Environment Minister Sussan Ley faces a critical test: will she let a mine destroy koala breeding grounds?


Lachlan G. Howell, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, University of Newcastle

In the next few weeks, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley will decide whether to approve a New South Wales quarry expansion that will destroy critical koala breeding grounds.

The case, involving the Brandy Hill Quarry at Port Stephens, is emblematic of how NSW environment laws are failing wildlife — particularly koalas. Efforts to erode koala protections hit the headlines last week when NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro threatened to detonate the Coalition over the issue.




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Koala populations are already under huge pressure. A NSW parliamentary inquiry in June warned the koala faces extinction in the state by 2050 if the government doesn’t better control land clearing and habitat loss.

Ley could either continue these alarming trends, or set a welcome precedent for koala protection. Her decision is also the first big test of federal environment laws since an interim review found they were failing wildlife. So let’s take a closer look at what’s at stake in this latest controversy.

A koala clinging to a tree branch
This female koala is under threat from the Brandy Hill Quarry expansion.
Lachlan Howell, Author provided

The Brandy Hill Quarry expansion

The NSW government gave approval to Hanson Construction Materials, a subsidiary of Heidelberg Cement, to expand the existing Brandy Hill Quarry in Seaham in Port Stephens.

The project would provide concrete to meet Sydney’s growing construction demands, as the state fast-tracks infrastructure projects to help the economy recover from COVID-19.

The approval came despite the known presence of koalas in the area. A koala survey report, completed on behalf of the developer in 2019, determined the project would “result in a significant impact to the koala”.

The report recommended the quarry expansion be referred to the federal Environment Minister under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999, for its potential impacts on “Matters of National Environmental Significance”.




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The expansion site intersects habitat with preferred high quality koala feed and shelter trees. This habitat is established forest containing various key mature Eucalyptus trees, including the forest red gum and swamp mahogany.

The survey report didn’t propose any mitigation strategies to sustain the habitat. Instead, it suggested minimisation measures, such as ecologists to be present during habitat clearing, low speed limits for vehicles on site, and education on koalas for workers.

A disaster for koalas

In support of a community grassroots campaign (Save Port Stephens Koalas), we produced an report on the effect of the quarry expansion on koalas. The report now sits with Ley ahead of her decision, which is due by October 13.

Male koalas will bellow during the breeding season to attract females.

The expansion will clear more than 50 hectares of koala habitat. We found koalas breeding within 1 kilometre of the current quarry boundary, which indicates the expansion site is likely to destroy critical koala breeding habitat.

During the breeding season, male koalas bellow to attract females. Within 1km of the boundary we observed a female koala and a bellowing male koala 96m apart. A second male was reported bellowing 227m from the quarry boundary.

What’s more, the site expansion occurs within a NSW government listed Area of Regional Koala Significance. The expansion site actually has higher average koala habitat suitability than all remaining habitat on the quarry property.

The Koala Habitat Suitability Model from our independent report. The red boundary represents the Quarry expansion site containing high habitat suitability.
Map produced by S. A. Ryan using the Koala Habitat Information Base and arcGIS 10.6., Author provided

CSIRO research from 2016 suggests koalas in Port Stephens can move hundreds of metres in a day and up to 5km in one month. Movement is highest during the breeding season. This potential for koalas to move away was a key reason the NSW government approved the expansion.

Koalas can move in to the remaining property to breed, or they can move away from it. But habitat outside the expansion site is, on average, lesser quality, and this is where the expansion would force the koalas to move to.




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This habitat fragmentation would not only result in lost access to potential breeding grounds, but also further restrict movement and expose koalas to threats such as predation or road traffic.

Lastly, the expansion would sever a crucial East–West corridor koalas likely use to move across the landscape and breed.

Approved under the state’s weak environmental protections

It may seem surprising this destructive project was approved by the NSW government. But it’s a common story under the state’s protections.

Alarm over the weaknesses of NSW environmental protections has been raised by NSW government agencies including the Natural Resources Commission and NSW Audit Office.




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The expansion approval is an example of how the NSW government relaxed the regulatory requirements for land clearing between 2016 and 2017. This led to a 13-fold increase in land clearing approvals, and tipped the balance away from sustainable development.

Female and male koalas spotted 1 km from the quarry boundary. The male was observed bellowing 96 m from the female koala. Photo: Lachlan Howell.

The expansion shines another spotlight on NSW’s poor biodiversity offset laws.

Biodiversity offsets involve compensating for environmental damage in one location by improving the environment elsewhere. Under the expansions approval, the developer was required to protect an estimated 450 hectares of habitat as offset.

But the recent parliamentary inquiry into NSW koalas recommended offsetting of prime koala habitat — such as that involved in the quarry expansion — be prohibited, which would mean not destroying the habitat in the first place.




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The NSW decision also does not account for the Black Summer Bushfires which claimed 5,000 koalas and burned millions of hectares of koala habitat. The Port Stephens population was unburned but more than 75% of its habitat has been lost since colonial occupation. Securing this population is important for the overall security of koalas in the state.

The koalas are in Sussan Ley’s hands

Sussan Ley will now assess the expansion under the EPBC Act. A recent interim report into the laws said they’d allowed an “unsustainable state of decline” of Australia’s environment.

Rejections under these laws are rare; just 22 of 6,500 projects referred for approval under the act have been refused. However, it’s not impossible.

Earlier this year Ley rejected a wind-farm in Queensland which threatened unburned koala habitat. If Ley gives full consideration to the evidence in our report, she should make the same decision.




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The Conversation


Lachlan G. Howell, PhD Candidate | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australian stinging trees inject scorpion-like venom. The pain lasts for days



Fig B Dexcelsa.

Irina Vetter, The University of Queensland; Edward Kalani Gilding, The University of Queensland, and Thomas Durek, The University of Queensland

Australia is home to some of the world’s most dangerous wildlife. Anyone who spends time outdoors in eastern Australia is wise to keep an eye out for snakes, spiders, swooping birds, crocodiles, deadly cone snails and tiny toxic jellyfish.

