When will ABC stop parroting fossil fuel lobbyist lines?

Where’s the ABC Fact Check department when you need it? Ah, that’s right, it’s closed. And that’s a pity, because it would be kept mighty busy by some of the recent editorialising by Andrew Probyn, the 7.30 Report’s new political editor.


Probyn, like his predecessor, Chris Uhlmann, has got into the nasty habit of parroting fossil fuel myths as if they are fact. They’ve become obsessed with concepts such as “synchronous” generation and “baseload”, using them to slap down wind and solar without really understanding why or how.

This is a problem for ABC viewers because they are not getting a clear and unbiased picture of energy issues. A complex subject is being poorly served. Labor is accused by Probyn of being a “slave” to wind and solar ideology, while Uhlmann thinks more wind and solar will lead to a national blackout.

Last night, Probyn tried to wrap up the gas talks, led by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the push into battery storage into one big omnibus piece. But then he got diverted by his own prejudice, or misconceptions.

The report started promisingly. Michael Ottaviano, the CEO of Perth-based Carnegie Clean Energy, was explaining how a local company could do exactly what Tesla’s Elon Musk could do – provide battery storage,  make wind and solar dispatchable, and provide grid security.

And, he said, they could do it at the same competitive prices, and in the same time frame. They could match Tesla and Musk on every front, with the exception of tweeting.

But in an instant after Ottaviano had explained how wind and solar and storage were a current reality, Probyn had decided it was something only for the future. (Full transcript here).

“Wave, solar and wind power may be key to the future energy mix, but the intermittent nature of renewables means they can’t yet guarantee baseload generation.”

Er, yes they can. Ottaviano just told you they can – not baseload, that is a redundant term invented by the fossil fuel lobby to justify coal generation, but dispatchable generation, which is what really counts.

When South Australia announced its new energy plan on Tuesday, it didn’t announce a baseload plant, it sought instead battery storage and a peaking gas plant. This is about dispatchability, not baseload.

It’s a crucial point. The energy market is in a massive technological transition. Running such lines about baseload is like arguing a car can’t do what a horse and cart can do because it doesn’t eat straw.

Mind you, it’s not just mainstream media that is slow to pick up on this, or being downright antagonistic, as is the case with much of the Murdoch media. The regulators have been slow too.

As Clean Energy Finance Corp chief Oliver Yates said on Thursday: “Today’s power systems are being digitised, with rapid and sophisticated control systems applying across the network. Regulatory systems need to keep up with the rapid pace of technology developments, supporting the adoption of new solutions that solve the new challenges.”

Probyn then dived into the CSG issue, and we will get to that in a moment. But to continue on the theme about misplaced understanding, and fossil fuel marketing, Probyn finished with this belter.

“Australia’s energy policy is sandwiched between two extremes. On the right we have those who are ideologically and politically allergic to a carbon price – when the industry has already factored one in. And on the left we have people who want the promised land now: one that’s entirely powered by solar, wind and batteries.

“To move away from coal, we’ll need more gas. And if we’re to get this from new onshore projects, rather than through extraordinary Commonwealth intervention that the PM is threatening, the political class will have to step up.”

First paragraph is roughly right, although it won’t be just batteries, but other forms of storage as well.

But more gas? Another Furphy propagated by the fossil fuel lobbies. That idea was already wrong when he said it – priced out of competition – and was dead and buried in less than 12 hours when it was revealed that Turnbull would put $2 billion into extending the pumped hydro scheme in the Snowy Mountains.

That signals the death-knell for any new gas generation. The idea that more gas is needed is one that the gas industry has been desperate to put before it got run over by battery storage. Instead, in one week, it has been run over by both battery storage and pumped hydro. Who would build a new gas generator now?

On his way to this conclusion, Probyn made an extraordinary assessment of the Metgasco project in NSW, where he accused the NSW government of going “wobbly in the face of a fierce protest, an eloquent opinion-maker and political pressure points.”

