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The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Expansion Plans Will Be the Death of Us

This investigation was originally published by the Guardian. It is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The world’s biggest fossil fuel firms are quietly planning scores of “carbon bomb” oil and gas projects that would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts, a Guardian investigation shows.

The exclusive data shows these firms are in effect placing multibillion-dollar bets against humanity halting global heating. Their huge investments in new fossil fuel production could pay off only if countries fail to rapidly slash carbon emissions, which scientists say is vital.

The oil and gas industry is extremely volatile but extraordinarily profitable, particularly when prices are high, as they are at present. ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron have made almost $2 trillion in profits in the past three decades, while recent price rises led BP’s boss to describe the company as a “cash machine.”

The lure of colossal payouts in the years to come appears to be irresistible to the oil companies, despite the world’s climate scientists stating in February that further delay in cutting fossil fuel use would mean missing our last chance “to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” As the UN secretary general, António Guterres, warned world leaders in April: “Our addiction to fossil fuels is killing us.”

Details of the projects being planned are not easily accessible but an investigation published in the Guardian shows:

  • The fossil fuel industry’s short-term expansion plans involve the start of oil and gas projects that will produce greenhouse gases equivalent to a decade of CO2 emissions from China, the world’s biggest polluter.
  • These plans include 195 carbon bombs, gigantic oil and gas projects that would each result in at least a billion metric tons of CO2 emissions over their lifetimes, in total equivalent to about 18 years of current global CO2 emissions. About 60 percent of these have already started pumping.
  • The dozen biggest oil companies are on track to spend $103 million a day for the rest of the decade exploiting new fields of oil and gas that cannot be burned if global heating is to be limited to well under 2C.
  • The Middle East and Russia often attract the most attention in relation to future oil and gas production but the US, Canada, and Australia are among the countries with the biggest expansion plans and the highest number of carbon bombs. The US, Canada, and Australia also give some of the world’s biggest subsidies for fossil fuels per capita.

At the UN’s Cop26 climate summit in November, after a quarter-century of annual negotiations that as yet have failed to deliver a fall in global emissions, countries around the world finally included the word “coal” in their concluding decision.

Even this belated mention of the dirtiest fossil fuel was fraught, leaving a “deeply sorry” Cop president, Alok Sharma, fighting back tears on the podium after India announced a last-minute softening of the need to “phase out coal” to “phase down coal.”

Nonetheless, the world agreed coal power was history—the question now was how quickly cheaper renewables could replace it, and how fair the transition would be for the small number of developing countries that still relied on it.

But there was no mention of oil and gas in the Cop26 final deal, despite these being responsible for almost 60 percent of fossil fuel emissions.

Furthermore, many of the rich countries, such as the US, that dominate international climate diplomacy and positioned themselves as climate leaders at the conference, are big players in new oil and gas projects. But unlike India, they avoided criticism.

That lack of scrutiny prompted the Guardian to spend the months since Cop26 piecing together the clearest picture possible of forthcoming oil and gas exploration and production.

The world’s scientists agree the planet is in deep trouble. In August, Guterres reacted strongly to a stark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on climate science. “[This report] is a code red for humanity,” he said.

The IPCC states carbon emissions must fall by half by 2030 to preserve the chance of a liveable future, yet they show no sign of declining.

Experts have been warning since at least 2011 that most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves could not be burned without causing catastrophic global heating.

In 2015, a high-profile analysis found that to limit global temperature below 2C, half of known oil reserves and a third of gas had to stay in the ground, along with 80 percent of coal.

Today, the problem is even more acute. A better understanding of the devastating impacts of the climate crisis has led to the internationally agreed limit for global heating being lowered to 1.5C, to cut the risks of extreme heatwaves, droughts, and floods.

In May 2021, a report from the International Energy Agency, previously seen as a conservative body, concluded there could be no new oil or gas fields or coalmines if the world was to reach net zero by 2050.

More warnings soon followed. An updated scientific analysis found the proportion of fossil fuel reserves that would need to stay in the ground for 1.5C jumped to 60 percent for oil and gas and 90 percent for coal, while the UN warned that planned fossil fuel production “vastly exceeds” the limit needed for 1.5C.

In April, shocked by the latest IPCC report that said it was “now or never” to start slashing emissions, Guterres launched an outspoken attack on companies and governments whose climate actions did not match their words.

“Simply put, they are lying, and the results will be catastrophic,” he said. “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”

“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”

The reaction to Russia’s war in Ukraine has pushed oil and gas prices even higher, further incentivizing bets on new fields and infrastructure that would last decades.

The failure of countries to “build back greener” after the Covid-19 pandemic or the 2008 financial crash was not a good omen, and Guterres said: “Fossil fuel interests are now cynically using the war in Ukraine to lock in a high-carbon future.”

Assessing future oil and gas developments is challenging: the sector is complex and often secretive, public information is scarce and hard to find and assess. But a global team of Guardian environment reporters has worked with leading thinktanks, analysts and academics across the world over the past five months and now we can answer a series of questions that reveal the scale of the sector’s plans.

First, how much production is due to come from the projects that are likely to start drilling before the end of this crucial decade?

Next, where exactly are the biggest projects around the world, the so-called carbon bombs that would explode the climate?