But what not everybody knows is that even some of the trees will get you.

Our research on the venom of Australian stinging trees, found in the country’s northeast, shows these dangerous plants can inject unwary wanderers with chemicals much like those found in the stings of scorpions, spiders and cone snails.

The stinging trees

In the forests of eastern Australia there are a handful of nettle trees so noxious that signs are commonly placed where humans trample through their habitat. These trees are called gympie-gympie in the language of the Indigenous Gubbi Gubbi people, and Dendrocnide in botanical Latin (meaning “tree stinger”).

A casual split-second touch on an arm by a leaf or stem is enough to induce pain for hours or days. In some cases the pain has been reported to last for weeks.

A gympie-gympie sting feels like fire at first, then subsides over hours to a pain reminiscent of having the affected body part caught in a slammed car door. A final stage called allodynia occurs for days after the sting, during which innocuous activities such as taking a shower or scratching the affected skin reignites the pain.




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‘The worst kind of pain you can imagine’ – what it’s like to be stung by a stinging tree


How do the trees cause pain?

Pain is an important sensation that tells us something is wrong or that something should be avoided. Pain also creates an enormous health burden with serious impacts on our quality of life and the economy, including secondary issues such as the opiate crisis.

To control pain better, we need to understand it better. One way is to study new ways to induce pain, which is what we wanted to accomplish by better defining the pain-causing mechanism of gympie-gympie trees.

How does these plants cause pain? It turns out they have quite a bit in common with venomous animals.

The plant is covered in hollow needle-like hairs called trichomes, which are strengthened with silica. Like common nettles, these hairs contain noxious substances, but they must have something extra to deliver so much pain.

Earlier research on the species Dendrocnide moroides identified a molecule called moroidin that was thought to cause pain. However, experiments to inject human subjects with moroidin failed to induce the distinct series of painful symptoms seen with a full Dendrocnide sting.

Finding the culprits

We studied the stinging hairs from the giant Australian stinging tree, Dendrocnide excelsa. Taking extracts from these hairs, we separated them out into their individual molecular constituents.

One of these isolated fractions caused significant pain responses when tested in the laboratory. We found it contains a small family of related mini-proteins significantly larger in size than moroidin.

We then analysed all the genes expressed in the gympie-gympie leaves to determine which gene could produce something with the size and fingerprint of our mystery toxin. As a result, we discovered molecules that can reproduce the pain response even when made synthetically in the lab and applied in isolation.

The genome of Dendrocnide moroides also turned out to contain similar genes encoding toxins. These Dendrocnide peptides have been christened gympietides.

A plant with a straight narrow green stem covered in fine hairs and large flat leaves.
The most toxic of the stinging trees, gympie-gympie or Dendrocnide moroides.
Edward Gilding, Author provided

Gympietides

The gympietides have an intricate three-dimensional structure that is kept stable by a network of links within the molecule that form a knotted shape. This makes it highly stable, meaning it likely stays intact for a long time once injected into the victim. Indeed, there are anecdotes reporting even 100-year-old stinging tree specimens kept in herbariums can still produce painful stings.

What was surprising was the 3D structure of these gympietides resembles the shape of well-studied toxins from spider and cone snail venom. This was a big clue as to how these toxins might be working, as similar venom peptides from scorpions, spiders, and cone snails are known to affect structures called ion channels in nerve cells, which are important mediators of pain.

Specifically, the gympietides interfere with an important pathway for conducting pain signals in the body, called voltage-gated sodium ion channels. In a cell affected by gympietides, these channels do not close normally, which means the cell has difficulty turning off the pain signal.




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Better understanding may bring new treatments

The Australian stinging trees make a neurotoxin that resembles a venom in both its molecular structure and how it is deployed by injection. Taking these two things together, it would seem two very different evolutionary processes have converged on similar solutions to win the endgame of inflicting pain.

In the process, evolution has also presented us with an invaluable tool to understand how pain is caused. The precise mechanisms by which gympietides affect ion channels and nerve cells are currently under investigation. During that investigation, we may find new avenues to bring pain under control.The Conversation

Irina Vetter, Australian Research Council Future Fellow, The University of Queensland; Edward Kalani Gilding, Postdoctoral Research Officer, The University of Queensland, and Thomas Durek, Senior Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Government targets emerging technologies with $1.9 billion, saying renewables can stand on own feet


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government has unveiled a $1.9 billion package of investments in new and emerging energy and emission-reducing technologies, and reinforced its message that it is time to move on from assisting now commercially-viable renewables.

The package will be controversial, given its planned broadening of the remit of the government’s clean energy investment vehicles, currently focused on renewables, and the attention given to carbon capture and storage, which has many critics.

The latest announcement follows the “gas-fired recovery” energy plan earlier this week, which included the threat the government would build its own gas-fired power station if the electricity sector failed to fill the gap left by the scheduled closure of the coal-fired Liddell power plant in 2023.




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Unveiling the latest policy, Scott Morrison said solar panels and wind farms were commercially viable “and have graduated from the need for government subsidies”.

The government was now looking to unlock new technologies “to help drive down costs, create jobs, improve reliability and reduce emissions. This will support our traditional industries – manufacturing, agriculture, transport – while positioning our economy for the future.”

An extra $1.62 billion will be provided for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to invest.

The government will expand the focus of ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to back new technologies that would reduce emissions in agriculture, manufacturing, industry and transport.

At present ARENA can only support renewable energy and the CEFC can only invest in clean energy technologies (although it can support some types of gas projects).

The changes to ARENA and the CEFC will need legislation.

The government says it will cut the time taken to develop new Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) methods from two years or more to under a year, involving industry in a co-design process.

This follows a review of the fund, which is a centrepiece of the Coalition’s emissions reduction policy. The cost of the changes is put at $24.6 million. The fund has had trouble attracting proposals from some sectors because of its complex administrative requirements.

Other measures in the policy include a new $95.4 million Technology Co-Investment Fund to support businesses in the agriculture, manufacturing, industrial and transport sectors to take up technologies to boost productivity and reduce emissions.

