Sunday, 22 October 2017

At least for once, don't let politicking kill off a workable energy policy

Just for a moment, we are going to wind the clock back to 2009. Confronted by repeated requests from Kevin Rudd’s office to go hard against the then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull over climate change, the then junior climate change minister Greg Combet asked a sensible question.
Combet recalls in his memoir, The Fights of My Life, that he asked Rudd and the office why Labor would “shit on someone you are trying to do a deal with?”
Well versed in the art of the deal as a union official, Combet thought Labor needed to ease off on Turnbull until it had successfully legislated the carbon pollution reduction scheme.
He feared that Rudd himself, and Rudd’s backroom “were confusing politics and policy outcomes, with the risk that Turnbull would be deposed and we would lose a chance to tackle climate change”.
Combet was spot on.
Turnbull was deposed, and the government lost that critical opportunity. Combet tried to make good later on, with the second phase of Labor’s climate policy, but that was lost too, because of brutal political short-term-ism from Tony Abbott and his appalling “axe the tax” (that wasn’t a tax) offensive.
Combet’s observations are worth lifting from the vault, because right now, a bunch of parliamentarians who know the country desperately needs an outcome on climate change and energy are preoccupied with, as Combet so colourfully puts it, shitting on each other, for different imperatives.
Before we wade boldly into the muck, let’s first establish what happened this week. Turnbull got an energy and emissions reduction regulatory concept through the Coalition party room – and no one got assassinated.
Abbott was apparently lulled by the victory he thought he’d chalked up with killing Alan Finkel’s clean energy target, and in the ensuing lull, the cabinet, and the bulk of the party room came over the top and signed off on a proposal that looks a lot like a regulated carbon price. By acclamation. That’s really quite something in Coalition terms.
Turnbull emerged with a concept called the national energy guarantee. Calling it a policy is a massive stretch. It’s a prototype. The organising idea is energy retailers would face a reliability obligation, and an emissions reduction obligation.
The concept is not stupid. I’m not as effusive as Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which says the national energy guarantee could well prove “ingenious”, but I’d agree the approach of imposing reliability and emissions reduction obligations on electricity retailers is “elegant”.
There may still be plenty of devil in the detail, but the main flaw, glaringly obvious up front, is a lowball emissions reduction trajectory, which, on the face of it, won’t see Australia meet its Paris commitments, and certainly not at least cost.
So the bottom line is Turnbull produced something this week that isn’t perfect, but can be worked with.
But before we start pinning medals on anyone’s chests, and sending off herograms, we need to contemplate the muck.
The developments of this week are only the start of a multi-stage process to deliver a practical policy outcome – a process involving several stakeholders.
If this idea is ever going to see the light of day, Turnbull must first persuade the states, which have to implement it. Right now, several state leaders are furious about being dealt out of Canberra’s deliberations.
If this seems a bit precious on the part of the premiers, bear in mind the states have just worked through the Finkel review; months of process and deliberation, and they thought they were getting an entirely different policy framework, not the one that just dropped out of the sky.
Jay Weatherill in South Australia also went through a previous iteration when he tried to lead a (largely) cooperative conversation about an emissions trading scheme for electricity. The federal energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, looked interested in that idea for 24 hours before he dropped that one too.
Further back, Weatherill had tried, with Mike Baird, to help Turnbull open up a debate on the GST early in his prime ministership, a bit of cooperative federalism that caused some tensions in the Labor fraternity. But Turnbull backed off that one as well.
That potted history might help explain the explosion from Adelaide this week.
