bushfires australia
Batemans Bay New Years Eve bushfires in Australia on December 31, 2019. Photo by Megan Juresa/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP images

The World’s on Fire, Yet Australia Keeps Pumping Out the Gas

Australia ranks among the worst in the world for its climate policies. Its government still wants to expand the fossil fuel industry.

When Australia’s Black Summer bushfires began to burn, Melinda Plesman and her partner Dean Kennedy were among the first to lose everything.

It was December 2019, and the fires were on their way to burning more than ten million hectares across the east coast when Plesman and Kennedy’s home in the regional New South Wales community of Nymboida was reduced to rubble.

In the aftermath, Plesman and Kennedy hauled the remains of their house to parliament in Canberra to demand something be done about climate change.


Now, some 18 months and a pandemic later, the couple are still reeling from the tragedy. Today they are living in a one-bedroom tin shed that is partially open to the elements while they wait to rebuild their home of 35 years, and the grandmother says she is “just appalled” about Australia’s total lack of action on climate change.

“Nothing. They’ve done nothing,” Plesman told VICE World News. “I try not to think about it. I really don’t. I’m hardly watching the news. I’m really finding that if I think about it, I almost have an anxiety attack.

“The government just actively doesn't do anything. And if they do anything, they work to the betterment of the gas industry and the coal industry.”

The Plesmans are far from the only ones who believe that the Australian government works in the interests of the fossil fuel sector.

In early July, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network – a group set up in 2012 to monitor progress toward the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including global efforts to reach targets set under the Paris Climate Agreement – looked at the performance of 193 UN member countries. Of those, Australia, a nation of 25 million people on the driest inhabited continent in the world, exported more CO2 emissions as fossil fuels than every other country except Qatar and Norway.


While the rest of the world grappled with the transition to renewable energy, Australia had heavily subsidised fossil fuel producers, leaving it ranked dead last among developed nations for action on climate change. This placed it even lower than Brunei, the only country to be ranked below Australia in last year’s report.

Australia is also highly exposed to the effects of climate change. According to a report released by the Australian Academy of Science in March this year, heat stress is already warping the continent’s ecosystems.

Should it continue, the future is bleak: as temperatures rise over time, rain will fall all at once in devastating quantities in tropical regions, or not at all in more arid regions. Bushfires will burn hotter for longer and rivers will run dry, making life in some areas increasingly difficult.

So how did a nation that, just 18 months ago, watched an area twice the size of Taiwan go up in flames, come to be radically indifferent to the existential threat of climate change? It is largely a story about the dominance of the fossil fuel industry.

While the Australian government has traditionally sought to expand its coal mining industry – the nation’s current Prime Minister Scott Morrison infamously once brought a lump of coal into parliament to represent the role of the oil and gas sector that has more recently come into question.


Australia isn’t a big oil-producing nation, but the export of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG), a mixture of methane and ethane that has been cooled to liquid form, is big business Down Under. In 2020, Australia edged out Qatar to become the world’s largest exporter of LNG, thanks to more than $200 billion in investment over the last two decades that has encouraged the expansion of fracking in regions like the Northern Territory and mega-projects like the Gorgon Gas Project in Western Australia.

The Australian government’s Department of Industry, Science and Energy forecasts the combined exports from these projects will make LNG a $49 billion dollar industry this year. And this in turn, has made Australia’s biggest gas companies – Chevron, Shell, Woodside Petroleum, Santos, INPEX, and Origin – as well as their industry association, The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) – very influential.

One way this influence is built is through the “revolving door”, a relationship with the government that works in two ways: high-profile figures from the industry move to take up jobs in politics or within the Australian government, while ex-politicians and their advisors have found lucrative positions in industry.

These include a former federal Minister, federal and state political advisors, and former industry figures who now hold jobs in government. But with few regulations about what politicians, their advisors, and public servants can do when they leave office, it is all entirely legal.


“I would almost say it’s incestuous,” Dan Gocher, Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR)’s Director of Climate and Environment, told VICE World News. “APPEA has managed to convince both major parties that gas not only has a role to play in the transition to a zero-carbon economy, but a growing role. That means both major parties have bought into the expansion of the industry.”

“Because of the revolving door, you’ve got state capture. Regulation is lax and industry writes the rules.”

When the ACCR looked solely at APPEA’s lobbying efforts, they identified at least eight APPEA officials with close ties to the government.

When contacted by VICE World News,APPEA spokesperson, Shaun Rigby, rejected any suggestion that the industry had benefited from a close relationship with the government, calling it “complete nonsense.”

“Staff working for APPEA bring a range of skills and understanding of business, legislative, and parliamentary processes. These are important skills for a highly regulated industry,” Rigby said in an email response. “Accusations like this just highlight that ideologically motivated opponents will say and do anything to undermine the legitimate operation of the oil and gas industry.”

“We rely on facts, not misinformation and rhetoric. Our highly funded opponents flushed with overseas money are getting desperate because they can’t argue on facts and resort to this nonsensical rubbish.”


A spokesperson for Angus Taylor, Federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, declined to comment on this story.

Elsewhere, another recent report by activist group 350Perth used Freedom of Information requests and political donations data to chart the level of access given to fossil fuel companies by the Western Australian state government – home to several large LNG operations.

