US coal giant Peabody Energy has repeatedly submitted incorrect reports on greenhouse gas emissions to the Australian government, which has raised questions about the reliability of national climate data based on business assessments.
The Clean Energy Regulator found that Peabody had previously filed inaccurate reports required by the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act due to calculation errors, poor record keeping, and inconsistent data collection and analysis.
The failures were in both directions, leading to significant under- and over-reporting of emissions from the underground Wambo coal mine in New South Wales. The total error was large – combined with more than 51% of the total emissions from the site – but the under- and over-reporting largely canceled each other out. This meant that the total submitted was 5.4% lower than it should have been.
Sign up to receive an email with the best stories from Guardian Australia every morning
Peabody is the fifth largest coal mine in Australia and owns two thermal coal mines (used for electricity generation) and five metallurgical coal mines (for steelmaking). The company has agreed to hire an external consultant to prepare its emissions reports using industry best practice reporting methods and to have an independent auditor examine its mines and other facilities.
Annica Schoo, the lead environmental investigator at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said there were “more and more examples” of companies submitting emission data that could not hold up to control. It follows Dutch scientists who have studied satellite images and found that the amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas leaking from some Queensland coal mines, was greater than has been reported.
Schoo said the company’s reports submitted to the regulator were used to help meet Australia’s international obligations under several treaties, including the Paris climate agreement, and as part of the government’s annual projections of future emissions.
“The accuracy of this data is crucial to getting on top of the climate crisis. The lack of care that Peabody has shown is completely unacceptable,” she said.
In response to questions, the regulator said there were no broader concerns about the accuracy of emission data submitted to the government, and ensuring that the data was accurate was “a lasting compliance and enforcement priority”. Emission reports were reviewed and assessed, and that assessments drew on a number of information sources, it said.
A spokesman for Peabody said the company understood the importance of accurately capturing and reporting emissions and had “at all times really sought” to act in accordance with the law.
“The reported reporting issues were completely unintended and the result of computational errors that we have taken immediate action to correct,” they said.
“An independent expert auditor has thoroughly reviewed our systems. We have already acted on many of his recommendations, and our processes will be reviewed regularly to integrate necessary improvements. “
Schoo said the regulator had “done the right thing” by requiring Peabody to address its emissions reporting, but it was a concern that it was the first act of compliance of its kind since the protection mechanism – which was promised to prevent increases in industrial emissions, but in practice have often not – was introduced in 2016.
Richie Merzian, director of climate and energy programs at the Australia Institute, said the “enforceable commitments” that Peabody has agreed to after the reporting errors were an example that the regulator was “completely bark and no bite”.
“We are left with rising emissions from Australia’s biggest polluters, made possible by loose reporting requirements,” he said.