Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Energy Minister Angus Taylor (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Here’s how power works in an openly corrupt outfit like the Morrison government.

An “Emissions Reduction Fund” (ERF), dreamt up as political cover for the Coalition’s climate denialism, was so spectacularly unsuccessful at reducing emissions that the Coalition was embarrassed into reviewing it, tasking two former fossil fuel company executives to report back on ways it could be improved.

They’ve recommended that the scheme be further expanded for fossil fuel donors to the Coalition to receive more funding and produce more greenhouse emissions.

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The release of the “King Review” into the Emissions Reduction Fund — which is what Greg Hunt’s discredited “soil magic” winner-picking program ended up as — and its main recommendation that carbon capture and storage (CCS) be funded by taxpayers is being reported as an energy policy or an environment story.

In fact it’s primarily an example of how soft corruption pervades this government and operates in plain sight to serve the interests of companies with financial and personal connections to the Coalition.

The Emissions Reduction Fund has been one the more expensive policy disasters of recent years, with $2 billion — it was once supposed to be $10 billion, but Greg Hunt’s cabinet colleagues slashed its funding — wasted on the Abbott government’s flagship climate action program. The majority of the funding went to Coalition mates and donors while Australia’s emissions reversed the fall that had occurred under the Gillard government’s carbon pricing scheme and began rising again.

Under pressure from Victorian Liberal MPs about the government’s climate denialism, last year the scandal-plagued energy minister Angus Taylor commissioned what was intended to be a secret review of the fund.

The review was headed by former fossil fuel company Origin Energy CEO Grant King, who also headed Australia’s premier climate denialist body, the Business Council of Australia. Under King, Origin gave over $330,000 in contributions to Coalition branches across Australia (it also gave significant contributions to Labor branches). The company has handed nearly $150,000 to the Coalition since King’s departure in 2016.

Another member of the review was Susie Smith, a former Santos executive who currently chairs the energy and mining industry-funded “Australian Industry Greenhouse Network” that, despite its name, is dedicated to “promoting development of Australia’s industrial resources”. Santos is also a major Coalition donor and has extensive links with the Coalition.

There were also more independent figures on the panel: the government-appointed head of the Clean Energy Regulator, David Parker, was on it, along with an academic, Professor Andrew Macintosh, who has been a critic of the Emissions Reduction Fund.

With the review controlled by two former fossil fuel industry executives, it unsurprisingly urged the government expand the ERF to carbon capture and storage, which, as Phil Coorey of the Financial Review revealed last year, the Coalition is increasingly interested in returning to.

CCS is a discredited technology that even coal mining executives dismiss as “neither practical nor economic”. It ranks behind nuclear power as a climate solution, given nuclear power is at least a proven technology; CCS suffers from the same delays, budget blowouts and project cancellations as nuclear power, but is yet to be proven to actually work effectively. A large-scale CCS project at the Gorgon LNG facility off the WA coast was supposed to commence in 2016, but only began limited operation last year.

CCS also requires power companies to actually produce more emissions: CCS when used in association with power generation is a highly energy intensive technology that requires significantly greater power output to capture the relatively small amounts of carbon it is able to, thus requiring the host coal or gas-fired power plant to burn more.

But the real benefit of CCS is that it provides an excuse for climate inaction and a means for funnelling taxpayer money to fossil fuel companies; since the election Scott Morrison has repeatedly flagged more government support for, particularly, Santos and Origin, and claimed that gas is fundamental to Australia’s energy production needs.

Expanding an “Emissions Reduction Fund” to enable fossil fuel companies to actually increase the production of emissions may seem contradictory or, at least, deeply ironic, but it is entirely in keeping with the purpose of the fund, which was always to serve as a figleaf for Tony Abbott’s view that climate change was “bullshit”, and to funnel taxpayer money to Coalition allies and donors.

That’s why this isn’t really a story about climate or energy, but about political influence being used to secure taxpayer funding in a twisted version of industry policy. Fossil fuel donors to the Coalition will benefit from taxpayer handouts on the recommendation of former fossil fuel executives appointed by the Coalition. It’s the way power is used in this corrupt government.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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