We also followed the money: how much is going to be spent on oil and gas that cannot be burned safely, rather than invested in clean energy? And who benefits most from the fossil fuel subsidies that hide the true damage they cause?

The answers to these key questions lead to an inescapable conclusion: if the projects go ahead, they will blow the world’s rapidly shrinking cap on emissions that must be kept to enable a liveable future—known as the carbon budget.

For all the promises made by many oil companies, the data shows they remain committed to their core business despite the consequences.

The short-term expansion plans of oil and gas companies, such as ExxonMobil and Gazprom, are colossal. The Guardian’s investigation has found that in the next seven or so years, they are likely to start producing oil and gas from projects that would ultimately deliver 192 billion barrels, the equivalent of a decade of today’s emissions from China.

This estimate was provided by analysts at Urgewald, who used data from Rystad Energy, the industry standard source but not publicly available. Their Gogel database includes 887 companies that explore for and produce oil and gas, and covers 97 percent of short-term expansion plans.

The companies have made a final financial commitment to projects that will deliver 116 billion barrels, more than half of the 192 billion barrel total.

They have also invested heavily in the rest, including final development, engineering and operation plans. Such investment makes these projects likely to go ahead, barring drastic government action, Urgewald says.

A third of the short-term expansion plans of oil and gas would come from “unconventional” and riskier sources. These include fracking and ultra-deep offshore drilling, which are inherently more dangerous—as the oil and gas companies drill deeper, the number of spills, injuries, and blowouts increase.

The 192 billion barrels are split roughly 50:50 between liquids, including crude oil, and gas. Burning this would produce 73 billion metric tons of CO2. But methane routinely leaks from gas operations and is a powerful greenhouse gas, trapping 86 times more heat than CO2 over 20 years. Including this impact, at a standard supply-chain leak rate of 2.3 percent, means the equivalent of 97 billion metric tons of CO2 added to the atmosphere and driving us faster towards climate hell.

State oil companies lead the Urgewald short-term expansion list, with Qatar Energy, Russia’s Gazprom and Saudi Aramco the top three. Half of Gazprom’s projected expansion is in the fragile Arctic, though the long-term implications of Russia’s war in Ukraine on its fossil fuel plans remain to be seen.

The listed oil majors ExxonMobil, Total, Chevron, Shell, and BP are all in the top 10. Unconventional and risky oil and gas production accounts for about 70 percent of the US majors’ totals, while the proportion of fracking and ultra-deep water ranges from 30 percent to 60 percent for the European companies.

“Most oil and gas companies are just proceeding with business as usual,” Nils Bartsch at Urgewald said. “Some just do not care. Some do not see their responsibility because governments around the world let them proceed, although of course these governments are often influenced by the industry.”

Two-thirds of the 116 billion barrels of oil and gas projects companies are financially committed to are in the Middle East, Russia and North America, according to data provided by Rystad Energy.

Australia is anticipated to be a big contributor with 3.4 billion barrels, more than from the whole of Europe, where fields are relatively depleted.

A separate analysis for the Guardian by Urgewald on the average annual investment in oil and gas exploration over the past three years shows that, along with Shell, three large but rarely scrutinized Chinese companies occupy the top four slots: PetroChina, China National Offshore Oil Corporation, and Sinopec. Seven of the top 10 of these explorers are relying on fracking, ultra-deep water Arctic, and tar sands developments for more than half of their expansion.

Daniel Ribeiro has been fighting plans for a massive offshore pipeline and liquefied natural gas plant in Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique, since it was mooted more than 15 years ago.

The scheme, which would lead to a huge increase in carbon emissions in one of the poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries, is backed by more than £1 billion ($1.2 billion) from the UK government and has some of the biggest oil and gas corporations circling, scenting another huge payday.

“It is already creating a massive amount of disruption for the local fishing and subsistence farmers who are being moved off their land,” said Ribeiro, from the local Justiça Ambiental campaign group. “But if it goes ahead and countries like Mozambique are set off on a fossil fuel track, it will be a global disaster. We can forget tackling the climate crisis…we will all suffer.”

Research shared exclusively with the Guardian has identified the Cabo Delgado development as one of 195 carbon bombs, which—unless stopped—will drive catastrophic climate breakdown around the world.

The term carbon bomb has been widely used in climate circles for the past decade to describe large fossil fuel projects or other big sources of carbon. The new research sets a specific definition: projects capable of pumping at least 1 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions over their lifetimes.

Projects identified include the new drilling wells springing up in the Canadian wilderness as part of the vast Montney Play oil and gas development, and the huge North Field gas fields in Qatar—named in the study as the biggest new oil and gas carbon bomb in the world.

The study, led by Kjell Kühne from the University of Leeds in the UK and due to be published in the journal Energy Policy, found that just a few months after many of the world’s politicians positioned themselves as climate leaders during the Cop26 conference in Glasgow, they were giving the green light to a massive global expansion of oil and gas production that scientists warn would push civilization to the brink.

Asad Rehman, a leading climate justice activist in the UK who was at the forefront of a global network of indigenous activists and civil society campaigners in Glasgow, accused the US, Canada and Australia of “rank hypocrisy.”

“These countries are single-handedly undermining efforts to curtail global emissions and ignoring their responsibility to phase out fossil fuels rapidly and justly.” He said it was the poorest and most vulnerable who were suffering.