While the premiers might calm down, we also need to be aware the new federal policy hasn’t landed in a vacuum. Queensland is about to go into an election. Weatherill in South Australia is shaping up for a brutal three-cornered contest early next year. Tasmania and Victoria follow in 2018.
Having tried to be constructive through the Finkel process, then been provoked by Turnbull’s “ambush” (as Weatherill puts it), some premiers might now cut their losses, seeing benefit in having a cage fight with Canberra over the future of renewable energy.
The states aren’t Turnbull’s only problem.
While the prime minister has pushed his concept successfully through the party room, that milestone doesn’t end the internal conversation. I predict that some right wingers in the Coalition will continue to quibble and fight every step of this journey.
Even if elements of the right and the restless suddenly find some generosity of spirit, there is a reasonably widespread view around the Coalition that climate and energy needs to be a point of significant political differentiation between the government and the opposition.
There is a view Turnbull needs to muscle up to his political opponents, and seek out conflict.
There’s just one small problem. These opponents are the same people the prime minister will need to turn his energy concept into law.
The energy sector and big business groups have made it clear that the only settlement that will work is a bipartisan one – that major party agreement is the only way to give people confidence to make the investments they will need to make.
So Turnbull is being yanked in several different directions.
The cross-currents explain the mixed messages. We see a prime minister who says he wants to settle the decade-long climate wars, and a prime minister who says he has a “game changing” policy to allow him to achieve that.
But the same prime minister also makes a point of excoriating the people he needs to deliver the outcome. People who need a deal generally don’t seek to execute one by calling their joint venture partners idiots and ideologues, but that’s what Turnbull does on a regular basis.
As Combet pointed out in 2009, that sort of too-clever-by-half politicking can get you into trouble. It can sink the boat you really want to sail.
Labor too has got to make some grown-up decisions.
While some in the party are attracted to Turnbull’s concept provided there is scope to scale up the ambition on emissions reduction, the opposition in Canberra feels no great pressure to rush to a decision on a policy that is only a prototype, and which can be made or broken by the states.
There is a view Turnbull needs to carry his own water with the premiers.
While leaving its collective options open, Labor has been quick this week to poke the hornet’s nest of the Coalition’s internals by pointing out that the national energy guarantee looks a lot like a price on carbon.
Partly, this goading is about Labor giving itself cover in the event it decides to support the policy. It’s a bit of virtue signalling to progressive voters that the concepts of the Neg are actually respectable, even though it looks like a sop to coal.
But it’s also about needling. Turnbull is vulnerable if the party room senses a swifty has been pulled, and Labor knows it. So, some trolling.
While it’s always naive to declare there should be no politics in politics, this issue has some special characteristics.
Because the last decade has been such a monumental botch-up, we are running out of workable policy options. We are also running out of time to execute an orderly transition that reduces emissions and keeps the lights on.
That’s the sum of the past stupidity. So politicians need to be a bit careful before relegating an idea that could be made to work.
Last weekend, I asked whether Turnbull was a political leader who could deliver what Australia needed on climate and energy.
This week, the prime minister assumed the posture of statesman, flanked by a trailing Jedi council of energy regulators – but styling, and an eight-page letter from the Energy Security Board, isn’t an outcome.
So my question about Turnbull persists, unresolved, and this weekend, I can add another one.
Can all the key players in our political system be grown-ups, rise above frustrations, past botch-ups and petty intrigues, and come together to consider an issue on its merits, and ultimately act in the national interest?