A $50 million Carbon Capture Use and Storage Development Fund will pilot carbon capture projects. This technology buries carbon but has run into many problems over the years and its opponents point to it being expensive, risky and encouraging rather than discouraging the use of fossil fuels.

Businesses and regional communities will be encouraged to use hydrogen, electric, and bio-fuelled vehicles, supported by a new $74.5 million Future Fuels Fund.

A hydrogen export hub will be set up, with $70.2 million. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel has been a strong advocate for the potential of hydrogen, saying Australia has competitive advantages as a future hydrogen exporter.

Some $67 million will back new microgrids in regional and remote communities to deliver affordable and reliable power.

There will be $52.2 million to increase the energy productivity of homes and businesses. This will include grants for hotels’ upgrades.

The government says $1.8 billion of the package is new money.

Here are the details of the package:

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Super funds are feeling the financial heat from climate change


Amandine Denis, Monash University

The wild fires that have ravaged the US west coast, turning skies orange, are a lurid reminder that climate change looms ever larger as an economic threat.

This week has seen a flurry of announcements reflecting that reality.




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New Zealand’s government has declared it will become the world’s first country to require its financial sector to report on climate risks.

A collaboration between Australian banks, insurers and climate scientists – the Climate Measurement Standards Initiative – has issued the nation’s first comprehensive framework to assess climate-related risks to buildings and critical infrastructure.

And another of Australia’s largest superannuation funds, UniSuper, has committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions from its investment portfolio by 2050.

UniSuper, the industry fund for university workers, is the third major Australian super fund to make such a commitment.




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The first was HESTA, the industry super fund for health and community sector workers, in June. The second was CBus, the construction and mining industry super fund, last month. “The reality is that things are coalescing fast around us,” said Kristian Fok, CBus’ chief investment officer at the time.

While the superannuation industry remains very much in transition, analysis by ClimateWorks Australia and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute indicates a new determination among Australia’s 20 largest Registrable Superannuation Entity licensees to act on climate change risks.

These 20 licensees represent about 55% of all superannuation investments in Australia, worth a total of about A$2.7 trillion.

Along with the 2050 commitments by HESTA, CBus and UniSuper, another 13 funds are actively looking to reduce their portfolio’s emissions intensity. For example, Aware Super (formerly First State Super) announced in July it would divest from thermal coal miners and reduce emissions in its listed equities portfolio by at least 30% by 2023.

Only four of the 20 – Colonial First State, IOOF, Nulis and OnePath – still have no emissions reduction targets or activities.

Managing risk

This flurry of announcements reflects a changing context.

In the past, fund managers sometimes argued that, in a heavily regulated industry, their legal responsibilities prevented them from committing to emissions reductions. They were tasked, they said, with protecting their members’ finances, not guarding the environment.

Until about 2017, super funds tended to limit action to asking companies in which they owned shares to disclose their climate risks and to offering voluntary sustainable investment options to their members.

But since the Paris climate agreement in 2015, targets of net zero emissions by 2050 (or earlier) have been adopted by governments, businesses and investors. More than 100 countries and all Australian states and territories have net zero targets in place. So do some major companies, such as BHP and Qantas.

Many businesses now recognise the financial implications of global warming.
ANZ, for example, this month announced it expected the 100 biggest-emitting customers to have a plan to adapt to a low-carbon economy – something the bank’s chief executive, Shayne Elliot, said was simply “good old-fashioned risk management”.

This accords with the perspective of regulators, with Australian Prudential Regulation Authority regarding global warming not as a moral issue but one “distinctly financial in nature”.

Charred remains at a home destroyed by fire in Berry Creek, California, September 10 2020.
Climate change is now an issue ‘distinctly financial in nature’.
Peter Dasilva/EPA

This means asset managers are increasingly thinking about how more frequent and extreme weather events will devalue property and infrastructure. They are also thinking about the future worth of companies rusted to fossil fuels as the global economy shifts to net zero emissions.

Investors must also consider the possibility of litigation. For example, 24-year-old Brisbane council worker Mark McVeigh has taken the Retail Employees Superannuation Trust to court on the basis it has failed to protect his savings from the financial consequences of ruinous climate change.

Creating the new normal

Understandably, many funds are hesitant to commit to net zero emission portfolio targets without knowing how those targets might be achieved.

But by setting targets, super funds can create a norm that spurs investment in the ways and means to achieve those goals.

With the manifestations of that warming becoming ever more apparent, pressure will grow on super funds to make net zero pledges across their entire portfolios – and then to back these pledges with both interim commitments and detailed transition strategies.




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As Kristian Fok says, change is coalescing fast. We’re seeing promising signs of the super funds responding. But we’ll need to see more yet.The Conversation

Amandine Denis, Head of Research, ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate explained: will the tropics eventually become uninhabitable?


Flickr/, CC BY-NC-ND

James Shulmeister, University of Canterbury


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz


What is the impact of temperature increases in the tropics? How likely is it that regions along the Equator will be uninhabitable due to high wet bulb temperatures such as 35℃ and more in places like Singapore? Do we have models that suggest how likely this is and at what time frames?

More than 3.3 billion people live in the tropics, representing about 40% of the world’s population. Despite some areas of affluence, such as Singapore, the tropics are also home to about 85% of the world’s poorest people and are therefore particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change.

The tropics are expected to experience rising temperatures and changes to rainfall, and the question is whether this could make this region uninhabitable. How would this happen?

Heat stress

Humans regulate their body temperature in warm conditions through sweating. The sweat evaporates and cools the skin. But if conditions are humid, sweating and evaporation are much less effective.

Humans can survive and function in quite high temperatures if humidity is low, but as humidity increases our ability to function decreases rapidly. This effect is measured by a heat stress index which shows the apparent temperature you feel under different relative humidity conditions.

From a human health point of view, the wet bulb temperature is critical. This is the temperature a thermometer covered in a wet cloth would measure, and it reflects the maximum amount of cooling that can be achieved by evaporation.