“Only the colonial mindset of political leaders in rich countries can make the brutal calculation that the interest of fossil fuel giants and their billions in profit is more important than the lives of people who are overwhelmingly black, brown and poor.”

Together these projects would produce 646 billion metric tons (or gigatonnes) of CO2 emissions, the study says, swallowing the world’s entire carbon budget. More than 60 percent of these schemes are already operating.

Kühne, the director of the Leave it in the Ground Initiative, said in the first instance, the 40 percent of projects that had not yet started production must be stopped if the world was to avoid sliding ever more quickly towards catastrophe, adding they should be a prominent focus of the global climate protest movement in the months and years ahead.

“The oil and gas industry is continuing to plan these huge projects, even in the face of a burning planet. The ambitious targets of the Paris agreement were apparently not enough to make them question their business case. These carbon bombs are the single biggest indicator that we are not trying hard enough.”

The study is based on data from Rystad Energy but, rather than focusing on total barrels, it identifies the mega projects potentially responsible for the biggest emissions.


According to the research, the US is the leading source of potential emissions. Its 22 carbon bombs include conventional drilling and fracking, and span the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the foothills of the Front Range in Colorado to the Permian basin. Together they have the potential to emit 140 billion metric tons of CO2, almost four times more than the entire world emits each year.

Saudi Arabia is the second biggest potential emitter after the US, with 107 billion metric tons, followed by Russia, Qatar, Iraq, Canada, China and Brazil.

Australia, widely condemned by international leaders as a laggard in addressing the climate crisis, ranks 16th.

Robyn Churnside, a Ngarluma elder on the Burrup peninsula in remote north-west Australia, has been fighting fossil fuel and mining developments since the 1970s. She is part of a campaign trying to stop Woodside’s $12 billion Scarborough gas project, one of the biggest fossil fuel developments in the country in a decade.

Churnside said dissenting Indigenous voices were too often ignored when decisions were made about new oil and gas infrastructure that could lock in emissions for decades and desecrate culturally significant sites, which in some cases had stood for tens of thousands of years. “It’s about time the world listened to First Nations people because we have been here a long, long time,” she said. “Our spirit in this land will never rest. It needs protection.”

Prof Kevin Anderson, from the Tyndall Centre of Climate Research, University of Manchester and Uppsala University, Sweden, said the scale of planned production in the face of all the evidence suggested big oil and its political supporters either did not believe the climate science or thought their extreme wealth could somehow protect them and their children from the devastating consequences.

“Either the scientists have spent 30 years working on this issue and have got it all wrong—the big oil CEOs know better—or, behind a veil of concern, they have complete disregard for the more climate vulnerable communities, typically poor, people of color and far away from their lives. Equally worrying, they are disinterested in their own children’s future.”

When BP reported its quarterly earnings in a presentation to financial institutions in February, one analyst said he “really enjoyed the camaraderie and the positivity that you’re generating,” before asking about the company’s cash position.

“We’ve given you a lovely little chart,” said Murray Auchincloss, BP’s chief financial officer. “Certainly, it’s possible that we’re getting more cash than we know what to do with. For now, I’m going to be conservative and manage the company as if it’s $40 [a barrel] oil. Anything we could get above that just helps, obviously.” At the time, the oil price exceeded $90; today it is $106.

The oil industry is awash with cash. The money companies have belongs to shareholders, including pension funds, or in the case of national oil companies, to governments and, in theory at least, citizens. But the investment plans of the biggest oil companies are sharply at odds with the goal of halting the climate crisis.

Data obtained by the Guardian from the think tank Carbon Tracker shows a dozen of the world’s biggest companies are on track to commit a collective $387 million dollars a day of capital expenditure to exploiting oil and gas fields through to 2030.

A significant portion of this is for maintaining production at existing projects—some oil and gas will still be needed as the world weans itself off fossil fuels—but the exact amount is not publicly available. Nonetheless, it is clear that at least a quarter of this investment—$103 million a day—is for oil and gas that cannot be burned if the worst impacts of the climate crisis are to be avoided, money that could instead be spent ramping up clean energy.

Even more worryingly, the companies have developed further project options that might lead them to spend an additional $84m a day that would not even be compatible with a devastating 2.7C of global heating.

The world’s governments agreed in the Paris climate accord to limit global heating to well below 2C, and pursue efforts to limit the temperature rise to 1.5C. For the latter, stricter goal, no new oil and gas projects are possible.

The Carbon Tracker data, compiled in September, uses a temperature of 1.65C to represent the well below 2C target and finds that 27 percent of the companies’ projected investments are incompatible with this.

ExxonMobil has the largest of these climate-busting investment plans at $21 million a day through to 2030, followed by Petrobras ($15 million), Chevron and ConocoPhillips (both $12 million), and Shell ($8 million).

In terms of the most dangerous investments—those that could help drive temperatures beyond 2.7C—Gazprom accounts for $17 million a day of this, ExxonMobil $12 million, Shell $11 million and PetroChina $9 million.

If governments act on the scientific advice to rapidly reduce carbon emissions by boosting clean energy and cutting fossil fuel burning, the companies would have to write off these colossal sums as losses, hitting shareholders, pension funds and public finances. If governments do not act, the companies could cash in as the world burns.