Between 2017 and 2019, gas companies and their industry representatives held 158 meetings with four senior government ministers, including the WA state premier Mark McGowan. When checked against donations data, the report also revealed that donations were “often” made on the same day as meetings, or in the days immediately following.

So long as these donations are disclosed correctly, nothing about the practice is illegal.

Matto Mildenberger, an assistant political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara said that while the precise meaning of “state capture” can be debated, these kinds of interactions between fossil fuel companies and government representatives mean that it can certainly be applied to Australia.

“Informally at least [state capture] is understood as a situation where government decisions are being made in response to, and the interests of, private sector or business actors, rather than reflecting what the public democratically want or what’s in the best interest of the public at large,” he told VICE World News.


“Certainly, in some authoritarian countries and some dictatorships, you have an outright control of government decision-making by business interests, such as the oligarchies in Russia. But you can also have situations, like in Australia, where one industry or sector can have an outsized role in saying what’s important to the government.”

Where exactly this influence began is difficult to say, though its roots can be traced at least as far back as a 1997 government white paper that hard-wired fossil fuel experts into Australia’s economy. The policy was produced under a government led by conservative prime minister John Howard, and drew on advice by a group that included figures like Harold Clough, an oil and gas industry figure, major Liberal Party donor, and climate change denier.

Tim Baxter, Senior Researcher for Climate Solutions at the Climate Council, points to the Gas Industry Social And Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA) as an example of how the industry’s influence plays out on the ground.

GISERA is a joint research venture between Australia’s well-respected national scientific research organisation, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), and the country’s biggest gas companies. While its scientists are officially independent, their research is funded by the LNG industry, and executives from the five biggest gas companies sit on the organisation’s oversight committee.


Because the CSIRO – whose researchers helped invent WiFi – is trusted by Australians as the peak scientific body in the country, Baxter says the arrangement allows the industry to shape the nature of scientific research on its health and environmental impacts.

"When you go through the GISERA website, you won't find anything that goes against the gas industry’s interests,” Baxter said. “The gas industry there is essentially using the CSIRO brand to try and make the industry look better, to buy social licence. That’s pretty huge. Australians implicitly trust CSIRO research and that’s why this is being done.”

In response to questions from VICE World News, Dr Damian Barrett, Research Director, CSIRO Energy Resources and Director of GISERA said he recognised the issue was a “topic of high public interest, with many different viewpoints.”

“The majority of CSIRO’s funding for GISERA comes from federal and state governments, and local community members decide which research projects are funded,” Barrett said. 

“We have strict governance arrangements in place to ensure the independence of our researchers and the integrity of our science. We publish our research regardless of our findings, and all our data is made publicly available.”


Barrett pointed specifically to the organisation’s agreement with the gas industry that defines what the companies involved can and cannot do and its response to past claims that the partnership represents a conflict of interest.

Though Australia’s oil and gas industry says it supports achieving “net zero by 2050”, arguing that LNG exports can serve as a “transition fuel” that will displace coal and eliminate “170 million tonnes” of CO2 emissions each year, it still continues to push for the expansion of the industry.

The government has been happy to oblige, introducing a raft of new policies over the last 18 months designed to turbo-charge the gas industry – often at the expense of renewable energy. In one case, the current federal government handed $21 million in grants to a political donor and fracking company, Empire Energy. Meanwhile, at the height of the pandemic, an opaque task force known as the “COVID Commission” was set up to steer the country’s economic response.

The body was mostly made up of industry figures from the resources sector who proposed to massively expand gas exports as part of a “gas-fired recovery”. Since then, tens of millions of dollars in government investment have been announced to underwrite the scheme – flying in the face of global efforts to end the fossil fuel industry.


Australia, however, looks increasingly isolated on the international stage as the global status quo is beginning to shift – leaving fossil fuel companies on the defensive.

In May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) – a deeply conservative international body originally founded to monitor the global oil supply – announced there can be no new coal, gas or oil projects anywhere if climate change is expected to be stopped and reversed. Later that month, pressure mounted as activist shareholders at ExxonMobil staged a board-room coup to replace three company directors with those favouring action on climate change and – on the very same day – a Dutch court ruled oil giant Shell had to make drastic 45 percent cuts to its CO2 emissions by 2030.

Yet Prime Minister Morrison has promised that for now, nothing will change for the oil and gas industry. Speaking via a Zoom call from London, Morrison was one of several Australian political figures to appear at APPEA’s three-day industry conference where he promised the oil and gas executives watching that “the oil and gas sector is a major contributor to Australia’s prosperity – always has, will always be.”

“I want you to know we are backing you in to stay on top as one of the world’s leading exporters of LNG,” Morrison added, “and with a plan here in Australia that sees gas as key, the key to securing reliable, affordable energy in a transitioning energy market, moving to a new energy economy.”     

Critics like Baxter say that if it can be believed, this stubborn commitment to the oil and gas sector risks making Australia internationally isolated on climate change.

“You may as well go chasing fairies,” Baxter said. “At this point, it’s fossil fuels for fossil fuel’s sake. What is happening at the moment is bluff and bluster. But it’s dangerous bluff and bluster that will lead to the impacts of climate change being worse.

“We certainly don’t need more gas. What we need is to transition out of fossil fuels. In the same way coal and oil have a very limited shelf life, so does gas. It has one job, and that job is to end.”