High wet bulb temperatures are more problematic to human health than high absolute temperatures. Wet bulb temperatures above 35℃ are life-threatening because they cause hyperthermia, which means the body cannot cool down and the internal body temperature exceeds 40℃.

Climate modelling predictions used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the period from 2080-2100 suggest warming in the tropics of about 1.6℃ under mid-range emissions scenarios and up to 3.3℃ under high emissions scenarios, with error margins of about 0.5℃ on both predictions.




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Different parts of the world respond in different ways to warming from greenhouse gas emissions. The projected warming in the tropics represents about 40% of the expected temperature rise in the Arctic.

High-latitude regions – far north or south of the Equator – warm more rapidly than the global average because excess heat in the tropics creates a temperature and pressure gradient. This drives heat up to higher elevations and higher latitudes through an atmospheric circulation called the Hadley cell.

The stronger the gradient, the more heat is exported.

Hot in the city

There is one additional factor: urbanisation. Singapore is a good place to look at actual climate change in the tropics.

A Singapore skyline with clouds and some sun breaking through.
Cities such as Singapore will get hotter.
Flickr/Mohammad Hasan, CC BY-NC

Records from Singapore indicate temperatures have increased by 1.1℃ over 42 years to 2014. This is nearly twice the average global rate of warming over recent decades and is opposite to expectations.

The difference appears to be due to a heat island effect caused by the city itself. This is important because changes in land use amplify background global climate change and put tropical cities at greater risk of extreme heat. As populations are concentrated in cities, this increases the risk to human health.

The mean average temperature for Singapore is about 27℃, whereas Jakarta in Indonesia is slightly warmer. At the scale of predicted mean annual temperature change, neither of these cities would become uninhabitable. But even a small temperature increase would make life more challenging.

This is made worse in at least some parts of the tropics, because total rainfall is increasing, suggesting a long-term rise in humidity. For example, average rainfall in Singapore increased by more than 500mm from 2,192mm in 1980 to 2,727mm in 2014.




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Urban growth, heat islands, humidity, climate change: the costs multiply in tropical cities


Deadly heat

People working outdoors are at higher risk, as are vulnerable populations, including the elderly. Under the IPCC’s high-emission trajectory, heat-related deaths in Jakarta in August are expected to rise from about 1,800 in 2010 to nearly 27,000 in 2050.

People unloading cargo in the outdoors at Jakarta port.
Working outdoors in the increased heat and humidity will get harder.
Flickr/Jorien, CC BY-NC

Even allowing for a significant increase in elderly people as the Indonesian population ages, this means about 15,000 excess deaths in this month. Estimates under high-emission predictions for the tropics and mid-latitudes suggest about a 40% decline in the ability to undertake manual work during the warmest month by 2050.

These impacts will be stronger in the seasonally wet tropics (such as the Northern Territory of Australia), where more extreme warming is expected than in the equatorial zone.

Predictions for Darwin, in northern Australia, suggest an increase in days with temperatures above 35℃ from 11 days a year in 2015 to an average of 43 days under the mid-range emission scenario (IPCC’s RCP4.5 scenario) by 2030 and an average of 111 (range 54-211) days by 2090. Under the higher emission scenario (IPCC’s RCP8.5), an average of 265 days above 35℃ could be reached by 2090.

In summary, while absolute temperatures are expected to rise more slowly in the tropics when compared with higher latitudes and polar regions, the combination of heat and rising humidity will make life challenging, but not impossible.The Conversation

James Shulmeister, Professor, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Canterbury

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Andrew Forrest’s high-tech plan to extinguish bushfires within an hour is as challenging as it sounds



Warren Frey/AAP

James Jin Kang, Edith Cowan University

The philanthropic foundation of mining billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest has unveiled a plan to transform how Australia responds to bushfires.

The Fire Shield project aims to use emerging technologies to rapidly find and extinguish bushfires. The goal is to be able to put out any dangerous blaze within an hour by 2025.

Some of the proposed technology includes drones and aerial surveillance robots, autonomous fire-fighting vehicles and on-the-ground remote sensors. If successful, the plan could alleviate the devastating impact of bushfires Australians face each year.

But while bushfire behaviour is an extensively studied science, it’s not an exact one. Fires are subject to a wide range of variables including local weather conditions, atmospheric pressure and composition, and the geographical layout of an area.

There are also human factors, such as how quickly and effectively front-line workers can respond, as well as the issue of arson.




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A plan for rapid bushfire detection

The appeal of the Fire Shield plan is in its proposal to use emerging fields of computer science to fight bushfires, especially AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) network.

While we don’t currently have details on how the Fire Shield plan will be carried out, the use of an IoT bushfire monitoring network seems like the most viable option.

The IoT network is made of many wireless connected devices. Deploying IoT devices with sensors in remote areas could allow the monitoring of changes in soil temperature, air temperature, weather conditions, moisture and humidity, wind speed, wind direction and forest density.

The sensors could also help pinpoint a fire’s location, predict where it will spread and also where it most likely started. This insight would greatly help with the early evacuation of vulnerable communities.

Data collected could be quickly processed and analysed using machine learning. This branch of AI provides intelligent analysis much quicker than traditional computing, or human reckoning.

Water bomber puts out a blaze from the sky.
Water bomber helicopters were used in NSW earlier this year as almost 150 bushfires burnt across the state at one point.
Bianca De Marchi/AAP

A more reliable network

A wireless low power wide area network (LPWAN) would be the best option for implementing the required infrastructure for the proposal. LPWAN uses sensor devices with batteries lasting up to 15 years.

And although a LPWAN only allows limited coverage (10-40km) in rural areas, a network with more coverage would need batteries that have to be replaced more often — making the entire system less reliable.

In the event of sensors being destroyed by fire, neighbouring sensors can send this information back to the server to build a sensor “availability and location map”. With this map, tracking destroyed sensors would also help track a bushfire’s movement.

Dealing with logistics

While it’s possible, the practicalities of deploying sensors for a remote bushfire monitoring network make the plan hugely challenging. The areas to cover would be vast, with varying terrain and environmental conditions.