Overall, the international oil companies are making the biggest bets, with almost 40 percent of their projected investments incompatible with 1.65C. ExxonMobil is particularly high, at 56 percent. The national oil company average is 17 percent, although 56 percent of Petrobras’s planned capital expenditure is incompatible with 1.65C.

“Companies that continue to develop projects based on business-as-usual demand are betting on the failure of policy action on climate and underestimating the disruptive potential of new technologies, such as renewables and battery storage,” said Mike Coffin at Carbon Tracker. “Such projects are either not needed or they lead to warming well in excess of Paris goals.”

A separate recent analysis based on Rystad Energy data from April, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, found that 20 of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies remained on course to spend huge sums—$932 billion—by the end of 2030 developing new oil and gas fields.

Freeing the world from the grip of fossil fuels is made far harder by huge ongoing subsidies for the fuels, making them far cheaper than their true cost when the damage they cause is included—especially air pollution, which kills 7 million people a year. The G20 group of leading economies pledged in 2009 to phase out the subsidies but little has been achieved.

Hundreds of billions of dollars in direct financial support is received by the producers and consumers of fossil fuels every year—but they benefit from far larger subsidies by not paying for the harm burning fossil fuels causes. When the damage from the climate crisis and air pollution is accounted for, the fossil fuel subsidies reach $6 trillion a year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Guardian analysis shows this is equivalent to $11 million a minute globally, $4 million a minute in China and more than $1 million in the US.

The Guardian analysis of more detailed IMF data shows drivers in the US, Canada, and Australia, along with Saudi Arabia, are the world’s biggest beneficiaries of subsidies for road fuels, with some governments under pressure to increase these during the current energy crisis.

The per capita-subsidy for petrol and diesel across the population of Saudi Arabia was more than $1,000 a year in 2020. In the US, the road fuel subsidy per capita is $644 and about $500 in both Canada and Australia.

Japan and Germany also appear in the top 10 of the road fuel analysis, which focused on the 54 large countries with more than 25 million people and that account for 90 percent of global population and subsidies. The UK per capita subsidy for road fuels was only $10 a year, indicating taxes on petrol and diesel in 2020 were close to the level of the damage burning the fuels causes.

The US is also high on the list of the biggest per capita subsidies for all fossil fuels with $2,000 a year, behind only Saudi Arabia ($4,550) and Russia ($3,560). After these countries, only Iran ($1,815) is ahead of Australia ($1,730) and Canada ($1,690).

“Taking the Paris agreement seriously requires a rapid shift away from fossil fuels,” said Simon Black, a climate economist at the IMF. “Getting fossil fuel prices right will help enormously in accelerating this transition.”

The shift from burning oil and gas cannot happen overnight, and a declining amount will still need to be burned during the transition to a net zero emissions global economy in 2050. The question is whether companies and governments are moving fast enough.

The Guardian wrote to the oil and gas companies named in its analysis and asked for their response.

“Under the IEA net zero emissions scenario, and all Paris-aligned scenarios, all energy sources remain important through 2050, and oil and natural gas remain essential components of the energy mix,” said a spokesperson for ExxonMobil.

However, the role of oil and gas would be vastly reduced in 2050, and the IEA said: “Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development [in our net zero scenario].”

ExxonMobil planned to invest more than $15 billion on initiatives to lower greenhouse gas emissions over the next six years, the spokesperson said, including carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and biofuels. The company aimed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 but only from its own operations, not the fuels it sold, therefore covering only a small fraction of the emissions from the oil and gas it sells.

A spokesperson for Shell cited recent company statements: “As a result of [our] planned level of capital investment, we expect a gradual decline of about 1-2 percent a year in total oil production through to 2030, including divestments.

“By 2025, Shell expects its expenditure on [low and zero-carbon] products and services across its businesses will have increased to around 50 percent of its total expenditure,” a recent report by the firm states. In 2022, the proportion is expected to be more than 35 percent. In 2021, “Shell achieved its annual investment targets in renewables and energy solutions of $2bn-3bn,” the report says.

ConocoPhillips also cited a recently published net zero emissions plan: “Our goal is to support an orderly transition that matches supply to demand and focuses on returns on, and of, capital while safely and responsibly delivering affordable energy.”

The document states that profits from oil and gas projects are significantly higher than from investments in renewable energy.

ConocoPhillips has allocated $200 million in 2022 to reduce emissions from its operations. To reduce emissions from the burning of the fossil fuels it supplies, the company advocates an “economy-wide price on carbon that would help shift consumer demand from high-carbon to low-carbon energy sources”.

“Petrobras plans its investments considering that the Paris agreement will be successful and global temperature will be kept below 2°C,” a spokesperson for the company said. “Oil will remain important in the coming decades, even in accelerated transition scenarios.”

The spokesperson said the IEA’s scenario for 1.65C indicated some investment in upstream projects was needed. “We are planning for highly resilient assets competitive in scenarios aligned with Paris due to their low production cost and low emissions. Petrobras is following its strategy of maximizing the value of its portfolio, [with 99 percent of the investment on exploration] focusing on deepwater and ultra-deepwater assets.”

TotalEnergies pointed to its recent sustainability report, which it said “showed our stakeholders that we are already on the right track.” The company has a target of a 30 percent cut in emissions from oil and gas sales by 2030 and to increase the proportion of its energy sales that are renewable from 9 percent in 2021 to 20 percent in 2030.