He added:

“All too often there’s a lack of political will to stare down community opposition and the shock jocks and defend even conventional gas projects. It’s happening in Victoria and the Northern Territory too.”

Hang on a moment. Metgasco was operating in fields deemed coal seam gas, because the licences were allocated, and then taken away, by the Office of Coal Seam Gas.

Yes, the initial drill well they planned near Bentley was “conventional” because it was an exploration well to see what was down there. It was also looking for what is known as “tight gas”, and fracking was the next thing on the agenda.

“We did not plan to frack the well in the current program,” the company said in an explanation to shareholders in 2015. “We had made it clear that if fracking proved to be necessary, it would require more engineering, more approvals, more consultation and time before a fracking operation could proceed.”

What those protests were about was stopping a Trojan Horse. And they succeeded. It’s just all too cute – and wrong – to suggest that this was a conventional project, let alone that somehow Australia’s energy needs cannot be met without more gas.


51 responses to “When will ABC stop parroting fossil fuel lobbyist lines?”

  1. Tim Forcey Avatar
    Tim Forcey


    I don’t know that there is such a thing as “conventional oil & gas production” anymore.

    If a oil & gas company has a well (brand new or many years old), and if their geologists and reservoir engineers decide at any point that a touch of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) would be worth doing to make the well more productive, well then the oil & gas company is going to push (regulators) to do it.

    To do otherwise would be to neglect the interests of the oil & gas company shareholders.

    1. solarguy Avatar

      Tim, have you done any research on Biogas and crunched any numbers?

      1. Tim Forcey Avatar
        Tim Forcey

        Of course! With the gas prices we now see in Australia, more and more forms and sources of biogas have to be making economic sense.

        In Germany, for example, one cannot drive 20 km without finding a biogas facility. That is because of the cost of gas over there and the quest for energy security (i.e. concerns over Russian gas).

        However in Australia, yet once again, uncertainties around government energy policies slow investors down. For example, will there be fossil gas reservation policies and would such policies dampen gas prices?

        Oh the uncertainties! Which stops energy investments from going ahead.

        1. solarguy Avatar

          Thanks Tim. I know about the investment uncertainties, but are you as convinced as I am of the cost and ecological benefits of biogas. And yes it is a bit open ended question.

          1. Tim Forcey Avatar
            Tim Forcey

            One thing you do not want to do with biogas (methane) is let any of it go off into our Earth’s atmosphere!


          2. solarguy Avatar

            Well of course not, goes without saying doesn’t it. But here is the kicker, our sewage treatment plants allow that to happen every day, energy going to waste and giving up methane to the atmosphere. Rouge emissions.

            Tim haven’t you got any more to elaborate on biogas?

          3. Rod Avatar

            Here in SA it appears both of our major sewerage plants now have biogas generation. It also appears that all of the energy produced is used onsite.

          4. Pete Avatar

            Correct Rod, and they have had it at Bolivar for decades. They ran a gas turbine for a while but I heard a rumour they are reverting back to reciprocating engines. The volumes aren’t massive by memory, I think it doesn’t even make enough to run the plant 100% of the time. I’m not a fan of the anti-frac movement, there are just as anti-science as the anti-RE mobs. There are right and wrong ways and places to frac. I wouldn’t advocate for wind turbines in a world heritage forrest either.

          5. Rod Avatar

            Yes, either in this link or somewhere else I read 86% reduction in energy use after Bolivar’s upgrade.
            So not much help as an RE source but every bit helps and at least the methane will be burnt off.
            Bolivar’s solid waste (sludge probably) is also used in agriculture so all up fairly responsible.

          6. solarguy Avatar

            Look a little closer and you will find the digesters are pretty small compared to the amount of feed stock available. These plants are just pilots.

          7. Rod Avatar

            Google didn’t enlighten me.
            I would be interested in the % of waste used to get to the current level of on site generation at Bolivar.
            It sounds like SA Water is happy with the results so I’m guessing they would be keen to expand their projects.

