Victoria’s hot air about gas

| August 3, 2023

As the saying goes: “If we want to keep the church out of the state, we must keep the state out of the church.” The separation of the church from the state was an important legacy of the American and French revolutions, arising from The Enlightenment more generally. The Australian constitution does not specifically address the separation of church and state but it prohibits the federal government from establishing a state church or religion.

The State consists of democratic and bureaucratic institutions for the governance of human society and the health, welfare and safety of its citizens. On the other hand, the ‘environment church’ has its articles of faith, high priests and sometimes even a trace of infallibility. In this misanthropic theology, God (the Planet) is supreme and believers are not answerable to the State.

Thousands of deaths each year and high rates of asthma in children are attributable to vehicle emissions in Australia, Melbourne’s western suburbs being among the worst affected areas. However, the State Government of Victoria, being anxious about the drift of inner suburban voters to the environment church, has announced that all new Victorian homes will only be connected to electricity from January 1, 2024. That seems like a convenient way to escape its responsibility for the predicted gas supply shortfalls resulting from the decision to refuse the Westernport gasification project.

Over 80% of households in Victoria have a gas connection. Gas storage and pipeline capacity are limited. Attempts to boost supplies have been frustrated by some environmentalists, regardless of the need to balance energy supply and demand with interim sources during the transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

The National Asthma Council says that cooking with gas stoves, or exposure to other gas appliances, may be associated with new asthma cases and exacerbation of existing cases. But the use of many other household goods and devices, including electrical appliances, entails risk. Range hoods, exhaust fans, safety switches, heaters, coolers, thermostats, fuels, cleaning chemicals and medicines can be harmful or even deadly if misused.

The Climate Council asserts, unconvincingly, that gas cooking contributes up to 12 per cent of the childhood asthma burden in Australia, while The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners believes that the Victorian government move to ban new gas connections will help tackle climate change. Such claims fall outside of the vision and the scope of mission statements published by these organisations.

Climate activists have grasped all this with enthusiasm, regardless of the economic hardship caused by narrowly focusing on a single aspect of a much wider issue. They seem to have overlooked the fact that around 80% of gas produced in Australia is exported. Spiralling electricity prices and looming energy shortages seem to be overlooked in the quest for environmental righteousness.

Unless I am mistaken, exporting gas does not diminish its potential health and environmental impacts. And will the government provide assistance to low-income families struggling with electricity bills and who can’t afford the cost of conversion from gas to electrical appliances? And what about regional households needing an alternative to unreliable electricity supplies?

Forestry workers are exposed to the combustion products of fuel reduction ‘cool’ burns, including particles which are likely to be chemically reactive. Bushfires also contribute a lot of dioxin-like compounds to the environment in Australia but the health effects are not well understood. And what happens when particles from different sources mix? What is the effect of lightning and humidity on particle surfaces exposed to a range of reactive pollutants?

World Health Organisation guidelines for indoor air quality specify limits for a range of indoor air pollutants, many of which are emitted from gas cookers. But indoor air pollution is closely linked to outdoor ambient air quality. The Climate Council and the College of General Practitioners seem more interested in popularity than doing the hard work required to provide sound policy advice for decision-makers.

‘Outdoor’ air pollutants generated by fuel reduction burning and vehicle emissions eventually find their way indoors. They are also inhaled by children, especially at school pickup zones where high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and very small (PM 2.5) particles are emitted from vehicle exhausts near their face level.

Risk can be defined in terms of the hazard multiplied by exposure to it. Ambient air pollution can be difficult to avoid or attenuate and probably contributes to both chronic and acute respiratory problems, especially during air quality alerts.

No sensible and comprehensive discussion of human health can fail to include the environment and vice versa. In this case, however, it seems that what is deemed by the environment church as being good for its ‘God’ may not be so good for the State which is responsible for the wellbeing of all.