Saudi Aramco and Eni responded to the Guardian but declined to comment. The other companies did not respond to the Guardian’s request.

The Guardian’s investigation has provided an answer to the question of how great a danger the plans of oil and gas companies pose to the climate. But there is another set of questions, those for politicians and governments, that will ultimately affect the course of the climate emergency.

Will the world’s governments act to close the book on the oil companies’ giant climate gamble? Will richer countries, historically most responsible for emissions, support a just transition for developing countries on the frontline of the escalating crisis?

Would strong, immediate action lead to a financial crash, as billions of dollars are wiped off the value of some of the world’s biggest companies? Or will more steady but concerted action wean us off fossil fuels rapidly, close the oil companies’ cash machine and lead us into a clean energy future with a liveable climate? Only time will tell. But, unlike oil and gas, time is in very short supply.

“The world is in a race against time,” said Guterres. “It is time to end fossil fuel subsidies and stop the expansion of oil and gas exploration.”

Reflecting on the war in Ukraine, he said: “Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or knee-cap policies to cut fossil fuel use. This is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”

Additional reporting by Jillian Ambrose, Adam Morton, Nina Lakhani, Oliver Milman, and Chris McGreal.


There’s Something Very Disturbing About Australia’s Very Normal 2022 Elections

Editor’s note: This article first appeared as a guest column in David Corn’s newsletter, Our Land, a twice-weekly dispatch about politics and media. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here. Please check it out.

As an Australian living in the US, I’ve realized that nothing makes me pine for home more than our relatively snoozy elections. Seriously.

The comparisons are stark: While American elections never end, Australia preserves the fantasy that a “campaign,” including the one happening right now, comprises a few weeks of awkward photo-ops, flagrant pork-barreling, and media hyperventilation over minor gaffes. So far, so comforting.

America’s democratic system, attacked on every level from within, is backsliding. Federal elections are enacted through a vulnerable patchwork of state laws; the way things have been going, a willing coup participant could be sitting on your election board. By contrast, behold the Australian Electoral Commission, a trusted, nonpartisan body that quietly administers every election to exacting standards. American elections hinge on turnout, sometimes down to the street level, amid relatively poor national engagement. Australian elections enjoy vast participation, among the highest in the world. The AEC recently announced record enrollment—hailed by its boss as nothing short of a “democratic miracle.” But it is compulsory to vote in Australia, enforceable by fines, so that’s not much of a surprise, and anyway, is a miracle really a miracle if it barely makes the news? Insert shruggy emoji: It all just works.

In Australia, voting is a national celebration. On a Saturday. An entire country throws a “democracy sausage” cookout.

And then there are the candidates. The current prime minister, Scott Morrison, is battling to hold on to a one-seat majority and therefore his job. “ScoMo,” as he is known without much affection, leads the governing conservative coalition. Because this is Australia, ScoMo is up against a guy whose nickname also ends in “o”—a bit of humanizing marketing that Aussie politicians enjoy as the equivalent of eating a corndog at the Iowa State Fair. Anthony “Albo” Albanese is the opposition leader and head of the center-left Labor party. Despite being a fixture of Australian politics for decades as a footy-loving bloke, he is mainly drawing attention for his recent “glow-up” weight loss and new suits.

ScoMo, right, and Albo meet for a televised prime-ministerial debate on Murdoch’s Sky News in April.

Jason Edwards / AP

Of course, the leaders have significant policy differences and backgrounds. ScoMo is a pious evangelical who once, as the nation’s treasurer, extolled the virtues of coal by clowning around with a lump of it on the floor of parliament. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you,” he said. “It’s coal!” He rose to the prime ministership not through an election, but as an internal candidate of last resort after his bitterly divided party, while in power, threw out its leader amid a factional dispute.

Albo, on the other hand, is a backroom powerbroker and member of the party’s progressive wing, perhaps even a shade more Bernie than Biden. “I like fighting Tories,” he once said. “That’s what I do.” After a humiliating defeat for his predecessor three years ago, the uninspiring rationale for Albo, at least to casual observers like me, appeared to be “It’s his turn.”

The campaign has flattened these characters, extruding them of color and history: ScoMo vs. Albo, two familiar white men in their 50s, veteran politicians, performing the norms and rituals of campaigning with the flair of community theater. Just how we like it.

There is one important similarity between our democracies that American readers will immediately recognize: the powerful media influence of Rupert Murdoch. It’s true there is no TV equivalent to Tucker Carlson in Australia. Murdoch’s Sky News remains boutique in comparison to Fox News. Sky’s lineup is a life raft for washed-up culture warriors and other News Corp hardliners who eye America’s divisions with envy. However, Murdoch’s formidable press outfit is far more dominant per square inch of newsprint in Australia and is currently amplifying attacks on Albo as a boring inner-city big spender who is dangerously soft on China. Sound familiar? Murdoch is, after all, Australian, and perfected this sort of mendacious attack long ago, back home. The virus that is Murdoch’s News Corp was lab-leaked from an Adelaide tabloid in the ’50s.

