“A free pass to pollute”: The 12 dirtiest companies in Australia, ranked

They’ve been dubbed the “dirty dozen”, having spewed out more than 287 million tonnes of dangerous, climate-warming pollution in the last six years — the equivalent of half of Saudi Arabia’s total emissions in 2020.

Chevron Australia, Woodside Energy, Anglo American, Santos, BHP, Glencore Coal, Inpex, Shell Australia, ConocoPhillips, South32, Esso Australia, and Centennial Coal have topped the Climate Council’s list of Australia’s filthiest fossil fuel polluters.

The EPA has created a massive clean-up facility on the remote Lemon Springs property.

Climate Council head of advocacy Jennifer Rayner says the 12 companies have a “free pass to pollute” while many other smaller and medium-sized businesses in Australia are working hard to neutralize their commercial footprint.

“Australians are suffering under dangerous climate change, and want more to be done to reduce this harm. Our greenhouse gas emissions need to start plummeting if we are to protect our way of life,” she said.

“The dirty dozen have had a free pass to pollute for far too long — it’s well past time they pulled their weight in our shared national effort to cut emissions.”

The Climate Council’s analysis comes amid a furor over the Labor government’s climate action plan which allows big polluters to purchase an infinite amount of carbon credits to offset their emissions.

Director of independent think tank Climate Energy Finance Tim Buckley says it is crucial to name and shame the laggards that are driving Australia’s industrial pollution to intensify pressure on them to act.

“These dozen super-polluters must make tangible, deep progress on reducing emissions, and governments and investors alike must hold them accountable for this,” Buckley said.

What is Labor’s climate policy?

The legislation to update the Coalition-era Safeguard Mechanism would see emissions capped at 4.9% a year for 215 companies in Australia, with hefty fines to apply to those that exceed that net amount.

But critics of the legislation — the crown jewel in the Labor party’s climate plan — say it’ll allow big business to buy their way out of their responsibility to drive down the country’s carbon emissions as we work towards net zero in 2050.

“Australia won’t be able to meet our legislated emissions reduction targets and make real progress to tackle harmful climate change if we don’t genuinely cut emissions,” Rayner continued.

“To do that we should ensure the dirty dozen can’t buy carbon offsets to keep on polluting as usual.”

The Labor government is also proposing tailored treatment to “emissions-intensive, trade-exposed” facilities to ensure Australia is not pricing itself out of the international market.

In January, Climate and Energy Minister Chris Bowen described the proposal as a “pro-competitiveness measure, a pro-climate measure, and a pro-industry measure”.

“If you talk to any of the big industrial players here in Australia, they will tell you that their international competitors are fast moving down this track as well, and we don’t want to get to a point where other countries have moved so far ahead of us in reducing their emissions in heavy industry that people will stop buying our products because they’re too emissions-intensive,” Bowen said.

Bowen admitted the 4.9% baseline was an ambitious target, but after lengthy consultation said he firmly believed it was “pretty reasonable” considering the 215 facilities are responsible for nearly a third (28%) of Australia’s emissions.

Business community reacts

In a statement last month the Business Council of Australia (BCA) tentatively welcomed the updates to the Safeguard Mechanism which it described as a “crucial tool in Australia’s ability to accelerate the decarbonization of the economy while remaining internationally competitive”.

“The final design of the Safeguard reforms will require ongoing consultation, recognizing that for some businesses the transition will be more difficult because the necessary technology is still to be developed,” it continued.

“Importantly, the reforms proposed in the government’s position paper recognize the role the Safeguard Mechanism has in Australia’s ability to send investment signals.

“This enables the business to continue growing and remain internationally competitive, which will minimize carbon leakage overseas.”

The BCA also nodded to communities anxious about local economies being upended by a rapid decarbonization effort — including places like Traralgon, near Loy Yang Power Station — saying it was satisfied the government was taking it seriously.

“The transition to net zero will also be challenging for some communities, and we support the allocation of funding and support to those most impacted through the government’s Powering the Regions Fund.”

But the legislation is also a powerful siren song for the private sector, BCA added, in its bid to develop internationally competitive renewable products — like lithium technology for the world’s electric vehicles.

BCA chief executive Jennifer Westacott told the AFR the council felt the Safeguard Mechanism was the “best mechanism to send a signal for driving investment into lower emissions technology”.

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