Australians, especially in the light of the massive bushfires experienced in this country and abroad in recent times, along with the warnings of ecologists, marine scientists and climatologists that there are unmistakable signals from the natural world that a warming planet is presenting new challenges for our environment and well-being.
The problem is, of course, that there are no easy and quick fixes in a multi-faceted, argumentative, and often combative world where national issues and ideologies often trump idealist plans for a co-operative and equitable approach to the business of solving looming global threats in a timely manner.
There is a view in some circles in this country, especially in the deep green sectors of the climate debate, that on moral grounds alone Australia should withdraw quickly and totally from reliance on fossil fuels and rely on renewable forms of energy to carry us forward to a happier future.
Not only would such a step be to our own benefit but we could show to the world that we not only can talk the talk but walk the walk.
Globally realities, however, make such a vision improbable.
Australia’s very high per capita contribution to greenhouse emissions still only constitutes a 1.3 per cent of the rising global volume of CO2 in the atmosphere.
The cessation of this country’s coal and gas exports (the largest in the world) would be unlikely to bring significant policy alterations in countries such as China and India.
Over the next decade China and India, along with the United States, will still produce the bulk of global CO2 emissions.
A report issued last year showed that India, with 1,333 coal fired power stations operating, has plans for 89 new plants.
Apparently, plans for some 580 coal-fired power stations have been shelved in India.
China has many more plants than India – and is building more capacity to ensure its continued economic growth.
According to one report a great number of existing coal power stations have been mothballed or operate on a reduced basis in China but despite a new emphasis on other energy sources (hydro, gas, solar, wind and nuclear) coal will continue to play a big part in the energy production mix.
China’s president Xi Jinping said in a speech to the United Nations last week that China aimed to be “carbon neutral” by 2060.
How this will happen when China is planning to expand its coal-based generation capacity by 360 GW over the next decade or so is hard to imagine.
Countries around the globe are continuing to rely on carbon-based energy generation although some are making big strides towards reliance on alternative energy.
France, for example, produces 75 per cent of its power from nuclear reactors.
Sweden claims to be well on the way to a zero emissions economy …
And, believe it or not Australia is a leading country in efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions.
This country is ahead by far when it comes to deployment of solar and wind energy sources.
In this regard we are four or five times faster per capita than China, the U.S., Japan or the European Union.
Australia has 24 coal-fired power stations which provide most of the base-load electricity for the nation.
The looming closure of the Liddell power station in 2022 will take out 2,000MW of capacity.
No Australian government seems really keen to build another coal-fired power station.
The focus on natural gas, therefore, as a dispatchable, reliable energy source – one less polluting than coal – is seen as a good transitional energy source until new renewable forms, along with new technologies, can deliver reliable zero-emission energy solutions for the future.
Arguments over natural gas as a suitable transitional energy source have proliferated in the media over recent months.
However, it should also be acknowledged that in the circumstances surrounding Australia’s energy future, our ability to reignite economic and social progress post-covid, and to take further steps towards carbon neutrality by 2050 (as 60 nations have pledged) we need to deal with the exigencies and practical realities that face us over the next decade.
Some academic researchers have been strident in their opposition to the use of gas as a transition energy source.
Others, however, including the Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, believe that gas is a prudent part of an energy mix (alongside, not supplanting renewables) in a transition process.
Professor Richard Bolt, Adjunct Professor of Energy Transformation at Swinburne University, was moved to defend Dr Finkel by saying that gas-fired power will “keep the lights on when the output of wind, solar and storage falls too low”.
All sides of the scientific debate may claim tenable positions because of the complexities involved but it is politicians who must ultimately decide on a policy. And they have.
This district may well be a beneficiary of the Santos project but we all must trust that, on balance, it will be the country as a whole that benefits as we travel into what for many seems an uncertain future.To order photos from this page click here