(Image: Eric Lobbecke)

We know who Australia’s biggest polluters are. Every year, the government publishes data on the largest sources of scope 1 greenhouse emissions (that is, directly produced as part of the production process of a facility) and scope 2 emissions (indirectly produced). Unsurprisingly, that list — led by AGL Energy — is dominated by large coal-fired power companies and gas companies.

But the list doesn’t capture scope 3 emissions (emissions produced indirectly by a business) and it particularly doesn’t capture the scope 3 emissions from the burning of Australian thermal coal exports around the world.

Nor does it capture the impact on emissions and climate policy of a company’s actions. Is it seeking to exit fossil fuels, or separate its fossil fuel business from the rest of its portfolio? Is it genuinely committed to significantly reducing emissions? Or is it planning to increase its emissions or use discredited carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) as an excuse for inaction?

And what kind of role does it play in public debate? Does it engage in climate denialism, or pay lip service to accepting climate change but oppose policies to address it? Does it participate in good faith in public debate, or peddle lies and distractions? And what kind of influence does it seek over policymaking? Does it use political donations and job offers to forge strong links with politicians in order to dictate policy?

Crikey has put together a list of criteria for determining Australia’s worst climate culprits. It covers level of emissions produced, commitment to decarbonisation internally, levels of political donations, what kind of role it plays in public debate, how much support it lends poor climate policy, and the extent of its political connections that enable it to sabotage climate action. The result is a tally of our worst climate culprits.

1) Santos and Woodside (tied)

The liquified natural gas (LNG) giants combine massive greenhouse emissions from their extraction and sale of natural gas with extensive political connections and a willingness to distort climate and energy policy in their own interests. Both are among the biggest political donors to both sides of politics and both have extensive connections with both sides through the employment of former political staffers as executives and former ministers as board directors.

Santos is by far the biggest corporate employer of former political staffers — mostly, but by no means exclusively, Coalition staffers, while Woodside likes not merely to have former officials in its executive ranks but to have an ex-politician or senior bureaucrat on its board.

Former Santos executives have played a key role in drafting the Morrison government’s “gas-led recovery” strategy in the wake of the pandemic. Both companies continue to push for new projects that would massively increase greenhouse emissions — Andrew Forrest rightly criticised Santos’ Barossa project as “one of the most polluting projects in the world.” And both push CCS as a viable option for emissions reduction, despite the mountain of evidence that it doesn’t work.

Santos and Woodside are climate criminals who, under any science-based climate policy, would be shut down forthwith.

2) News Corp, Whitehaven Coal, Delta Electricity, Waratah Coal and APPEA (tied)

News Corp produces only tiny emissions itself, but makes up for its lack of direct environmental impacts with a rampant climate denialism, intense opposition to climate action and a powerful political role. Instead of traditional financial donations, it donates massive airtime and newspaper coverage to the Coalition in support of climate inaction and uses its journalists to campaign against any climate action proposals. A suppurating tumour on Anglophone democracies, News Corp is a major force for climate denialism.

Whitehaven Coal is a significant coal exporter that is also a political donor to the Coalition and has strong political connections through its chair, former Nationals leader Mark Vaile. A new Whitehaven project near Gunnedah in NSW was the centre of human rights litigation by a group of young Australians in which the government, while admitting the project would add to greenhouse emissions, claimed it had no duty to protect Australians. Vaile and Whitehaven have been advocates of extremist pro-fossil fuel policies — Vaile has called for financial institutions to be compelled to lend to new coal mining projects, placing the entire financial system in jeopardy (a view well received within the government). Like a miniature Woodside, Whitehaven symbolises everything screwed up in Australian governance and policymaking — and how power really works in a country riddled with soft corruption.

Delta Electricity, like the gas giants Santos et al, combines significant emissions — via coal-fired power generation — with a strong relationship with the Coalition through its chair Trevor St Baker, a major Coalition donor, former Nationals candidate and opponent of climate action. St Baker has called for coal-fired power stations to be reopened and the scheduled closure of such generators to be delayed.

Waratah Coal is pursuing the opening up of the Galilee Basin as a major new coal field. While Waratah owner Clive Palmer — once a major Nationals donor — has held little direct sway over Coalition policy for some years, he devoted $80 million to attacking Labor at the last election, contributing to the defeat of a party proposing a significant scaling-up of action on climate change.

APPEA is the right-wing lobby group for petroleum extractors. While traditionally found urging attacks on basic workplace rights, APPEA is also a major opponent of climate action. Worried about increasing investor hostility, is banking everything on CCS. It has ramped up its political donations significantly in recent years and between 2018-20 gave a quarter-of-a-million dollars, mostly to the Coalition.

3) Origin and the Minerals Council of Australia (tied)

Origin, another major gas company and the fourth largest source of scope 1 emissions, has handed more than three-quarters-of-a-million dollars to political parties in the last decade and, like its competitors, is an ardent advocate of CCS.

While the Minerals Council is no longer as strong an advocate for expanded coal mining as it was in the days when BHP forced Brendan Pearson out, it continues to support failed CCS, and it too has lifted its donations, handing nearly $390,000 to political parties in the last two years.

4) Chevron

Rinse, repeat: a huge generator of emissions from its natural gas projects, US multinational Chevron is a huge political donor responsible for the now officially failed Gorgon CCS project.

The worst of the rest

Shell, Hancock Prospecting‘s joint venture in the Galilee Basin, the Business Council of Australia, and the big coal-fired power generators AGL, Energy Australia and the Queensland government’s generators.