High court proves we have free speech against environmental wreckers

Adani and the loggers should watch out – we have a right to peaceful protest to protect our environment

Former Greens senator Bob Brown in front of a "Stop Adani" sign in Canberra in 2017.
“Our constitution guarantees peaceful protest – to which we owe a long history of advancement.” Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The high court has drawn a line in the sand against laws which burden the right of Australians to peaceful protest.
The court made no judgement on Tasmanian premier Will Hodgman’s decision to flatten the Lapoinya state forest in northwest Tasmania against the wishes of the local community. But it struck down his Workplaces (Protection from Protesters) Act 2014 aimed at stopping people from protesting effectively against such forests being logged.
Lapoinya is a huddle of farms southwest of the Bass Strait city of Burnie. Its rolling hills have a patchwork of lush pastures, ploughed fields and copses of trees. At the heart of the district was the Lapoinya forest, a couple of hundred hectares of wildlife-filled rainforest, eucalypts and ferneries with the crystal-clear Maynes Creek, a key nursery for the world’s largest freshwater crayfish, running through it.
When Forestry Tasmania revealed plans for the forest to be clearfelled for the distant wood-processing factory owned by Malaysian logging company Ta Ann, the people of Lapoinya remained confident that common sense would prevail. They called on the state government to intervene and ran a colourful but respectful public campaign to prevent the logging.
Neither the premier nor his minister for forests visited or intervened. Instead, draconian anti-protest laws were enacted and by early 2016 the logging was imminent.
I was invited to a dinner by the community and afterwards treated to a concert by talented local youngsters, with songs devoted to forests. The Lapoinyan dilemma was excruciating: these good people would never be violent or attack logging machinery, but would not be silenced as a distant and indifferent administration in Hobart destroyed their iconic forest.
The locals prepared for a peaceful stand. If the public could see how beautiful the Lapoinya forest was then surely, even at this eleventh hour, the resulting political pressure would cause the government to back off.
The bulldozers and chainsaws arrived in January 2016, with a cavalcade of police.
While premier Hodgman assured Tasmanians his new laws were aimed at “radical” environmentalists and not “mums and dads”, the first two people arrested were a grandfather and a mother of two. That mother, also a neurosurgery nurse, was Jessica Hoyt. Her parents, Stewart and Barbara, have a farm adjoining the forest. In her teenage years Jessica, along with her siblings, had enjoyed riding along the forest’s bridle trail. The two were charged and faced first-offence fines of $10,000.
The next day, reeling from the destruction, Jessica took friends back into the doomed forest. She was arrested again while walking through the trees and ferns. This second arrest put her in danger of being jailed for four years.
A few days later, along with several others, I was also arrested after going back to Lapoinya to make video clips, intended for public distribution, about the sheer bloody-mindedness of the government’s operation. I was standing in an adjacent forest reserve. A bulldozer had backed off and the screech of the chainsaws and roaring thud of the trees coming down was close and confronting.
The incongruity of laws stifling such a reasonable protest against the destruction of the public commons, in a democracy with a long history of advancement through peaceful protest, was compelling. This was underscored when, after our arrests, I received a number of messages from experienced legal experts from around Australia suggesting the laws breached the constitution’s implied right to freedom of political expression.
Guided by Hobart solicitor Roland Browne and joined as co-plaintiff by Jessica, I engaged Melbourne barrister Ron Merkel QC to challenge the constitutional validity of the Hodgman laws in the high court. A public appeal by my foundation raised more than $100,000 to affray the costs, especially in case we lost.
On Wednesday the high court ruled that those laws do infringe the freedom to peaceful protest inherent in the Australian constitution.
“It is necessary to keep firmly in mind that the implied freedom is essential to the maintenance of the system of representative and responsible government for which the Constitution provides. The implied freedom protects the free expression of political opinion, including peaceful protest, which is indispensable to the exercise of political sovereignty,” they said. by the people of the commonwealth. It operates as a limit on the exercise of legislative power to impede that freedom of expression.”
The Hodgman government had breached the limit of legislative power. Tasmania already had the usual array of laws to prevent dangerous or damaging behaviour. It also had a Forest Management Act which, besides guaranteeing the public its time-honoured access to the forests, empowers the police to arrest people who interfere with logging operations. The draconian new laws were not necessary for that purpose. They were designed to stymie effective environmental protests, like that at Lapoinya, which could draw public support and be politically embarrassing. The high court found the laws out, noting the deterrent effect on peaceful protest of their provisions: “The combined effect ... can bring the protest of an entire group of persons to a halt and its effect will extend over time. Protesters will be deterred from returning to areas around forest operations for days and even months. During this time the operations about which they seek to protest will continue but their voices will not be heard.” It is for premier Hodgman, a lawyer, to say; but just as he did not see the unconstitutionality of these laws, so I doubt he was their origin.
It should be a warning to the other environmental wreckers.
We are in a world of gross, rapid and escalating environmental damage. Corporations profiting from exploiting non-renewable resources face growing public scrutiny and antipathy.
They cannot win the argument for wrecking ecosystems, so their alternative is to wreck environmentalists. Elsewhere in the world, scores of environmentalists are being killed each year by rampaging profiteers. But Australia is a peaceful democracy and the effective option is to lobby weak governments to clamp down on protests.
The high court’s decision does not directly affect laws in states or territories other than Tasmania. But it draws that line in the sand and will be a benchmark for more challenges if other governments pass laws to protect environmental destruction from peaceful public reaction. More widely, it bolsters that right for people standing up for any good cause.
There are growing calls for governments, already falling over themselves to grant concessions to the coral-killing Adani coalmine proposal in Queensland, to enact more draconian anti-protest laws than those already in place. The extreme right voices making those calls had better go read this judgment for democracy.
The Lapoinya forest was razed, but it has proved to be a pyrrhic victory for the destroyers. Out of the peaceful but heartfelt stand of the handful of people in Lapoinya has come a high court ruling upholding the right to peaceful protest for every Australian.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Labor says it will reach 50% renewable energy regardless of PM's guarantee