“I’ve never met Rupert Murdoch in my life,” Albo insisted in an extensive February profile in The Monthly, the Australian political magazine. But he can’t avoid pandering to the mogul’s dailies. He recently sat for an interview with Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph to position himself as a “friend to business and aspirational Australians,” squarely in the mainstream. “Albo vows to swerve away from the left,” the front page blared. Then, in case we missed the point, in all-caps: “I AM NOT WOKE.”

Amid all this predictability, here’s the disturbing part. The “campaign”—the breathless horse-race coverage, the basic block-and-tackle of it all—is obscuring what could be a pivotal moment for the future of the nation, and in some respects, for the world.

I’ve written before of climate change as the killing fields of Australian politics, to borrow a phrase from Guardian Australia‘s Lenore Taylor. Dubbed the “climate wars,” disagreements, in part over climate policy, have killed off four sitting prime ministers and contributed to an extraordinary run of leadership chaos over the past decade. The most extreme effects of global warming are already happening in Australia. Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem “My Country,” first published in the early 1900s and taught to Australian children everywhere, romanticizes the “sunburned country…Of drought and flooding rains.” Her quaint vision of a nation held together against the elements has morphed into a biblical horror cycle of extreme fires, record-setting floods, and actual plagues. As long-term costs to Australia’s roads and infrastructure become fixtures of national budgets, the conservatives in power are still low-balling climate commitments while winking at the far-right flank: It’s not really that bad.

“The generations of Australians that went before us, including our First Australians, also faced natural disasters, floods, fires, global conflicts, disease and drought,” the PM said during Australia’s 2019–2020 bushfire season, the worst on record. “We have faced these disasters before and we have prevailed, we have overcome.”

Don’t mind the flaming koalas.

Australians know what it’s like to live on these frontiers, and that’s reflected in national sentiment. A growing majority of Australians say climate change is a pressing concern, according to a 2021 poll. In an eight-point jump since 2019, the same survey reported that 55 percent of Australians now say the government’s top priority for energy policy should be “reducing carbon emissions.” Six out of 10 eligible voters think ScoMo’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 won’t be enough, according to a recent YouGov poll. So, one theory goes, there must be conservative voters who are on the hunt for alternatives to the climate hardliners. Can they be picked off?

Deadly, record-setting floods hit Australia’s east in February and March, devastating towns like Lawrence, in rural New South Wales.

A massive injection of cash (by Australian standards) from the group Climate 200, reportedly around $10 million, is helping to test that theory, backing a slate of so-called “teal independents” contesting wealthy blue-ribbon seats. The idea is to direct voters to business-minded, climate-friendly candidates with the goal of putting whomever ends up running parliament on notice. This could fracture the conservative vote—an “existential threat,” warned one freaked-out Murdoch columnist last week. (A Climate 200–backed Melbourne independent, Zoe Daniel, has opened up a whopping 24-point lead over a conservative incumbent, according to one poll.) The Labor party may possess more aggressive climate pledges, but Albo, cautious of alienating anyone, is wary of making climate the centerpiece campaign issue. If his party doesn’t win a majority, it too will be beholden to these independents.

Meanwhile, the smaller, climate-first Greens party is enjoying a recent bump in popularity, which, given Australia’s ranked-choice voting system, could make the final picture even more complex.

The election is two weeks away. Unlike in America, there are no fancy FiveThirtyEight-style modelers tinkering with projections and fueling Election Day nightmares. The most prominent weekly poll has remained pretty consistent, showing Albo’s Labor poised to win. (Other polls show the same.) Of course, the last election also predicted a Labor win, and ScoMo, the conservative, eked out a victory. But his lackluster response to Australia’s drumbeat of apocalypse appears to have had a lasting impact, and, like Ted “Cancun” Cruz, he’ll be remembered for skipping town for Hawaii during the country’s worst bushfire crisis. He was lucky that the state governments controlled the basic mechanics of the coronavirus pandemic, sparing Australians the worst outcomes—but voters remember ScoMo’s bumbling excuses for what he could control, the country’s painfully slow vaccine rollout. His reaction to the pandemic can be seen as a scaled study of his government’s response to the bigger and more relentless assault of climate change across the continent.

If nothing else, Australians love to turf out a mob that has overstayed its welcome.

Right now, everything may seem typical, boring almost, but there are fractures in what former conservative PM John Howard once described as his ideal citizenry: a “relaxed and comfortable” electorate. Zoom out from the campaign, and Australia is a nation facing a signal moment. Will its people vote against the rising waters and the darkening skies? As Australians feast on their democracy sausages, will indelible memories of barbecued koalas be enough?


The Folly of Ramping Up American Gas Exports to Europe

The Marvel Crane, a liquid natural gas carrier, at an LNG terminal in Hackberry, Louisiana.US Coast Guard/Flickr

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In the span of weeks, Russia’s war on Ukraine has created millions of refugees, transformed the geopolitical landscape, upended global energy markets and food supply chains, and hastened Europe’s efforts to transition away from fossil fuels. The war also threatens to alter the trajectory of energy and climate policy in the United States.

On March 25, a month after Russia launched its invasion, President Biden met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels and jointly announced a new initiative to help Europe reduce its reliance on Russian fossil fuels. Their plan calls for boosting exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the US to the European Union by 15 billion cubic meters this year and as much as 50 billion cubic meters—a third of what Europe currently buys from Russia—by 2030.