        2. Farmer Dave Avatar
          Farmer Dave

          Tim, I’m with solarguy in my interest in biogas, and I wondered if biogas producers who are near a gas grid pipeline and can meet the quality specifications have the right to sell their gas into the grid? Further, does the current high gas price improve the economics of biogas significantly, particularly if grid access is available by right?

          1. Tim Forcey Avatar
            Tim Forcey

            Uh, if ARENA is not already funding study work in this area, we need to talk! Generally what folks (e.g. a landfill) in Australia do once they have a bit of gas is to make electricity out of it. So far that has been the economic thing to do, but the economics are changing.

          2. john Avatar

            I have seen bio-gas being vented.
            As you approach the area sign says ” no naked lights”

        3. solarguy Avatar

          ok good. Something wrong with this website. Talk soon

    2. Andy Saunders Avatar
      Andy Saunders

      Too true, Tim. There have been CSG wells in Qld for at least 40 years. Just weren’t called that then.

      And fracking is pretty much a non-issue in technical terms. For a start, the vast majority of CSG wells (let alone the “conventional” wells) aren’t fracked (there’s no need to – the coal seams are naturally fractured). Even if they were fracked, it’s technically a non-issue. The coal seams are relatively shallow (means any frac is low-pressure) and the toughness difference between the coal seam and the surrounding formation is so great that the frack will be well contained/controlled.

      All the frack noise can be traced back to the US, where fracking is several orders of magnitude different (in pressure, in volumes, in number of wells etc).

  2. JeffJL Avatar


  3. Ken Dyer Avatar
    Ken Dyer

    It seemed to me that Probyn did not know what he was talking about; it just seemed to be biased bullshit. Probyn’s alternative facts did ABC or its viewers no favors. Not good enough ABC!

    Waleed Aly’s comment summed the Government up neatly:

    “It’s a neat trick, really. Take a country with enough gas to supply
    itself “indefinitely”, send the vast majority of it overseas, refuse to
    sell locally at a fair price, create a domestic shortage, then demand
    access to some of our most environmentally sensitive resources as though
    it’s an emergency measure.”

    Lock the Gate is a legitimate protest, and those people know what they are talking about.

  4. Nick Sharp Avatar
    Nick Sharp

    Spot on Giles. There’s a huge problem in our political class; almost none of them are STEM-trained, as I explained in a recent ABC RN Ockham’s Razor “Science Literacy in Parliament”. [Almost an oxymoron].

    Out of the 226 federal pollies, it would seem just 20 have STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths/Medicine) tertiary qualifications. (Source: parliamentarians biographies on the parliamentary library web site).

    I suggested they should all be given an extra staffer – one tertiary trained in STEM subjects.

    And especially relevant to your article above, Giles, our journalists need HEAPS more STEM knowledge. After all, it is supposedly they who are to keep the pollies honest. Fat chance if they are spouting rubbish themselves. Perhaps they should stick to reporting instead of editorialising from a background of STEM ignorance.

    The late US (DEM) senator for New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it well: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

    Also (love this one) “The single most exciting thing you encounter in government is competence, because it’s so rare.”. Ain’t that real?

    1. Rod Avatar

      And one of those 20 is Malcolm Roberts?

      1. Nick Sharp Avatar
        Nick Sharp

        Yeah (B Eng and a career in mining), and Dr Dennis Jensen who had higher science degrees, was MP for Tangney 2004-16, and had worked for CSIRO, was a strong climate change denier. You can’t win ’em all. I just shudder to think of our nation being led by people who do not have the educational background to understand how we are heading for both a climate change and a non-renewable resource cliff.