Exclusive: Mark Butler says Malcolm Turnbull ambushed states with energy ‘thought bubble’

Mark Butler and Bill Shorten
Mark Butler and the opposition leader, Bill Shorten. Butler says Labor has been ‘crystal clear’ on energy policy. Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP

The shadow climate change minister, Mark Butler, says if state governments don’t veto the Turnbull government’s national energy guarantee, and if the policy passes into law, Labor will ramp up the level of emissions reduction in the event it wins the next federal election.
Butler says Labor has been “crystal clear” in discussions with industry stakeholders, and with state governments, that it will use any mechanism, either one of its own, or one it inherits, to drive 50% renewable energy by 2030.
In an interview with Guardian Australia’s Politics Live podcast, Butler says it is not relevant at the moment whether federal Labor supports or opposes the government’s new national energy guarantee, because the Turnbull government will not be in a position to implement it if the states veto it.
“As a matter of process, Malcolm Turnbull has chosen the process forward,” Butler said. “He cannot do this without getting the agreement of all the state governments.”
He said the states would ultimately make or break the model and federal Labor would not be drawn in to “saying yea or nay about a particular mechanism which is not designed – there’s not any design there”.
“All that we have is a piece of political cover to attack the renewable energy industry and, in that sense, we are going to oppose that.”
Butler said the current level of hostility from the states, particularly South Australia, was entirely understandable given the prime minister had “ambushed the states with a thought bubble” and had attacked the states with “base politics”.
He said the objections to the national energy guarantee, thus far, went beyond the Labor premiers. “It’s not just Labor governments. Will Hodgman has been pretty negative in his commentary about this.
“The Tasmanian government has said at the moment they are not in a position to express a view, there’s much more detail they want to see. They are not in a position to express a view at the moment.”
Butler said he could not see a way Turnbull could implement his new energy policy without state backing and he said that, if the states refused to accept the model the prime minister proposed this week, Turnbull should revive chief scientist Alan Finkel’s clean energy target, which had support from the states.
In the event the states overcame their objections and decided to accept Turnbull’s policy, Butler said Labor in government would not settle for an emissions reduction target for the electricity sector of 26% on 2005 levels by 2030, which is what the government was proposing.
“We’ve been very upfront with everyone, with industry, in any forum I speak to, the states, and anyone who is listening really, that whatever mechanism we come up with, be it an emissions intensity scheme or a clean energy target or something else that Malcolm Turnbull ultimately is able to agree with the states and industry, either way, we are going to use it to deliver 50% renewable energy by 2030,” Butler said. “I have been crystal clear about that, as has Bill Shorten.”
The energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, extended an olive branch to the states on Thursday by seeking their input for a round of detailed modelling on the new policy that will be undertaken between now and when the Council of Australian Governments meets in November.
With South Australia leading the charge against the policy, Frydenberg has also spoken to his state counterpart, Tom Koutsantonis, in an effort to defuse the row.
The prime minister has presented his new policy – which would impose reliability and emissions reductions obligations on electricity retailers from 2020 – as a “game changer” and an opportunity to end the decade-long political war over climate and energy policy.
Asked on Thursday what he do in the event the premiers said no, Turnbull said: “Let’s focus on getting them to say yes”.

