Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

Gas-fried re-hubbery
The federal government’s latest energy plan doesn’t make much sense

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Energy Minister Angus Taylor with employees at WesTrac headquarters in Tomago, outside Newcastle, today.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Energy Minister Angus Taylor meet with employees at WesTrac headquarters in Tomago, outside Newcastle, today. Image © Dan Himbrechts / AAP

There was more smoke and mirrors from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Energy Minister Angus Taylor today, with the pair delivering a series of announceables about a “gas-fired recovery” from COVID-19 that left industry players scratching their heads and describing it as counterproductive. Morrison cited the “extraordinary work” of his energy minister, and the “enormous amount of intellect and experience” he brought to the task, but there was little to show for it after months of hype in the lead-up to this plan being unveiled – rather like Taylor’s “big stick” legislation that will never be used, or his technology road map that simply rebadges a years-old document with a different name. Developing the blighted Narrabri gas field (as Morrison’s plan envisions) has been debated for a decade, and the other basins will take years to develop, if ever. Queensland’s Wallumbilla facility is already a critical gas hub. The headline-grabbing policy announcement today was a threat to the energy industry to commit to delivering 1000MW of new “dispatchable” power generation to replace the ageing Liddell Power Station by the summer of 2023–24, or else the federal government will have the Commonwealth-owned Snowy Hydro company build a new gas-fired power plant itself. The PM defined dispatchable power as coal, gas, pumped hydro or batteries, and during questioning he said clearly: “I don’t care what source the dispatchables come from.” That got Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes tweeting to ask whether the PM was serious about his generation target and deadline: “if we can do the former _without_ gas, will you say no?”

Morrison said today that the Commonwealth would “prefer not to step in” and build its own new plant, adding, “that is not our plan A”. Representing the big three power companies, Australian Energy Council chief executive Sarah McNamara basically blamed the government for the drop in new generation, saying the sector was “struggling to make final investment decisions in an environment of ongoing policy uncertainty. The government’s earlier plan to underwrite new generation projects in the market also remains under consideration, and this too contributes to the ongoing uncertainty, together with various and competing state-based renewable energy targets. There are no material reliability concerns that would warrant this kind of interventionist approach, and there are already mechanisms in place to address any shortfall identified.”

AGL, the owner of the set-to-close Liddell Power Station, reiterated that it was sticking to its timetable, including developing 850MW of battery storage capacity across the eastern states by 2024. Perhaps NSW’s environment and energy minister, Matt Kean, might get involved, given he has successfully launched two renewable energy zones in the central west and the north (including in New England), accounting for a combined 11,000MW of new generation capacity.

Shadow minister for climate change and energy Mark Butler was predictably scathing today, telling RN Breakfast that the plan was more spin than substance: 

There is a plan for new basins that would be years and years away. Basins that are nowhere near connected to the gas network. There is a review of prices. We have been calling for drastic action since 2015, but there is a review of prices to manufacturers. They talk about establishing an Australian gas hub at Wallumbilla – Wallumbilla is already a gas hub which the energy regulator only said in recent weeks is becoming more and more liquid every month … And in a development that I’m sure has the big gas industry executives shaking in their boots, the announcement also talks about a “voluntary industry-led code of conduct” to give gas customers a fair shake. Principally, we are talking about our big manufacturers there who have seen gas prices triple over the past five years. I think we’ve learnt over recent years that reliance on the goodwill of the gas companies will not deliver any price relief.

We’ve gone from a truly lunatic debate about whether the federal government should buy a 50-year old coal-fired clunker, to a merely stupid and probably hollow threat to build a state-owned gas-fired power plant. In the topsy-turvy world of the Coalition’s climate-denialist politics, perhaps that could even be called progress. There was a twinge of disappointment in Matt Canavan’s tweet today: “The Hunter Valley has the best thermal coal in the world. NSW imports over 90% of its gas. Why don’t we just use the coal that is right there and build a coal-fired power station?” He got 650 replies to that one. 

“It is a massive thing. It is a very positive thing … This is a credit to everyone in regional Victoria. I am proud of you. I am grateful to you.”

Premier Daniel Andrews announces an easing of restrictions in regional Victoria from 11.59pm tomorrow.

“[There was] not one whisper from the very people who were last week threatening Armageddon.”

A NSW Liberal source says that, despite last week’s threats to split the Berejiklian government over a koala habitat policy, the Nationals raised no concerns in the Coalition’s joint partyroom meeting this morning.

The politics of a coronavirus vaccine
A coronavirus vaccine is the best chance the world has of returning to some kind of normal, but the stalling of one of the most viable candidates last week was a reminder that nothing is guaranteed. Today, Karen Middleton on the Australian government’s plans and the likelihood of a vaccine in 2021.


The number of deaths from coronavirus recorded overnight in Victoria. Today is the first day without a coronavirus death in the state since July 13.

“The Deloitte report, released today, finds that if the government cuts the coronavirus supplement on September 25 and then fully removes the supplement at the end of December, this would: (a) reduce the size of the economy by $31.3 billion and see an average loss of 145,000 full-time equivalent jobs across 2020–21 and 2021–22; (b) have the worst impact in regional communities.”

The Australian Council of Social Service releases analysis by Deloitte Access Economics showing the impact of looming cuts to unemployment benefits.

The list

“Over the course of eight one-hour episodes, it lays out a story across three separate fields, divided more or less evenly between the Mexican cartels (the sellers), the Italian mafia (the buyers) and an American family of shipping brokers – the Lynwoods – who act as intermediaries between the two. The narrative follows a single consignment of cocaine, and the convulsions that ensue when individuals at either end of this chain attempt to upend the hierarchies to which they belong. Billed as a crime drama, it’s actually – like David Simon and Ed Burns’ The Wire – a study of macroeconomics, of an illegal industry that simultaneously sustains and deforms communities.”

“Janet Jackson is that strange phenomenon: a star who is ubiquitous yet underrated, a singular talent but also a punchline. Tabloid tales and wardrobe malfunctions aside, the sonic innovations of her work remain astounding. In collaboration with her long-time producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jackson has been responsible for some of the most gripping sounds of the last four decades.”

“The series of events that led to this moment – with the country’s aged-care system teetering on the brink of collapse – stretches back long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Its origins lie in the changes made under the Howard government in the late 1990s, which ushered in a 23-year failed experiment; a live study of human patients that saw falling care standards, dramatic loss of professional skill and soaring profits.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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