Serious flaws in Australia’s system for assessing the environmental impact of mines and gas fields have been revealed with new research showing one in three fossil fuel projects emits more pollution than was estimated by the company when the project was approved.
Research by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and undergraduate students from the Australian National University (ANU) reveals one in five of those coal, oil and gas projects is polluting significantly more than estimated.
Some of the worst offenders have emitted 20 times more than estimated, indicating the Morrison government’s safeguard mechanism, in its current state, is not working.
Chevron came out as the biggest over-emitter with the company’s WA Gorgon gas project releasing 16 million tonnes more climate pollution than the company said it would during the approval phase.
That’s as much extra climate pollution as 3.5 million cars would emit on the roads in a year.
The emissions from the Gorgon gas project have exceeded even the worst-case scenario described in Chevron’s environmental impact statement.
Whitehaven was another major over-polluter with its Maules Creek coal mine emitting three to four times more than estimated and its Narrabri coal mine emitting twice as much as estimated.
“These emissions blowouts matter because the extra pollution is supercharging our climate problem, leaving a legacy of longer heatwaves and droughts, more devastating bushfires and more extreme weather events,” said ACF’s lead environmental investigator Annica Schoo.
“The underestimation of emissions is not merely an administrative problem. The federal government is currently using inaccurate information to inform its climate policy.
“The government’s safeguard mechanism has the potential to curb emissions from big polluting companies, but it is riddled with flaws and needs a complete overhaul to make it effective.
“ACF calls on companies to take responsibility for inaccuracies and immediately fix the gross under-estimation of emissions in environmental impact statements so Australians have a truer picture of the damage these polluting facilities are doing to the environment.”
Jackson Balme is one of the ANU students who conducted this investigation with ACF.
“About 18 months ago a group of eight uni students – who are passionate about the environment and want to use their skills to make a difference – got together with ACF and started doing this research,” he said.
“We spent countless hours going through the environmental impact statements of hundreds of projects to compare their estimates with actual pollution figures, then we contacted the eleven facilities that showed significant underestimations to give the operators an opportunity to correct or explain our findings, but unfortunately none responded before our deadline and the one reply we have received since then provided insufficient information to fill in the blanks.
“We hope to start a conversation with the companies that will lead to them implementing measures that reduce their greenhouse emissions in line with their estimations.”
In theory, the safeguard mechanism sets climate pollution limits for Australia’s largest emitting facilities. Under the safeguard, a facility is expected to keep its net emissions levels at or below a particular ‘baseline’, or limit. When a company exceeds its baseline it is supposed to purchase and surrender carbon credits to bring its net emissions to a certain level.
But at least 10 of the 48 fossil fuel facilities examined in this research had baselines that were more than double the facility’s estimated annual emissions – and when a facility emits more than expected in any given year, the baseline is usually adjusted, meaning there are no material consequences for the operating company.