Queensland councils to pay at least $31m for Adani coalmine airstrip

Townsville and Rockhampton councils may pay millions more if company’s bid to sew up deal with traditional owners fails

An anti-Adani coalmine protest in Brisbane
An anti-Adani coalmine protest. An online petition by a Townsville resident has called for the council to scrap its decision to help fund an airstrip for the coalmine. Photograph: Darren England/EPA

Two local councils are paying $31m to build an airstrip for Adani’s Queensland coalmine – and could fork out millions more if the energy giant’s bid to sew up a deal with traditional owners hits a stumbling block.
Townsville and Rockhampton councils last week announced they would spend $15.5m each on the airport – hundreds of kilometres away – in a deal to secure Adani’s guarantee of 2,200 construction jobs for their residents.
And Townsville has agreed to pay up to $18.5m if the airport is shifted to a second location outside Wangan and Jagalingou land, where Adani’s right to build Australia’s largest coalmine is tied up in a drawn-out legal battle with a traditional owners group.
Rockhampton, which originally put up $20m for the airport in a bid to gain Adani’s guarantee, may also invest up to $18.5m but this has not been made clear.
Despite the Carmichael mine having broad support in both communities, there is some backlash to ratepayers providing infrastructure for a transnational corporation.
An online petition by a Townsville ratepayers group member, Peter Newey, calling for council to scrap its decision, has garnered about 3,700 signatures in a few days. Cathy O’Toole, the federal MP for Herbert in Townsville, has also flagged local concerns about “giving ratepayers’ money to a multinational”.
Councillors from both cities voted in favour of paying for the airport for Adani’s workforce in closed discussions of confidential reports, recorded in minutes that did not mention the company.
Townsville councillors voted on 4 October to create a “special purpose vehicle”, capped at $18.5m over the next two financial years, after receiving a confidential report on “economic activation opportunities”.
The report dealt with “the steps required to be taken to activate the opportunities and any associated beneficial enterprises” if “negotiations with proponents are successful”.
Peter Jacobs was the only councillor opposed because he “believes there is not sufficient return to the community on the proposed opportunity to warrant council considering the matter further”, the minutes state.
Jacobs told the Guardian: “On the original area, council would have had to put in $15.3m but they’ve approved the CEO of the council to go up to $18.5m if they have to shift that location.”
Media in Rockhampton have reported that airport construction would begin later this month.
But Adani will not know until next March at least whether it can register a proposed Indigenous land use agreement (Ilua) with the W&J, which it needs to complete the airport at its first-choice site. That is when the federal court will hear the objections of a traditional owner group that opposes the mine and alleges the Ilua is invalid.
Asked about the risk to ratepayer funds if the project did not ahead, Jacobs said that “apparently we’ve got an ironclad guarantee” of a refund from Adani.
“That’s an Australian bank guarantee, that if it doesn’t go ahead, I believe that we’d be guaranteed to get that $18.5m or the $15.3m back from Adani,” Jacobs said.
Clinching both the Ilua and financial closure – in the form of $5bn in overseas investment backing, for which Adani has also flagged a March deadline – are seen as the miner’s last hurdles in the controversial project.
An Adani spokesman confirmed the airport site would hinge on what happened with the Ilua. The second option was less than 10km from the proposed worker’s village on W&J land, he said.
The spokesman said the airport would be operated and – he understood – owned by the councils, on land held by Adani under its mining lease.
The councils would receive no revenue directly from Adani, the spokesman said. But the airport would also be available to other future coalminers in the Galilee basin, he said.
Jacobs said it was not clear whether the investment was a condition of Townsville being named by Adani as a fly in, fly out worker hub.
But the council’s chief financial officer, Matt Thomson, has said that without the investment “Townsville would not have received a single new Fifo job”.
He cited KPMG modelling that “direct revenue from rates and services alone will be more than $1m a year” for more than 30 years, with another $90m a year indirect economic benefit to the city.
Rockhampton councillors met on 26 September for a confidential discussion about “economic development opportunities” and an update from council’s general manager of “regional development and aviation”.
The minutes make no mention of Adani but note a confidential report contained information “for which a public discussion would be likely to prejudice the interests of the local government or someone else, or enable a person to gain a financial advantage”.
Councillors unanimously voted for their chief executive to “execute the terms sheets as discussed at the meeting” but did not put a figure on the cost to ratepayers.
Neither the Townsville mayor, Jenny Hill, nor the Rockhampton mayor, Margaret Strelow, responded to a request for comment.