        1. Rod Avatar

          I think 70% of them are Lawyers
          That doesn’t bode well

        2. Rod Avatar

          I think 70% of them are Lawyers
          That doesn’t bode well

          1. Nick Sharp Avatar
            Nick Sharp

            As I said in “Science Literacy in Parliament” (ABC RN Ockham’s Razor) in fact 99 of 226 report LLB as their tertiary qualification (~44%). And a further 55 are BA. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 4 of the 5 BScs in the senate are Greens, plus their leader is a medical doctor.

            Having SOME lawyers in legislatures isn’t a bad idea. Having so few who have any formal tertiary science is dreadful.

          2. Rod Avatar

            Thanks for the breakdown.
            Totally agree, some sort of test, maybe just IQ, to help the voters decide.
            Having said that, MPs are meant to represent their electorate and the current ability of many voters to think and make rational decisions is a bit lacking.

          3. Ray Miller Avatar
            Ray Miller

            Also a sanity test.

          4. Rod Avatar

            Before and or after politics?
            I think you would have to be crazy to take it up and most are damaged by the experience.

    2. john Avatar

      I do not think one of the elected persons is the least interested in the future it is all about now so STEM is not on their ad-gender

    3. Michael James Avatar
      Michael James

      There’s a huge problem in our political class; almost none of them are STEM-trained …

      Substitute “journalists” in that sentence too. Of course they are supposed to be capable of winnowing the reality from their tech sources. Still, a basic (first year university) understanding of science is a huge help and the ABC should employ backroom, research staff with appropriate qualifications. But obviously that doesn’t happen and Guthrie has sacked the only science show they had.

      1. Nick Sharp Avatar
        Nick Sharp

        Indeed, Michael. I argued that in the Ockham’s Razor program. Re Catalyst (was Quantum which ABC scrapped earlier), they “haven’t scrapped it – it will be replaced by 17 x 1 hour ‘Catalyst’ programs during the year”. Oh yeah? The year is nearly 1/4 gone, and unless I blinked, I think we still await program 1. Lots of folk pointed out that a full length 1 hour single topic program is a lot harder to put together than a weekly several-topic ‘magazine’ format.

    4. Ray Miller Avatar
      Ray Miller

      An environment minister who stores “power” instead of energy, even a high school student knows that one.

  5. Nicko Avatar

    A little off track, but not really: the day after the WA election, Probyn was fulminating that everyone who said One Nation had underperformed were wrong (including Pauline Hanson, as it happens).

    He was at pains to spin it as a good result, ie ignoring state wide results and stressing PHON’s results solely in its target seats (still only 10% primary).

    Why the continued talking up of Hanson? Especially after PHON excluded the ABC from their bunker on the night.

    Astounding in a way, but given the way the ABC is going, not really.

    Summary: No surprise he takes a ‘right wing’ view of renewable energy. A Uhlmann clone.

  6. Ian Mclaughlin Avatar
    Ian Mclaughlin

    Unfortunately the ABC is being slowly but surely infiltrated by people with links to the extreme right wing. It has been done deliberately by appointing “free enterprise” management, i.e. those that will look to future (and past) employment by the “fact free” private media.

  7. john Avatar

    Unfortunately the information is given by the bigger companies.
    So if big company and one of the biggest in the world has information you take it.
    As to actually doing any research are you kidding?

  8. Brunel Avatar

    Take a look at ABC Media Watch to see the host tear apart the Murdoch media line that Coca Cola closed their Adelaide plant due to power cuts.

    1. Rod Avatar

      I’ll try to find it but I would guess the value of the parcel of land 1km from the city centre and on the tram line was very attractive.

      1. Brunel Avatar

        That parcel of land should be acquired by government for a school!

        1. Rod Avatar

          No, it will be medium density housing with views to the park lands.
          Like most States we have a pro development government.
          I do support their efforts to increase housing density and support public transport.
          Plenty of schools in the city mile (mostly private)

          1. Brunel Avatar

            Ironic. The people in medium density housing will not have kids?

            Port Melbourne primary school is severely overcrowded while heaps of apartment blocks were allowed to be built in Port Melbourne.

            Believe it or not, people have kids.