Biden administration officials have characterized the LNG surge as a stopgap measure to help Europe bridge these next few years until it can build more renewable energy and make its buildings and industries more energy efficient. But energy analysts say the announcement could signal a pivot toward greater support for expanding gas infrastructure, potentially locking in significant new sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

New LNG terminals—whether for export on the US Gulf Coast or for import on Germany’s North Sea coast—would take several years and several billion dollars to build. Analysts say that by the time they are up and running, the geopolitical environment may look different, but climate change will be all the more urgent, and there will be powerful business incentives to keep the terminals operating.

“Europe needs more US LNG to get through the next two winters, not incentivization to use gas for the next 20 years,” said Claire Healy, of the energy think tank E3G, in a statement. “It has turned a short-term energy crunch into a long-term crutch for American oil and gas producers.”

Some energy experts caution that expanding LNG infrastructure would be a distraction from more durable solutions to promote energy security in both the US and the EU. Rather than boosting supply by building LNG projects that could become stranded assets, they say, countries should focus on energy efficiency and other ways to reduce demand for gas.

Even with new terminals, LNG from the US won’t be able to replace the massive volume of gas that Europe imports from Russia, either today or in 10 years, said Maria Pastukhova, a Berlin-based senior policy advisor with E3G. “That’s why the focus on demand is so crucial.”

Two recent analyses contend that the US can help Europe shut off the spigot of Russian gas within the next few years while also resisting the industry’s calls to expand gas infrastructure.

New US LNG export facilities aren’t needed to meet the Biden-EU targets, according to Clark Williams-Derry of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). He authored a recent analysis showing that the combined capacity of the LNG export terminals in the US currently operating and under construction is more than sufficient to reach the aim of an additional 15 billion cubic meters by the end of 2022 and 50 billion by 2030.

“They were already on track to blow through that goal of 15 billion cubic meters this year, and maybe even get close to the 50 billion cubic meter target this year,” Williams-Derry said, referring to US LNG exporters. “Which means that the goal itself doesn’t add anything new to the conversation.”

Another report, produced by E3G in collaboration with several other energy think tanks, outlines near-term measures that can be taken to slash Europe’s demand for gas. The analysis finds that deploying more clean energy, electrifying heating and industrial processes, and improving energy efficiency could cut Russian gas imports by two thirds by 2025, blunting the need for the US to export more gas.

As is, the US is expected to become the world’s largest exporter of LNG this year. It has six LNG export terminals that together move around 100 billion cubic meters of gas per year. These facilities—designed to shrink natural gas to a volume 600 times smaller by supercooling it into liquid form—were built to take advantage of the enormous glut of gas unlocked from shale formations since drillers started deploying fracking technology in the mid-2000s.

Two more terminals are on the way: Calcasieu Pass on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast and Golden Pass, located about 50 miles west on the Sabine River just south of Port Arthur, Texas. An analysis from EIA projects that, with new gas liquefaction facilities already under construction and growing foreign demand for gas, US LNG exports will exceed 165 billion cubic meters by 2033.

Long before Russia’s war on Ukraine, there were growing concerns that additional LNG export terminals would lock in climate-warming pollution for decades to come. A report published by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that greenhouse gas emissions from the full process of extracting, processing, transporting, and liquefying natural gas will be equivalent to the emissions of up to 45 million cars by 2030. Leaks of methane—a potent greenhouse gas trapping 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide over a 20-year time span—account for a large portion of those emissions.

Last fall, the US led the launch of the Global Methane Pledge at the UN climate meeting in Glasgow, in which more than 100 countries promised to cut their methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Climate advocates are pushing the Biden administration to explain how it intends to reconcile that call to action—and its own climate targets of halving greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade—with the plan to boost gas exports out to 2030.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report makes it clear that no new fossil fuel infrastructure can be built if the world is to stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. Investing in any new fossil fuel development, said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the day of the report’s release, “is moral and economic madness.”

For climate advocates, it has been jarring to watch US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and other Biden administration officials ask oil and gas firms to increase production to help counter a surge in prices and shore up European allies. “Clearly LNG is a big part of this equation,” Granholm told energy executives assembled for a conference in Houston in March. “We have got to do our part to ensure that others are not hurting.” She pledged that the administration would look at ways to “collapse the bureaucracy” around permitting for new projects.

Industry trade associations such as the American Petroleum Institute and the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas were quick to celebrate the Biden-EU deal and to use it to amplify their longstanding push for more natural gas infrastructure and fewer regulatory hurdles. “We stand ready to work with the administration to follow this announcement with meaningful policy actions to support global energy security,” Mike Sommers, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement, “including further addressing the backlog of LNG permits, reforming the permitting process, and advancing more natural gas pipeline infrastructure.”

The industry has complained about burdensome regulations, but a lack of federal permits is not holding back development of new LNG terminals or pipelines to supply them. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Department of Energy have issued approvals for 13 different liquefaction projects that have not broken ground because their developers have not been able to secure financing for them.

Building new LNG facilities—which include pipelines to supply natural gas, liquefaction units to chill it to minus 260 degrees F, and specialized docks for loading it onto 1,000-foot-long tanker ships—is a long and expensive undertaking. Before footing the bill for construction, banks typically want to see a slate of long-term contracts with foreign buyers that accounts for most of a project’s future gas output.

Investors have been holding back in recent years, mindful of the Covid-induced crash in natural gas demand in 2020 and the risk that climate policies implemented later this decade could suppress longer-term demand in many markets. “The infrastructure you start now may wind up being an albatross in three or four years,” said IEEFA’s Williams-Derry.

Proposed LNG export infrastructure won’t be sending gas to Europe any time soon. But a push from governments could change that.

Energy analysts say that if policymakers pivot toward supporting new gas infrastructure, that could stymie investments in clean energy and energy efficiency in both the US and Europe. Pastukhova worries that governments might provide loan guarantees and pressure their development banks to facilitate new LNG project investments, which are fraught with risks because of the mismatched timelines of 20-year-contracts required by investors in LNG terminals and looming 2030 international emissions reduction deadlines.

“If this happens and governments give in to the push by industry, we end up with public finance sunk into assets that are stranded from the beginning, leaving much less space to invest in the accelerated energy transition,” Pastukhova said. “And we really need every cent of this public finance for that transition.”

As the evidence of brutal attacks on Ukrainian civilians by Russian forces mounts by the day, the pressure on European leaders—particularly in Germany, which is heavily dependent on Russian gas—to impose an embargo on Russian energy imports is mounting. European countries send Gazprom and other government-controlled firms in Russia about $850 million for gas and oil every day. In early April, the EU’s top diplomat said that since Russia’s invasion began, the EU has sent 35 billion euros to Russia for energy, while it has sent just 1 billion euros in aid to Ukraine.

Experts say that the multiple imperatives of cutting emissions, supporting allies abroad, and achieving energy security at home, all point toward the same answer: using less natural gas.

“There is this very traditional perception of energy security as security of supply,” Pastukhova said. “But what’s happening in energy markets is this emerging understanding that it’s about security of both supply and demand.”

Research from Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor and energy systems expert at Princeton University, suggests that while increasing and rerouting LNG shipments to Europe will help now, implementing the climate-focused elements of Biden’s long-stalled Build Back Better bill would enable more robust support for Europe’s struggle to wean itself off Russian gas over the next few years.

Jenkins and colleagues modeled the impact of a clean energy investment package equivalent to that in the bill and found it would cut domestic gas use by 57 billion cubic meters by 2028. That, in turn, would free up US natural gas supplies for export using existing LNG infrastructure—giving European policymakers the confidence to pivot away from Russian energy, while insulating US consumers and businesses from global price shocks resulting from increased demand.

Without such steps, high natural gas prices could make increasing LNG exports out to 2030 both economically and politically unsustainable. Part of the reason natural gas prices are surging now, Williams-Derry said, is the recent increase in LNG exports.

“Ultimately we solve this on the demand side,” Jenkins said. “And we do it by making alternatives on the demand side better—cheaper, better, more convenient—in the context of a large investment package in clean energy, and in accelerating US demand away from oil and gas. And in a context where the EU is doing the same thing.”


Turns Out Biofuels Aren’t All They Were Cracked Up to Be

“Models are always incomplete. They are usually lacking important data that ideally they would have, but which doesn’t exist or doesn’t exist as broadly across the world as you’d like,” says Richard Plevin, a former academic who specializes in biofuel modeling and now works as a consultant. In 2006 he was part of a team at UC Berkeley that published a study concluding that corn-based ethanol could have lower environmental impacts than gasoline.

Since then Plevin’s position has changed completely. “My conclusion at the end of all this is it’s misguided,” he says. The problem, Plevin argues, is that it’s impossible to accurately estimate the overall emissions that result from using biofuels. The effects of biofuel mandates can ripple out in unpredictable ways. If biofuel displaces gasoline in one country, then this could suppress the price of gasoline elsewhere in the world and lead to people increasing their fuel use. Add in a war, or trade embargoes, and the whole dynamic can flip again. “You can assume 10 different scenarios about the way things are going to unfold and you’ll get 10 different answers, and they might all be equivalently realistic. How do you build a policy around that?”

For Plevin this leaves us with an obvious choice: reducing our dependence on liquid fuels altogether. “If I were king for a day, I would be putting all my effort into electrification right now,” he says. Hill agrees. “It’s no longer corn ethanol versus gasoline. They have the same interest, and they’re both feeling pressure from electrification, which is their common enemy,” he says.

There are other impacts of bioethanol too. Global food prices jumped by a record 13 percent last month. Diverting some US corn away from bioethanol and toward food would help keep prices lower and replace lost exports from Ukraine and Russia. “There is all this competition for the land,” says Annie Levasseur, a professor at L’École de Technologie Supérieure, an engineering faculty based in Montreal. “If we want to look at the impact of increasing biofuel, then we will need cropland, and there will be this displacement.”

Levasseur and Hill are both part of a committee put together by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to assess current methods for analyzing the impact of low-carbon transportation fuels. The committee’s report, which will be published in the third quarter of 2022, “contains information that the EPA may wish to take into consideration if it decides to develop a new RFS or a low-carbon fuel standard,” says Camilla Yandoc Ables, a senior program officer at NASEM.

In Lavasseur’s opinion, bioethanol production is already high and shouldn’t be increased. Instead, the US government should be looking at other ways to reduce transportation emissions. “We cannot keep increasing demand for energy and then transform everything to biofuel,” she says. “We really need to decrease the demand.”