Sensor devices could potentially be deployed by aircrafts across a region. On-ground distribution by people would be another option, but a more expensive one.

However, the latter option would have to be used to distribute larger gateway devices. These act as the bridge between the other sensors on ground and the server in the cloud hosting the data.

Gateway devices have more hardware and need to be set up by a person when first installed. They play a key role in LPWAN networks and must be placed carefully. After being placed, IoT devices require regular monitoring and calibration to ensure the information being relayed to the server is accurate.

Weather and environmental factors (such as storms or floods) have the potential to destroy the sensors. There’s also the risk of human interference, as well as legal considerations around deploying sensors on privately owned land.




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Unpredictable interruptions

While statisticians can provide insight into the likelihood of a bushfire starting at a particular location, bushfires remain inherently hard to predict.

Any sensor network will be counter-acted by unpredictable environmental conditions and technological issues such as interrupted network signals. And such disruptions could lead to delays in important information reaching authorities.

Potential solutions for this include using satellite services in conjunction with an LPWAN network, or balloon networks (such as Google’s project Loon) which can provide better internet connectivity in remote areas.

But even once the sensors can be used to identify and track bushfires, putting a blaze out is another challenge entirely. The Fire Shield plan’s vision “to detect, monitor and extinguish dangerous blazes within an hour anywhere in Australia” will face challenges on several fronts.

It may be relatively simple to predict hurdles in getting the technology set up. But once a bushfire is detected, it’s less clear as to what course of action could possible extinguish it within the hour. In some very remote areas, aerial firefighting (such as with water bombers) may be the only option.

That begs the next question: how can we have enough aircrafts and controllers ready to be dispatched to a remote place at a moment’s notice? Considering the logistics, it won’t be easy.The Conversation

James Jin Kang, Lecturer, Computing and Security, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

No, Prime Minister, gas doesn’t ‘work for all Australians’ and your scare tactics ignore modern energy problems


Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

The federal government today announced it will build a new gas power plant in the Hunter Valley, NSW, if electricity generators don’t fill the energy gap left by the Liddell coal-fired station when it retires in 2023.

The government says it’s concerned that when the coal plant closes, there’ll be insufficient dispatchable power (that can be used on demand) because the energy sector is focused on accelerating renewable energy at the expense of reliability. So electricity generators are required to come up with a plan to inject 1,000 megawatts of new dispatchable energy into the national grid.




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This is tantamount to an ultimatum: if we must have renewables, then prove they generate the same amount of electricity as fossil fuel or we will go back to fossil fuel.

The government’s joint media release has this to say:

This is about making Australia’s gas work for all Australians. Gas is a critical enabler of Australia’s economy.

But under a rapidly changing climate, the issue is not just about keeping the lights on. We not only want energy, we also want to breathe clean air, have enough food, have clean and available water supplies, preserve our habitat and live in a sustainable community. So no, gas doesn’t “work for all Australians”.

Adapting to a new energy future is a complex process our national government must not only support, but progress. It should not be hijacked by fossil fuel politics.

Scare-tactics won’t resolve the climate emergency

The government’s scare tactic completely ignores the two fundamental imperatives of modern energy.




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4 reasons why a gas-led economic recovery is a terrible, naïve idea


The first is the critical importance of decarbonisation. Energy production from fossil fuels is the most carbon intensive activity on the planet. If we are to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and stay within 2℃ of global warming, we cannot burn fossil fuels to produce energy.

The government shouldn’t revert to outdated fossil fuel rhetoric about “reliable, dispatchable power” during an accelerating climate emergency.

The second is it’s in the public interest to support and invest in energy that’s not only environmentally sustainable for the future, but also economically sustainable. Demand for fossil fuels is in terminal decline across the world and investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure may lead to stranded assets.

We need to address the ‘energy trilemma’

The question the government should instead focus on is this: how can the government continue to supply its citizens with affordable, reliable electricity but also maintain a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and high air quality standards?

Answering this question involves addressing a three-part set of tensions, known as the “energy trilemma”:

  1. sustainable generation that is not emission intensive
  2. infrastructure reliability and
  3. affordability.

The energy trilemma is a well-known tool in the sector that powerfully communicates the relative positioning of each tension. No single axis is necessarily more important than the other two. The aim is to try to balance all three.

Constructing a new gas plant seeks to address the second pillar at the expense of the first. This isn’t good enough in the face of the climate emergency.

Gas fired electricity can emit methane. Over a 20-year period, methane is 84 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat, and 28 times more effective over 100 years.




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Australia has plenty of gas, but our bills are ridiculous. The market is broken


The affordability pillar is also important. Morrison says constructing the plant will prevent energy price spikes. But research clearly confirms renewable energy generation is cheapest.

What is it with the federal government and gas?

After first informing us gas will help bolster the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic, this new announcement makes it clear the federal government is firmly wedded to gas.

This may be because the federal government regards adherence to gas as a compromise between the renewable sector and the demands of the fossil fuel industry.

In any case, we cannot and must not revert to fossil fuel energy generation. We must abandon past behaviours if we’re to adapt to a changing climate, which is set to hit the economy much harder than this pandemic.

Most Australians have derived their assumptions about energy security from fossil fuel dependency, because this is what they have known. The good news is this is changing.

Increasingly, the global community understands it’s not sustainable to burn coal or gas to generate energy just because we want to be “sure” we can turn the lights on. Consumer preference is shifting.




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This is something BP recognises in its 2020 Energy Outlook report, which outlines three scenarios for the global energy system in next 30 years.

Each scenario shows a shift in social preferences and a decline in the share of hydrocarbons (coal, oil and natural gas) in the global energy system. This decline is matched by an increase in the role of renewable energy.

I’ll say it again: renewable energy is the future

The technology underpinning renewable energy production from clean, low-cost generation such as wind, solar, hydro-electricity, hydrogen and bio-mass is advancing.

