Amid the email-related shenanigans of the weekend before last, one of the more extraordinary articles in the entire climate change debate appeared in The Weekend Australian. It was, in essence, an attack on, and warning to, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Climate Justice Program by News Ltd business writer Matthew Stevens, on behalf of some of the country’s biggest polluters.
The ACF and the ACJP had got up the noses of Boral, BlueScope Steel, Caltex, Rio Tinto, Woodside and Xstrata by noting the remarkable disparity between the apocalyptic rhetoric coming from those companies about the impact of the Government’s “no-polluter-left-behind” emissions trading scheme, and what they had actually told investors. The disparity was so great — especially compared to companies like Alcoa, which had assiduously kept investors informed of the impacts of an ETS — that the ACF and the ACJP asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to consider whether they had engaged in misleading conduct.
Stevens’s attack on the ACF and the ACJP was one thing — he called their work a “stunt”, “curious”, “legal mumbo-jumbo” and a “classic public relations ambush”, whatever that is. He related how one of the executives of the companies concerned had sought advice on whether the ACF/ACJP document was defamatory. Which is to say, be careful what you say about our biggest polluters, unless you want to cop a writ.
According to Stevens, the only reason the document wasn’t defamatory was because it was “cleverly constructed” and named companies instead of individuals. Um, Matt, since the entire issue here is what companies are saying in public and telling investors, what any particular individual says is not the point. That’s why the document doesn’t deal with individuals, not because of the rat cunning of the lawyers involved.
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But the tenor of the Stevens article — including a claim he put to the ACF’s Don Henry — is that somehow the ACF/ACJP are trying to restrict the freedom of speech of these big polluters.
On the one hand you have hundred billion dollar, foreign-owned multinational resource companies with entire departments dedicated to aggressively representing their interests to governments and spinning for the media, with the attentive ear of the Federal Government, including friends at court like Marn Ferguson and Gary Gray, and who have a national broadsheet to enthusiastically propagandise on their behalf.
On the other, you have an NGO, and not even an especially big one, and a bunch of lawyers worried about climate change.
The idea that somehow the latter represent a threat to the rights of the former would be laughable if it wasn’t part of an attempt to silence those who want to point out that you can’t tell governments and the press one thing and your investors another.
And it’s the sort of lie peddled by climate sceptics, who maintain with a straight face that greenhouse denialism — which was the policy of the Australian Government for 12 years, and vigorously promoted by the largest media organisation in the country — is somehow an idea that has been repressed and censored.
Meantime, evidence of the peculiar difference between what the big polluters say to investors and what they say publicly continues to emerge.
Woodside’s Don Voelte has been, along with the Minerals Council’s Mitch Hooke, the biggest whinger about the CPRS. From day one he has never shut up despite the negligible consequences of the various iterations of the CPRS for Woodside. A May update from Goldman Sachs JBWere analyst Andrew Gray suggested Woodside faced a carbon price impact of a whopping 3% of EBITDA under the current model before Parliament. For Voelte’s efforts, the Government has given Woodside $64m in free permits at the start of the scheme — and that will increase year in, year out, every year until the EITE assistance ends.
Even your average corporate executive would be happy with hundreds of millions in handouts, but not Voelte, who attacked the Government’s most recent cave-in, when it delayed the CPRS and handed over even more free permits.
Trouble is, Don has had a different view about the impact of a carbon price when talking to investors. Last June, he addressed the Australian Resources and Energy Conference, and Woodside kindly made available Voelte’s presentation — complete with speaking notes — via its own website, and gave the ASX a copy as an announcement. In spruiking LNG and its long-term prospects, Voelte told investors at AREC that “with the imposition of carbon taxes, LNG could trade at a premium.”
Makes sense, after all — LNG is less carbon-intense than oil and coal and therefore comparatively advantaged under any carbon price framework.
It was only later that Woodside realised how inconvenient Voelte’s comment about carbon taxes were given his antics over the Government’s ETS, so that presentation was removed from the Woodside website and replaced with another without Voelte’s giveaway speaking notes. Unfortunately, the original version remains on the ASX website.
Crikey also understands that one resources company commenced in-house modelling of the impact of a carbon price in 2007, only to can the modelling when indicative results showed only a minor impact on the company’s bottom line.
The ACF/ACJP action goes to the heart of the way rentseeking occurs in Australia. For years, companies have engaged in the bald deception of demanding assistance from governments with dire predictions, while blithely telling investors that their companies are still a great place to put their money in. ACCC action to correct this would be a major setback for those who would distort economic debate and hijack taxpayer dollars. No wonder the big polluters are worried.