Climate champion SA Labor's dark stain



South Australia heads to the polls this Saturday, and clean energy has been a major battleground in the campaign. With pledges to create the world's largest 'virtual power plant' and boost the state's renewable energy target to 75 per cent, on top of previous commitments like a solar thermal power station at Port Augusta, Labor seems the best choice for the environment.

Great Australian BightExcept it's not that simple, and the complexity echoes a broader trend in political coverage of environment issues: climate change has monopolised the debate, squeezing out local conservation concerns. The upshot is a Left-leaning government can be progressive on clean energy, while holding a regressive stance on less prominent topics.

Over the last few years, South Australian Labor has been a flag-bearer for renewable energy, bravely charging forward despite constant flak from the federal Coalition. What the Weatherill government has announced really is world-leading stuff. Yet when an alliance of environment groups released their scorecard on the policies of the major parties, Labor only got two stars out of five, just ahead of the Liberal party with one and a half stars.

Why? Because when it came to a range of nature conservation commitments, the Libs were actually better than Labor. In response to questions from the 'Our Future' alliance, the Liberals reconfirmed a ten-year moratorium on unconventional gas extraction, including fracking, in the agriculturally rich south-east of the state. Labor, however, has maintained its support for an expanded gas industry in this area.

The Liberals also got a better score than Labor on fire management and protecting the Kalakoopah Creek wilderness in the Simpson Desert.

But the big sleeper issue for the state's environment is opening up the Great Australian Bight to risky deepwater oil drilling, and on this the South Australian Labor Party has also been a major letdown.

Remote and pristine, the Great Australian Bight is home to one of the world's most important southern right whale nurseries, located in shallow water just below the Bunda Cliffs of the Nullarbor Plain. Further east, a series of islands support populations of vulnerable Australian sea lions, including Kangaroo Island, where wildlife tourism is a lynchpin of the local economy.


"If Labor wants to be seen as the party of clean energy, then it needs to tell a consistent story, and that means a much harder stance against oil and gas exploration in the Bight."


In 2015, BP submitted plans to explore the area for oil, sparking fears about the devastating impact of an oil spill on this unique coastal ecosystem. BP shelved their plans in late 2016, but not before releasing modelling that showed an uncontrolled oil spill from their planned wells in the Bight could affect coastlines as far away as New South Wales. It would be a certain catastrophe for the local environment and economy.

Since then, thanks to a concerted community campaign, another big oil company, Chevron, has also quit plans to drill in the Bight. But others still hold titles for exploration, including international oil giants Statoil and Murphy, plus some smaller companies.

The Liberals are open to this oil exploration, and so receive the worst star rating from environment groups on this issue. But whereas Nick Xenophon's SA Best and the Greens are both strongly opposed to any drilling in the Bight, Labor's only opposition seems to be making sure the companies adhere to regulations.

Not that many people would know about it. Compared to their clean energy policies, South Australian Labor's position on oil exploration in the Great Australian Bight has hardly rated a mention in the national media.

One reason for the lack of coverage is that the environment debate has become all about energy, and nature conservation issues have been sidelined. (In Australia, for example, the Turnbull government combined environment and energy into the one ministerial super-portfolio, echoing similar moves in Europe.)

This is what's happening in South Australia, and it's not the only state. We can also see the same dynamic playing out in Victoria, where a progressive Labor government has been generating positive headlines with clean energy, conveniently overshadowing their much poorer record on old-growth logging.

Another reason also relates to the current obsessive focus on 'energy politics'. Most Australian political coverage is federal, and within this national narrative, the environmental left sees South Australian Labor as their champion, pushing back against the federal government's anti-renewables smear campaign. It's a simple, powerful story — why complicate it by mentioning the dark stain of oil exploration?

What it ignores, of course, is that opening up the Great Australian Bight to oil exploration would also release a huge amount of greenhouse pollution. A Climate Analytics report from April 2016 estimated just two of the nine permit areas in the Bight could yield nine billion barrels of oil. When burned, that would produce nearly eight times Australia's 2013 annual carbon dioxide emissions from all fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas combined).

If Labor wants to be seen as the party of clean energy — which polls suggest is a vote winner — then it needs to tell a consistent story, and that means a much harder stance against oil and gas exploration in the Bight.



Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, South Australia, solar, renewable energy, oil, Great Australian Bight, Jay Weatherill



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Existing comments

Thanks for this article on the patchy record of the SA Government (which may change today, perhaps). I have been very impressed by its innovative approach to renewable energy, and its ability to stand up to the Federal Govt. on this issue. However, I did not know about the possibility of drilling for oil on the Great Australian Bight. This is obviously a highly sensitive area, and an oil spill anywhere near it would be a disaster.
Rodney Wetherell | 17 March 2018

Greg, as always a very good article. The SA Labour government has of course installed a diesel generation capacity to ensure energy supply. What have these emissions been in the last year ? We don't know of course because the contract is "commercial in confidence" which has a certain "convenience" for the premier's narrative. SA power costs are higher by 50% than other Australian states. This of course impacts the most needy who have homes built with the poorest materials and need more energy to heat and cool. You are right, the Weatherill government narrative across the entire energy domain is full of inconsistencies and does not even appear to be sincere. The oil exploration across the bite is just one example. Because of the Weatherill policy, families who who can least afford to pay the increased prices are now paying them and the weatherill government has replaced one polluting generation capacity with another. I hope for the sake of south Australia that Jay has had his day. History will not treat him kindly as the newly installed generation capacity is understood in its polluting fullness.
Patrick | 17 March 2018

Greg, you obviously have great sincerity, but you fail to mention that Labour SA energy policies have made SA electricity the lost expensive in world (really!...up there with their most expensive hospital in the world). Their electricity is also one of the most unreliable in the advanced world. This is socially and economically a long-term disaster for SA, especially to the less well off, and at literally no advantage to CO2 levels or climate change, especially since keeping the lights on now depends on connecting to Victorian brown coal. Terrible policy from a quite irresponsible government dependent on being deliberately and cynically blind to the facts, all in order to pick up inner city populist green-left votes.
Eugene | 17 March 2018

I visited SA earlier this month and there have been boundary changes in electorates, people I spoke to about Nick Xenophon are not sure about his candidates and I didn't read anything in the local press about oil and gas exploration in the Bight. The headlines were about the Adelaide Festival and the footy. I didn't read the papers every day though, only at the weekend. The Bight is a treasure and needs to be protected!
Pam | 17 March 2018

Many thanks Greg for this clear and concise exposure of vitally-important, long-term issues that are often not made clear to us by the 'regular' media. You have provided a great example of factual and insightful reporting. Am passing this on to our Journalism Department at Griffith University. Hoping you and others will continue to press this comprehensive analysis.
Dr Marty Rice | 17 March 2018


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