Fossil fuel representatives have joined the Morrison government in rejecting scientific warnings that no new oil and gas fields should be opened if the world is to deal with the climate crisis, with a national conference hearing Australia should be “smart enough” to back continued expansion.
Increased gas and oil supply was “absolutely part of the solution” to decarbonising the economy, the annual conference of gas industry group the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (Appea) was told.
The push to open new fossil fuel basins in Australia, which has had support from both major parties, is at odds with a warning by the International Energy Agency that no new oil or gas fields or coalmines should be developed if the world was to keep alive a chance of limiting global heating to 1.5C, a goal agreed at global climate meetings.
The head of the IEA, Fatih Birol, reiterated the point last week, saying new oil and gas fields would have little impact on the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, would take years to go ahead and would lock in fossil fuel use and high greenhouse gas emissions for decades.
Birol suggested expansion of existing fields could be justified, but said new developments could become stranded assets if the world succeeded in moving to net zero and the momentum for a shift to clean energy had never been greater. He was responding to a Guardian investigation that found fossil fuel companies, including some in Australia, were planning “carbon bomb” projects that would drive the globe to catastrophic heating levels.
A peer-reviewed study published on Tuesday suggested that, in addition to new developments not going ahead, nearly half of existing fossil fuel production sites would need to be shut early if the 1.5C goal was to remain viable.
A spokesperson for the Morrison government said the Coalition remained “strongly committed to a gas-led recovery”. They said the government was supporting measures to open up the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory, and more oil supply was the “best way to reduce prices in the long term”.
“Companies like Woodside and Santos are committing billions of dollars to new gas projects in Australia, which demonstrates the industry’s confidence in its long-term future,” he said.
Labor did not respond to questions before publication.
Ian Davies, Appea’s chair and the chief executive of oil and gas company Senex Energy, told the gas conference that IEA net zero scenarios suggested oil and gas would still be used in 2050, and must be “absolutely part of the solution” to decarbonisation. But he said being able to capture and store carbon dioxide at a massive scale would have to play a central role if the industry was to be a part of a global decarbonisation.
Davies described carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) – usually involving capturing emissions and burying them underground – as “a proven technology”, and said Australia was home to the biggest project in the world, Chevron’s Gorgon development in the Pilbara. It started operation in 2019 and has buried 6m tonnes of emissions.
The conference heard there were about 30 CCUS projects across the globe. Santos had begun work on a “world-scale” CCUS project at Moomba in South Australia that would bury 1.7m tonnes a year, and ExxonMobil buried 9m tonnes annually across the globe.
Opponents say CCUS is not economically viable at scale despite receiving billions of dollars in committed public support, including more than $400m from the Morrison government. Global emissions from energy use last year were 36.3bn tonnes.
Davies said: “The fact is there are proven examples of CCUS, and that fact matters.”
He said rather than continue as a net importer of oil products, Australia should “achieve oil security” by encouraging investment in new developments such as Santos’s proposal to open the Bedout Basin in Western Australia and expanding “existing basins where possible”.
“Will we be smart enough to unlock the wealth in support of our own domestic industries and to generate export income for our nation?” he asked the conference, being held in Brisbane with a slogan of “positive energy for a changing world”.
Guardian Australia asked Australia’s biggest gas companies for their response to the IEA’s statement on the development of new gas fields. Santos declined to comment.
A spokesperson for Woodside argued its $16bn Scarborough development was an existing gas field, and not a new development, as it had already been discovered. The company announced last year it had made a final investment decision to develop the field 375km off the Pilbara coast and expected to start production in 2026.
The spokesperson said Woodside had a target of reducing its emissions by 30% by 2030, in part by relying on carbon offsets, and an “aspiration” of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 or sooner.
“Woodside sees an important role for Scarborough gas in the energy transition,” the spokesperson said.
Gas is often described as having about half the emissions of coal when burned, but global studies have found the actual figure can be higher due to leaks during extraction and transport.
The resources minister, Keith Pitt, and Labor’s shadow resources minister, Madeleine King, were due to address the Appea conference by video on Wednesday and Thursday respectively.
The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, joined climate protesters outside the conference on Tuesday. He called on the next government to join a pledge to cut emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas released during gas extraction – by 30% by 2030. “Gas is as dirty as coal and toxic methane is a climate bomb exploding in our backyard,” he said.