Scott Morrison covid-19
Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Scott Morrison is very much at home spinning the story for the fossil-fuel industry, with phrases like “gas-led recovery” and “transition fuel” leading his government’s messaging to sell the case for gas.  

The term “transition” is rich in the promise of better days to come. For a government wrenched away from coal, the messaging speaks of a commitment to change — the idea that “we’ve heard your concerns and we’re acting”.

At the same time “transition” is utterly meaningless if you don’t know how long it will take to get where we’re going — or even where the destination is. 

Like much of Australia’s messaging on climate change, the messaging on gas is largely the product of American industry bodies and think tanks. The idea of gas being a “transition fuel” or a “bridge” to renewables has been around since the 1990s, crafted by the American Gas Association as more evidence emerged on global warming.

In her new book, The Carbon Club, journalist Marian Wilkinson traces the influence of US fossil-fuel bodies to 1997 when representatives from the Frontiers of Freedom foundation arrived in Canberra to help spin public debate in the run-up to the Kyoto climate summit. 

Frontiers of Freedom was, according to Wilkinson, supported by some of the wealthiest men in America. Its aim was to sow doubt on whether the world really needed a new global agreement to protect the planet from climate change. It adopted messaging developed by the US Global Climate Coalition to attack Kyoto: “It’s not global and it won’t work.”

Later, America’s Peabody Energy came up with the messaging that energy poverty, not climate change, was “the world’s number one human and environmental crisis”.

Peabody first used that in 2011 and used it to great effect in the lead-up to the 2014 Brisbane G20 summit as US President Barack Obama pressed the case for change.

Wilkinson reports that Peabody’s “Advanced Energy for Life” campaign was designed by the global lobbying firm Burson-Marsteller.  It peddled the idea that millions of the world’s poor would be trapped in “energy poverty” without access to today’s “advanced clean coal technologies”. It was a powerful humanitarian appeal, even to the sceptics. 

But this year — in Australia and the US — it’s all about spinning the gas story.

In January the American Petroleum Institute, the largest US trade association for the oil and gas industry, unveiled its campaign going into a US election year to sell the case for gas — or “natural gas” as the industry successfully branded it decades ago.

(API  has form stretching back to the late 1990s. The  New York Times obtained its communications plan showing it was working to promote “uncertainty” about climate change science and links to fossil fuels.)

The API’s current campaign, “Energy for Progress”, frames gas as central to solving the issue of climate change. The messaging is distilled into eight words, no doubt thoroughly tested in focus groups: “Powering progress through cleaner, reliable and affordable energy.”

American gas (and oil) companies are, it claims, researching “better climate solutions to create a cleaner, stronger tomorrow”.

The human story — because there always has to be a human story to sell the pitch — is of business owners in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, who are hailing the economic benefits of “natural gas production”, spurring “strong and lasting growth in revenues, wages and land values”.  

Reuters reports API has spent an estimated US$3.1 million on TV ads promoting gas between January 1 and August 16. In the three weeks after Joe Biden’s climate announcement on July 14 — in which he opposed the use of gas — API had increased its spending on Facebook ads to an estimated average of US$24,000 a day, six times its average daily spending in the preceding six months.

Those who spin for gas have hammered the “clean” (and “natural”) message for decades, even though gas cannot actually be clean, in the way wind or solar are. 

In Australia, and in the time of COVID-19, Morrison has given the API’s message a tweak to turn “a stronger tomorrow” into “a gas-led recovery”, neatly hitting the notes of progress, the future and strength. A little like “transition” itself. 

“Language has been used very effectively as a weapon to obscure the issues,” chief executive of the Climate Council Amanda McKenzie tells Crikey. “Clean coal, carbon capture and storage are other examples — and gas is the latest iteration.

“Today there is ‘clean hydrogen’ which actually means hydrogen made from gas rather than hydrogen made from renewables.”

Said often enough, Morrison’s “transition” and “gas-led recovery” soon become part of the public discourse — a triumph of sorts for industry spin.

McKenzie warns: “The most dangerous thing about it is when journalists and activists start to use the language without questioning it.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey