The Western Australian government has been criticised for approving a greenhouse gas abatement plan for a Woodside Energy-led gas export development that will allow the plant to increase emissions over the next decade.

It came as Woodside’s interim chief executive, Meg O’Neill, argued that the oil and gas company could develop new fossil fuel projects while aiming to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

The McGowan Labor state government this week announced it had approved an emissions plan for an expanded Pluto liquified natural gas development in the Pilbara. The project would allow a Woodside-led group of companies to process gas extracted from the Scarborough offshore reservoir more than 400km off the coast.

WA’s environment and climate action minister, Amber-Jade Sanderson, said its approval required emissions from Pluto LNG to be reduced by 30% by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050.

Climate campaigners said this wording masked that emissions from Pluto would increase by about 60% this decade as its production expanded with the addition of a second LNG train. The 30% cut is relative to a 2007 estimate of what the emissions from a production facility of this size would have been.

They said the plan would only reduce the total emissions from the plant by about 2% once the full impact was counted, including downstream “scope 3” emissions released after the gas was shipped and burned overseas. Total emissions from the project would be equivalent to that released by 14 coal-fired power plants across their lifetimes, they said.

Sanderson said the emissions abatement program had been granted after expert independent advice from the state’s Environmental Protection Authority. She said she had rejected earlier Woodside emissions plans for not going far enough.

“The new [plan] represents a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from that approved in 2007,” she said. “The reduction is approximately 1.2 million tonnes per annum – or 30 per cent less than the original approval – by 2030, with a target of net zero emissions by 2050, across the entire project.”

The shareholder activist group the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility said it was “dumbfounded” by the approved targets, which would allow annual emissions from Pluto to double in 2026 from 1.8m to 3.6m tonnes before being reduced to 2.9m tonnes by 2030.

“Woodside’s claims that it is reducing carbon emissions, when in fact it is actually doubling its emissions at the Pluto LNG facility, is a feat of mental gymnastics that only Woodside could muster,” the group’s Dan Gocher said.

He said the targets did not address “the much larger issue of scope 3 emissions”, ignoring the majority of shareholders who last year voted in favour of the company setting science-based climate targets.

“This project is at odds with the expectations of investors for companies to align their capital expenditure and decarbonisation strategies with the Paris Agreement,” Gocher said.

A major report by the International Energy Agency found all fossil fuel expansion should end for the planet to meet the goals agreed in Paris. The Australia Institute said when held up next to this the Pluto development was a “climate wrecking” project.

Woodside logo
Woodside Energy is leading the gas export development in WA’s Pilbara region. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters

Piers Verstegen, from the Conservation Council of Western Australia, said the emissions plan could lead to more than 1.5bn tonnes of emissions in its lifetime once scope 3 was counted and failed to address the impact of the facility on nearby Murujuga rock art.

“The new conditions also do not address the significant legal questions that are hanging over the primary approvals which were given without environmental assessment in 2019,” he said. “That is why the Conservation Council will continue legal proceedings challenging those primary approvals in the WA Supreme Court.”

Woodside said it would “integrate a number of measures” to cut emissions at the site, including adopting best practice LNG technology and offsetting some carbon pollution by planting trees. The plan does not mention potent methane emissions that leak during extraction.

Speaking at an Australian energy conference on Tuesday, O’Neill said the Scarborough reservoir contained “almost no” carbon dioxide, making it “particularly attractive in a decarbonising world”. “It’s one of the lowest carbon sources of LNG in Australia,” she said.

O’Neill dismissed suggestions that the increasing pressure on global oil and gas companies – including ExxonMobil being forced to appoint climate activists as directors and a Dutch court finding Shell must cut its emissions by 45% by 2030 – were a “watershed moment” for the industry. She said the company was committed to putting a climate change report to shareholders next year.

Sanderson said the state was committed to net zero emissions by 2050 but emissions released in other countries were not covered by its commitment. “This is a standard approach to accounting for emissions under international climate change frameworks,” she said.

Campaigners have criticised the approval process that has not assessed the cumulative impact of all elements of the project, including the offshore gas field, piping infrastructure and expanded processing facility. The federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment found in August 2019 that the pipeline works did not have to be assessed under national conservation laws, and the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environment Management Authority had approved the development of the gasfield in April 2020.

At a state level, the EPA last year approved the pipeline construction in WA waters near the shore and found the expansion of the processing facility was only a minor change to previous approval decisions and did not require a full assessment.

The EPA recommended two years ago that all new major fossil fuel projects should have to offset all emissions but changed its advice after the state government intervened.

LNG developments in WA have driven an increase in national industrial emissions since midway through last decade, and made it the only state to have increased its carbon pollution since 2005.

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