'It's a bit of pride': the last Holden marks an end to car manufacturing in Australia

Extract from The Guardian

Thousands to gather outside Adelaide’s Holden plant to say farewell to the car that became ‘part of the family’

Battery storage proponents despondent about future under National Energy Guarantee

Some in the fledgling tech-metals mining and processing industry are dismayed that the Federal Government's new energy policy does not appear to support renewable energy storage such as batteries.
Australian Vanadium chief executive Vincent Algar said the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) unfairly pitted the batteries and renewable energy storage sector against fossil fuel electricity producers such as oil and gas.
"With coal and gas considered a dispatchable energy source under the NEG, what incentive will there be to source dispatchable energy from a battery?" he said.
Dispatchable power can be turned on and off and used immediately as needed.
The NEG will mandate that energy retailers need to buy a certain amount of energy from dispatchable sources, which include coal, gas, and pumped hydroelectricity storage.

Lower cost makes coal and gas more attractive

Mr Algar, whose company will mine and process vanadium, as well as promote vanadium battery technology, believes pure economics dictates that energy retailers will go to the much cheaper coal and gas producers.
"If a company is building a renewable energy project, what incentive will there be for them to put that dispatchable energy in the form of a battery?" he said.
"On top of that is the removal of subsidies for renewable energy, and no clean energy target, so it further reduces any incentives.
Mr Algar is also concerned the NEG will bring to a halt the research and development of advanced renewable energy and battery technologies.
"Australia has the runs on the board. It has invented things like the flow battery [which uses vanadium], and they're doing brilliant work in eastern states that will improve the efficiency of solar panels, for example," he said.
"These are developments that will generate jobs and make us a net exporter of renewable technology, but this policy could really put a dampener on that."

Lack of specifics difficult for renewables industry

The release of the NEG also lacks clarity, according to some.
University of Queensland economics professor John Quiggin said the lack of policy specifics so far had left the renewable energy and storage sector up in the air.
"And there has been little further information from the Australian Energy Market Operator [AEMO].
"So far it appears to suggest the policy is about rescuing coal, which has now been classed dispatchable, and protecting it against genuinely dispatchable energy technologies such as batteries.
"The AEMO note suggests that the different types of power under this scheme may be treated differently, which would be fairer for batteries.
"But it remains to be seen what, if anything, is going to come out of the very vague descriptions we have at the moment."

Possible silver lining for battery storage

While he confesses he is not very optimistic about the likelihood of a battery-friendly policy, professor Tony Vassallo said it was possible.
The Delta Electricity chairman in sustainable development at the University of Queensland backed up concerns that the NEG was currently too opaque to know what the full impact could be on batteries.
"There is an opportunity for [battery] storage if the policy settings are crafted in a certain way," he said.
"But if the rules are going to be a continuation of what has been the case up to now, it will favour the incumbent [fossil fuel] generators."
Professor Vassallo said the existing rules and policy settings were developed in the 1980s and were applicable to coal and gas-fired power plants.
"They enforced the ability of coal and gas-fired power plants to meet market requirements by changing their energy output with an hour, within minutes, even within seconds," he said.
"But the opportunity is there for those rules to be updated and take advantage of the newer technologies that come with renewables and energy storage."