(This story will be updated through the day).
The Australian government has nailed its colours to the mast on the issue of renewable energy by choosing manufacturing chief and climate change denier Dick Warburton to head its review into the renewable energy target.
Warburton will head a four-person panel that will report to the Prime Minister’s office, rather than to either the environment department or the ministry for industry, which includes the energy portfolio. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s chief business advisor, Maurice Newman, shares Warburton’s view of climate science and dislikes renewable energy, wind farms in particular, and Abbott himself has blamed renewable energy for rising electricity costs.
Warburton was one of the main campaigners against the carbon price under the previous Labor government. He said on repeated occasions that climate science was not settled. “On the cause there’s huge debate about whether carbon dioxide is the main cause,” he said at the time.
The other members of the panel will be Matt Zema, the CEO of the Australian Energy Market Operator, Shirley In’t Veld, the former head of WA government owned generation company Verve Energy, and Brian Fisher, the former long-term head of ABARE who gained notoriety for his positions on climate policies and is a noted free-market hardliner.
The selection of key members with an antipathy to renewable energy will not be a surprise to those who have watched the Abbott government in its first six months. The government is under pressure from the coal lobby, incumbent utilities, network operators and state governments to either dump, or sharply reduce the renewable energy target.
The last review was conducted by the Climate Change Authority, which rejected the appeals to reduce the target, noting that such a move would not save consumers money, and would only serve to protect the revenues of the incumbents. The CCA has a statutory obligation to do the next review, but the Abbott government is trying to dissolve the CCA, as it has already achieved with the Climate Commission, and is seeking to do with the carbon price and the Clean Energy Finance Corp.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt and industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said in a joint statement that the review will consider the “contribution of the RET in reducing emissions, its impact on electricity prices and energy markets, as well as its costs and benefits for the renewable energy sector, the manufacturing sector and Australian households.
“Australia’s diversity of energy sources is one of our greatest national strengths. Renewable energy has contributed to the energy mix, but we must ensure that the program is operating effectively,” the statement said. It said the review’s report will be provided to Government by the middle of the year, which will in turn be an important input into the Energy White Paper process.”
Interestingly, the terms of reference include a review of the target, and its implementation, and
“implementation arrangements for any proposed reforms to the RET, including how to manage transition issues, risks and any adjustment costs that may arise from policy changes to the RET.”
In’t Veld headed Verve Energy, which has had a history of snubbing renewable energy and chose instead to invest in the refurbishment of the ageing Muja coal-fired generator. The refurbishment has proved to be a financial disaster, with the WA government admitting that nearly $300 million had gone down the drain.
Hunt said that Verve had a mix of energies in its portfolio. But according to its 2012 annual report, it had 3,376 MW of fossil generation and just 46 MW of renewable energy generation. That’s 98.7 per cent fossil fuel mix.
Zema is an interesting choice. AEMO recently completed a study that found 100 per cent renewables would be possible in Australia, and concluded that the cost of electricity would be little different to business as usual, although AEMO declined to do a full cost analysis.
The choice of a climate change denier to head the review does not bode well for the renewable energy industry in Australia, which has been at a virtual standstill for the past year because of uncertainty about the policy.
According to journalist Ben Eltham, Fisher is not much more enlightened than Warburton.
“One of the models is the GTEM model, developed by ABARE, the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics. ABARE is a notoriously backward agency whose stance throughout the Howard government’s reign was openly pro-pollution and climate change denialist,” he wrote for New Matilda.
“Under its long-term boss, Dr Brian Fisher, ABARE was responsible for the infamous “MEGABARE” model that made Australia a laughing stock in connection to the Kyoto negotiations, as Clive Hamilton details in his book Scorcher. ABARE is not truly independently funded: it routinely takes money from the corporate sector to fund its activities. Fisher has since left ABARE to head up a fossil fuel lobby group, Concept Economics.”
Bernard Keane in Crikey wrote this about Fisher: “ABARE’s rigid adherence to this approach emerged strongly during the long reign of Dr Brian Fisher. Fisher headed ABARE for 18 years until he departed for the private sector in 2006. A former head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Sydney, Fisher is said to be a hardline free marketeer with a strong objection to market intervention or attempts to remedy market failure. While Fisher had been undertaking climate change modelling in the last days of the Keating Government, it was under John Howard that he found his public service calling as a willing assistant in that Government’s campaign to resist and delay carbon abatement measures.
“Outright greenhouse denialism was never ABARE’s method – although, as late as October 2006, ABARE staff appearing before Estimates were declining to accept that climate change was real. Instead, under Fisher, ABARE’s primary method was to systematically produce modelling demonstrating the massive costs to Australia of any action to mitigate carbon emissions.
“Research was initially done using the infamous MEGABARE and GIGABARE climate change models, which were overseen by a “steering committee” dominated by resource companies. The Keating Government had imposed a 30% external funding requirement on ABARE and other research agencies; this had been increased to 40% by the new Howard Government in 1996, ensuring ABARE was required to work closely with industry in order to pursue its work program.”
Leigh Ewbank, from Yes2Renewables, said:
“Tony Abbott’s choice of panel members shows once again that this government puts ideology before good policy. If the review results in less renewable energy it’ll mean less jobs and less investment in Australia.”“The renewable energy sector promises to be a engine for economic growth. With the economy shedding jobs, now is not the time to wind back support for renewables. Renewable energy is cutting the coal power sector’s profits. If the review recommends cutting the target, it’ll be clear the government’s priority is looking after their fossil-fueled friends.”