Renewable energy generation is sustainable, better for the environment, low in emissions, and affordable. Reliability is improving at a rapid rate. A recent report indicates electricity generated by solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind farms from 2026 will overtake the combined power production from coal and gas.

The combined solar and wind capacity will grow to an estimated 41.4 gigawatts in 2023 from 26.4 gigawatts this year. By contrast, coal and gas capacity will shrink to 35.3 gigawatts in 2023 from 39.1 gigawatts this year.

The report is based on the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) Step Change Scenario, which models a shift to renewables. It includes rapid adjustments in technology costs and a “well below 2℃” scenario as part of its 20-year planning blueprint.




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Yes, there are challenges in shifting from a centralised grid and developing new transmission capacity.

But these are the challenges we need to be investing in. Not a new gas plant that’s likely to be a stranded asset in the not-too-distant future.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Morrison signs up to the gas gospel, but the choir is not in tune


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

If Labor were threatening to build a power station, the Liberals would likely be screaming “socialists”.

As for a Coalition government contemplating such a thing — well, to say the obvious, it hardly fits with the Liberals’ stated free market, private enterprise philosophy. But hey, neither does the hyper-Keynesian support package to cushion the economy through the pandemic.

Only a few within its own ranks would dispute the government’s COVID mega spending, whatever the ideological contradiction. And they’re keeping their voices to private whispers.

The gas power plant is another matter, and it will be fascinating to see how the debate plays out if the threat turns into reality.




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Morrison government threatens to use Snowy Hydro to build gas generator, as it outlines ‘gas-fired recovery’ plan


The threat is part of the go-with-gas policy unveiled by Scott Morrison this week, spruiked as driving a “gas-fired” recovery, especially for manufacturing. This sounds suspiciously like a three word slogan that promises more than it is likely to deliver.

But Morrison has signed up to the church of gas, whose pastors include Nev Power, chairman of the prime minister’s COVID-19 commission and Andrew Liveris, the head of its (now defunct) manufacturing taskforce, which delivered a pro-gas report. Morrison this week referenced his discussions with Liveris at Kirribilli House.

Much of the gas plan is broad and aspirational at this stage. But the threat is specific enough, and Morrison adopted a grim, school teacher tone when he delivered it in his speech at Newcastle unveiling the policy.

He said the electricity sector must lock in by April investments to deliver 1,000 megawatts of new dispatchable energy to replace the Liddell coal-fired power station before it closes in 2023. Or else. The government-owned Snowy Hydro was working on options, Morrison said.

Going back to Malcolm Turnbull’s time, the government conducted — and lost — a bitter battle with AGL over the planned Liddell closure. It exerted maximum pressure on the company to extend the life of the station, or alternatively, sell it, but to no avail.

The gas policy, especially the threat, hasn’t gone down well — with the energy sector or environmentalists. And it’s come under criticism from experts and even within Coalition ranks.

The Australian Energy Council, representing investors and generators, warned the spectre of a government gas generator could put off private investors.

Environmentalists are against gas anyway, whoever produces it, because it is a fossil fuel and therefore has emissions, albeit not as bad as coal.

The Nationals Matt Canavan, who not so long ago was resources minister, says if a new power station is to be built in the Hunter region it should be coal-fired.

And the director of the Grattan Institute’s energy program, Tony Wood, says the government’s claim that 1000 megawatts of new dispatchable capacity is needed isn’t supported by the advice from its own Liddell taskforce.




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Politics with Michelle Grattan: Angus Taylor on the ‘gas-fired’ recovery


More generally, Wood argues the idea of a gas–led recovery “is a mirage”.

He says east coast gas prices are unlikely to fall to very low levels and anyway, even very low prices would not stimulate major economic activity. “Investing in more gas infrastructure in the face of climate change looks more like a herd of stampeding white elephants,” is Wood’s blunt assessment.

“Gas is very likely to have a role for some time to balance solar and wind. This role will be important but diminishing in volume and the pace of change will be determined by the relative economics of gas versus storage technologies and hydrogen.”

Some see the government’s big takeup of gas as a way of walking away from coal, without fanfare. The government denies this, but it would fit with Morrison’s middle-course pragmatism.

That pragmatism is reflected in the week’s other major energy announcement, for $1.9 billion investment in new and emerging technologies to lower emissions.

Morrison explicitly spelled out the government’s view that renewables, notably solar and wind, have boomed commercially and can take care of themselves.

The policy looks both backwards and forwards.

Backwards, with its support for carbon capture and storage (CCS) which — leaving aside its problems as a technology — is an encouragement to fossil fuels.

Forwards, by extending support to a wide range of technologies of the future.

Critics don’t like the proposed expansion of the remit of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) beyond supporting renewables.

If the government can get the legislation through the Senate, these bodies would be able to back a wide range of projects, including CCS.

The government is also clinging to its Emissions Reduction Fund, which has had trouble attracting proposals. It plans to reform the fund’s processes.

Taken as a whole and leaving aside the arguments about their efficacy, this week’s decisions have a clear political element. They are relatively risk averse within the Coalition, the threatened power plant notwithstanding.

Energy has been such a fraught area for the government that Morrison is very aware of juggling the conflicting forces within his ranks.




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The internal coal lobby, spearheaded by Canavan but wider than him, will continue to mutter. The crunch will come when the government’s feasibility study for a Queensland coal-fired power station is finished. But putting gas at the centre of the picture will reassure some in the Coalition who remain deeply suspicious of renewables.

The Liberals in seats where climate change is a big preoccupation may or may not find enough to sell in this week’s packages. They can emphasise the “transition” nature of gas — Morrison described it as “a stable transition fuel” — and talk up the support for emerging technologies.

But they will confront the counter argument that the government is not doing enough or proceeding fast enough on climate change.

Meanwhile, Labor struggles with its own energy and climate policies, which caused it such problems last election, when it had dual or confusing messaging in the country’s south and north and lacked costings.

Post election, the spectrum of Labor thinking on these issues has been exposed, and resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon, who takes many of his cues from his NSW coal seat of Hunter, frequently speaks out.