          2. Rod Avatar

            Will probably be full of DINKs
            My suburb has come full circle in 35 years
            They tore down two primary schools and now we are getting infill and young families, the nearest primary school is > 2km away for many.
            No wonder all the kiddies have to be driven to school.

          3. Brunel Avatar

            Omg, tore down 2 primary schools in Adelaide? Would you mind naming the suburb?

          4. Rod Avatar

            Holden Hill Primary, I went there for a year and Holden Hill North.
            Residential on the first site and old age residential on the second.

    2. Rod Avatar

      Thanks Brunel,
      If they were in court it would be called leading the witness. Disgusting.

      Maybe Media Watch will turn into a proxy Fact Check

  9. Ren Stimpy Avatar
    Ren Stimpy

    Hey don’t just beat up on Uhlmann and Probyn, save some of that for Fran Kelly who (although I like her) really is abominably hopeless on energy policy.

    1. Giles Avatar

      The difference with Fran and the others is that she may not be fully across energy – it is complex – but at least is genuinely curious, asks questions that might be asked by the general population, and does not blindly repeat the fossil fuel talking points. Ellen Fanning is best because she has reported on energy.

      1. David Pethick Avatar

        In no particular order, I’d say the following journalists have an excellent grasp on the complex Australian energy markets: Matthew Stevens, Angela MacDonald-Smith, Brian Robins, Ben Potter and John Durie.

        There are another handful of journalists who write excellent fact-based and balanced articles, but rarely offer any useful perspective or detail that makes their articles anything other than “skim-worthy”.

        My favourites remain those with an acknowledged bias in their perspective. I disagree with a lot of what Peter Martin writes, for example, but I still read it all. I’m not sure I should say this, but RenewEconomy sits in this category as well – strong opinions, very valuable and critical analysis of the facts, but sometimes prone to ignoring an alternative explanation.


        Dave P.

      2. Ren Stimpy Avatar
        Ren Stimpy

        I think she (Fran) often puts forward an inexpert opinion on the subject. Hey sometimes so do I, but I don’t host a national radio program!

        You’re right though – ‘abominably hopeless’ was probably undiplomatic to say the least, Trumpesque even, and some moderation was called for.

  10. Denby Angus Avatar
    Denby Angus

    Nice piece Giles. But just adding my own pedantry: horses eat hay not straw. Straw is the stripped stalks, hay has leaf and/or seed still attached.

  11. Rob Avatar

    Yes. You can add my name to the list of people who have noticed how biased the position of “Political Editor” at the ABC seems to be against renewable energy and pro-prolonging Australia’s fossil fuel fiasco. Uhlmann and Probyn don’t seem to be able to get their facts right. Is this deliberate or just shoddy journalism? How much worse is it going to get with Murdoch/COALition plant Guthrie pulling the strings? What’s clear is that the COALition has absolutely zero credibility when it comes to renewable energy and fighting climate change. They have actively fought against the progression of renewables and climate change action in Australia. It’s frightening to think how our government can be so controlled by the fossil fuel industry that it would so sell Australia down the river as it has. Shameful, disgraceful behavior. Excuse my cynicism but this latest thought bubble of using the Snowy Hydro as storage, whilst seeming like a great idea, is probably just an exercise in buying more time for the fossil fuel industry. No doubt, come election time, there’ll be COALition campaign ads quoting Henry Lawson and The Man from Snowy River with pictures of Malcolm Turnbull racing a horse down the mountainside ( assuming he’s still leader ). What a farce!

    1. John McKeon Avatar
      John McKeon

      “… racing a horse down the mountainside …”
      Would that be a race to the bottom?

  12. Noel Wauchope Avatar
    Noel Wauchope

    I feel pity for ABC journalists and commentators. As the ABC slashes jobs right left and centre, journalists (A) probably fear for their jobs, if they displease the Turdbull government, and (B) have to work harder, and don’t always manage to get their facts right. At least they try.

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