Like Morrison, on energy and climate policy Anthony Albanese will be seeking to position himself somewhere in the middle ground for the election. He’ll look to being to the left of the PM — but not way out on a limb.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The first step to conserving the Great Barrier Reef is understanding what lives there


Shutterstock

Tom Bridge, James Cook University; Andrea Quattrini, Smithsonian Institution; Andrew Baird, James Cook University, and Peter Cowman, James Cook University

Look at this photo of two coral skeletons below. You’d be forgiven for thinking they’re the same species, or at least closely related, but looks can be deceiving. These two species diverged tens of millions of years ago, probably earlier than our human lineage split from baboons and macaques.

Two white branches of coral
The skeletons of two staghorn coral species with the same ‘bottlebrush’ growth form. They might look similar, but they’re not closely related.
source, Author provided

Scientists have traditionally used morphology (size, shape and colour) to identify species and infer their evolutionary history. But most species were first described in the 19th century, and based solely on features of the coral skeleton visible under a microscope.

Morphology remains important for species recognition. The problem is we don’t know whether a particular morphological feature reflects species ancestry, or evolved independently.

Our new study examined the traditional ideas of coral species and their evolutionary relationships using “phylogenomics” – comparing thousands of DNA sequences across coral species.

Our results revealed the diversity and distributions of corals are vastly different to what we previously thought. It shows we still don’t know many fundamental aspects about the corals on Great Barrier Reef.




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And after three mass bleaching events in five years, not having a handle on the basics could mean our attempts to intervene and help coral survive climate change may have unexpected consequences.

An international team of scientists have developed a new genetic tool that can help them better understand and ultimately work to save coral reefs.

How do we know which species is which?

Despite being one of the best-studied marine ecosystems on Earth, there are fundamental knowledge gaps around the Great Barrier Reef, including:

  1. how many coral species live there?
  2. how do we identify them?
  3. where are they found across the vast Great Barrier Reef ecosystem?

Finding the answers to these questions starts with accurate “taxonomy” – the science of naming and classifying living things.

Identifying species based on how similar they look may seem straightforward. As Darwin famously said, closely related species often share morphological features because they inherited them from a common ancestor.




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However, this can be misleading if two unrelated species independently acquire similar features. This process, called convergent evolution, often occurs when different species are faced with similar ecological challenges.

A classic example of convergent evolution is dolphins and the prehistoric ichthyosaurs. These animals are unrelated, but share many similarities since they both occupy a similar ecological niche.

Ichthyosaurs dominated the world’s oceans for millions of years.

At the other end of the spectrum, morphology can vary considerably within a single species. An alien taxonomist visiting Earth could be forgiven for describing the Chihuahua and the Irish Wolfhound as two distinct species.

Bringing coral taxonomy into the 21st century

We used molecular phylogenetics, a field of research that uses variations in DNA sequences to reconstruct genealogies. From corals to humans, molecular phylogenetics has revolutionised our understanding of the origins and evolution of life on Earth.

Molecular approaches have revolutionised our understanding of the diversity and evolution of corals, shedding light on deeper branches in the coral “tree of life”. But within hyper-diverse, ecologically-important coral groups, such as the staghorn corals from the genus Acropora, we are still in the dark.




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If we can put a man on the Moon, we can save the Great Barrier Reef


Our new technique addresses this by comparing thousands of key regions across coral genomes (the entire genetic code of an organism) to help identify species in this ecologically important group for the first time. This method will also allow us to identify morphological features that do reflect shared ancestry and help us recognise species when diving in the reef.

About a quarter of all coral species on the Great Barrier Reef are staghorn corals, and they provide much of the three-dimensional structure fishes and many other coral reef animals rely on, just like trees in a forest.

Staghorn coral
Staghorn coral from the Houtman Abrolhos Islands.
Thomas Bridge, Author provided

Unfortunately, staghorn corals are also highly susceptible to threats such as thermal bleaching and crown-of-thorns seastar predation. The future of reefs will be heavily influenced by the fate of staghorn corals.

The risk of ‘silent extinctions’

While we don’t yet know how many coral species occur on the Great Barrier Reef or how widespread they are, many species appear to have far smaller ranges than we previously thought.

For example, we now know some of the corals on Lord Howe Island are endemic to only a few reefs in subtropical eastern Australia and occur nowhere else, not even on the Great Barrier Reef. They evolved in isolation and bleach at much lower temperatures than corals on tropical reefs.

An aerial view of Lord Howe Island
Lord Howe Island is home to the world’s southern-most coral reef.
Shutterstock

This means Lord Howe Island’s corals are of far greater conservation concern than currently recognised, because one severe bleaching event could cause the extinction of these species.




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Bleaching has struck the southernmost coral reef in the world


The risk of “silent extinctions”, where species go extinct without even being noticed, is one of the reasons behind the Australian Academy of Science’s Decadal Plan for Taxonomy, which has led to the ambitious goal to document all Australian species in the next 25 years.

Intervening now may have unexpected consequences

In April, the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program concept feasibility study found 160 possible interventions to help save the Great Barrier Reef. Proposed interventions include moving corals from warm to cooler waters, introducing genetically-engineered heat-tolerant corals into wild populations, and the harvest and release of coral larvae.

Bleached coral
The Great Barrier Reef has undergone yet another mass bleaching event.
Shutterstock

What could go wrong? Well-intentioned interventions may inadvertently threaten coral communities, for example, through introduction or movement of diseases within the Great Barrier Reef. Cane toads are a famous example of unintended consequences: introduced in the 1930s to control an insect pest, they are now wreaking havoc on Australian ecosystems.

Any intervention affecting the ecology of a system as complex as the Great Barrier Reef requires a precautionary approach to minimise the chance of unintended and potentially negative consequences.

What we need, at this time, is far greater investment in fundamental biodiversity research. Without this information, we are not in a position to judge whether particular actions will threaten the resilience of the reef, rather than enhance it.The Conversation

Tom Bridge, Senior Curator – Corals, James Cook University; Andrea Quattrini, Researcher, Smithsonian Institution; Andrew Baird, Professorial fellow, James Cook University, and Peter Cowman, Research Fellow in Ecosystem Dynamics, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Morrison government threatens to use Snowy Hydro to build gas generator, as it outlines ‘gas-fired recovery’ plan


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Morrison government has threatened to use Snowy Hydro to build a gas generator in the Hunter Valley if the electricity sector fails to fill the gap left by the scheduled closure of the Liddell power plant in 2023.

The threat comes as the government released its plan to place gas at the centre of Australia’s economic recovery, with a package of measures to “reset” the east coast market and “unlock” supply.

Scott Morrison and Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the electricity sector had to deliver 1,000 megawatts of new dispatchable energy to replace the Liddell power station before it closed.

“The Government will step up and back a new gas power plant in the Hunter Valley if the sector doesn’t replace Liddell’s capacity,” they said in an ultimatum to the sector.

“Snowy Hydro Limited is developing options to build a gas generator in the Hunter Valley at Kurri Kurri should the market not deliver what consumers need.”

The government had a long running battle with AGL over its determination to close the Liddell coal-fired power station, trying unsuccessfully to force it to abandon the decision.

Morrison and Taylor said the government’s Liddell taskforce had found closing the plant without adequate dispatchable replacement capacity could mean a 30% price rise over two years, or $20 per megawatt hour to $80 in 2024 and up to $105 per MWH by 2030.

Morrison said such rises were unacceptable – they would be a huge hit to families, businesses and job creating industries in NSW if the energy generated by Liddell wasn’t replaced.

“We won’t risk the affordability and reliability of the NSW energy system and will step in unless the industry steps up.

“To ensure we do not have a scenario without replacement, the government is giving the private sector until the end of April 2021 to reach final investment decisions on 1000 MW of dispatchable capacity, with a commitment for generation in time for summer 2023-24.”

In its announcement of its gas plan, the government says its proposed multiple initiatives will deliver affordable and reliable energy for households, business and industry, and shore up the energy grid’s reliability as renewables form an increasingly larger part of the energy market.

One part of the plan is the creation of an Australian Gas Hub at Wallumbilla in Queensland to bring users and suppliers closer together, delivering a transparent liquid gas trading system.

This is modelled on the Henry Hub located in Louisiana which is a distribution point on a natural gas pipeline system. It serves as the official delivery location for futures contracts.

The concept of a gas-led recovery is highly controversial. It has been strongly pushed by the chair of the government’s national COVID-19 commission Nev Power, and the government argues that gas is much lower in emissions than coal fired power.

But the promotion of gas is resisted by environmentalists, given it is a fossil fuel, and questioned by some in the investment community who doubt it will be possible to achieve gas prices low enough to make a major economic difference.

Outlining the “gas-fired recovery” plan Morrison, Taylor and Resources Minister Keith Pitt said: “The government wants the private sector to step-up and make timely investments in the gas market.”

But “if the private sector fails to act, the government will step in – as it has done for electricity transmission – to back these nation building projects. This may include through streamlining approvals, underwriting projects or the establishment of a special purpose vehicle with a capped government contribution”.

The government says the east coast market needs change because it is not delivering internationally competitive prices for Australian businesses and households.

International prices have fallen but this has not been reflected in lower long term contract offers for Australian customers.
There are also fears of a supply shortfall in the medium term.

Under the measures, new gas supply targets will be set with states and territories and a potential “use it or lose it” requirement will be enforced on gas licences.

The government aims to unlock five new gas basins beginning with the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory and the North Bowen and Galilee Basis in Queensland. This will cost $28.3 million for the plans.

To avoid supply shortfalls, there will be new agreements with the three east coast LNG exporters with strengthened commitments on price.

The government will also “explore options” for a prospective gas reservation scheme “to ensure Australian gas users get the energy they need at a reasonable price”.

To improve the gas transport network the government will identify priority pipelines and critical infrastructure for a National Gas Infrastructure Plan (NGIP) worth $10.9 million . This will also highlight where the government will step in if private investors do not.

The regulations on pipeline infrastructure will be reformed to increase competition and transparency; competition will be further promoted by kick starting work on a secondary pipeline capacity market.

The government will work with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to review the calculation of the LNG netback price which provides a guide on the export parity prices.

It will also use the NGIP to develop customer hubs to boost competition and transparency for customers.

HERE ARE THE GOVERNMENT’S DETAILED MEASURES.

It will get more gas into the market by:

  • Setting new gas supply targets with states and territories and enforce potential “use-it or lose-it” requirements on gas licenses

  • Unlocking five key gas basins starting with the Beetaloo Basin in the NT and the North Bowen and Galilee Basin in Queensland, at a cost of $28.3 million for the plans

  • Avoiding any supply shortfall in the gas market with new agreements with the three east coast LNG exporters that will also strengthen price commitments

  • Supporting CSIRO’s Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance with $13.7 million

  • Exploring options for a prospective gas reservation scheme to ensure Australian gas users get the energy they need at a reasonable price.

It will boost the gas transport network by:

  • Identifying priority pipelines and critical infrastructure as part of an inaugural National Gas Infrastructure Plan (NGIP) worth $10.9 million that will also highlight where the government will step in if the private sector doesn’t invest

  • Reforming the regulations on pipeline infrastructure to promote competition and transparency

  • Improving pipeline access and competition by kick-starting work on a dynamic secondary pipeline capacity market.

To better empower gas consumers, it will:

  • Establish an Australian Gas Hub at our most strategically located and connected gas trading hub at Wallumbilla in Queensland to deliver an open, transparent and liquid gas trading system

  • Level the negotiating playing field for gas producers and consumers through a voluntary industry-led code of conduct, to be delivered by February 2021

  • Ensure Australians are paying the right price for their gas by working with the ACCC to review the calculation of the LNG netback price which provides a guide on the export parity prices

  • Use the NGIP to develop customer hubs or a book-build program that will give gas customers a more transparent and competitive process for meeting their needs.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.