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Coalition MPs calling for RET reduction want to remain anonymous

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It’s been a curious fortnight in Australian politics. First, there was the unlikely duet between Clive Palmer and Al Gore, and then the debarking in Canberra of some of the more extraordinary people ever to be elected Senators in Australia.

As Ross Garnaut says today, and as any investor or proponent of renewable energy and climate policy can tell you, this is creating an environment of great uncertainty.

But there was another curiosity that went largely un-noticed, and it should not have. A group of 25 Coalition MPs created a bit of fanfare earlier this week when they signed a petition calling for the renewable energy target to be diluted, and for aluminium smelters to be fully exempted (they already are for 90 per cent of their obligation).

But who were they? What was unusual about this petition was that the most of the Coalition MPs who signed it didn’t want their name to become public. It’s almost unheard of for political petitions, and it’s not entirely clear why.

A few MPS broke cover at the time. Well, someone had to, just to get it reported in The Australian. Dan Tehan, the Victorian MP whose electorate includes several wind farms, as well as Keppel Prince, the largest manufacturer of wind turbine machinery in Australia, was principal spokesman.

He was supported by Ken O‘Dowd, from the Queensland seat of Flynn, Andrew Nikolic from the Tasmania seat of Bass. One added signatory that Tehan did proffer was Ewen Jones, the member for Herbert in north Queensland who recently argued for a coal fired power station to be built near Townsville.

All have a common interest – the presence of smelters and heavy industry they say are being affected by the RET. But who are the others? When RenewEconomy asked Tehan for the other names of the signatories, he said he wasn’t authorized to give them. RE got the same response from Hunt’s office, which received the petition.

When RE asked Tehan why this was the case, he replied: “I’m not quite sure. It’s up to them. It’s up to them as to how they want to present the argument.”

Exactly what the Coalition MPs are trying to achieve has been the subject of some conjecture. RE’s own theory was that this was an attempt by some “moderates” – as Tehan describes himself – to at least salvage something from the renewable energy target, for fear that right-wing forces within the PM’s office, most of his advisors are climate skeptics  and anti-renewables, would lead to the RET being closed to new business. That scenario amounts to two of the four options currently being considered by the RET Review panel.

Tehan says he is a supporter of renewables. “I understand the importance of the renewable energy sector,” he told RE. “It has made significant contribution to the economy. It is just a matter of finding a balance.”

This theory was supported by the reaction of Hunt – who suggested that the petition was a sensible compromise – and then by Abbott, who went on ABC to launch another rant against the supposed cost of renewable energy. This was despite modeling by his hand-picked consultants, ACIL Allen, proving otherwise. Consumer bills would in fact fall if the RET was left alone. (See table below)

So, to test RE’s theory, we went to other MPs to ask if they had signed on. Angus Taylor, the MP for Hume, and one of the most vocal critics of wind energy and the RET in the Coalition, refused to confirm or deny whether he was a signatory.

Eventually, after discussions with Tehan, he sent a text to say that yes, he was, indeed, a signatory to the petition. “I have signed the petition and will continue to push for a restructure of the RET, along with a group of my colleagues,” he texted.

(We missed his text initially, and then texted him back to ask whether he would be satisfied with a true 20 per cent, which seems rather a lot more than he would have wanted, or for that matter some of his vocal supporters. We haven’t heard back).

Since then, the names of a few other MPs have also come to light. They are Eric Hutchinson of Lyons and Brett Whiteley of Braddon, neighbouring electorates to Nikolic.

They too, have an apparent common interest in the protection of aluminium smelters, an issue that is known to have pre-occupied the thoughts of RET Review chair Dick Warburton.

Various reports, though, suggest that the impact of the RET on aluminium smelters is seriously overplayed. Round numbers such as $80 million over 5 years sound threatening, but in fact it represents a fraction of their collective revenues.

The impact of the RET – even the carbon price – is trivial when compared to the level of the Australian dollar and international commodity prices, a Grattan Institute report noted way back in 2010, and repeated in 2012.

RE’s discussion with Tehan revealed some of the tenuous views that are held about the renewable energy target.

Tehan noted that not many renewable energy projects are occuring, due to inability to get finance and power purchase agreements. True enough, no new projects have been committed since late 2012 – but that has everything to do with fears that the Abbott government would do as the Coalition MPs propose – reduce the RET target by 15,000GWh at the very least from the current fixed target of 41,000GWh. Most studies agree that will delay any new build for another few years.

When I pointed this out, Tehan said it would benefit no-one to have the smelters closed down – its impact on electricity demand alone, particularly in Tasmania – would be dramatic. True enough again, but will affording the smelters an extra 10  per cent protection on prices really make the difference between opening and closing?

It is a similar argument to what Abbott is prosecuting on consumer prices – the 3-4% added to electricity bills from the RET is not only offset by the impact of renewables on wholesale prices, it is inconsequential in comparison to the impact of surging network costs, gas prices and gentailer margins. It is hardly worth knee-capping one emerging industry to try to save what in some cases are ageing and obsolete smelters that are already heavily subsidized just to compete with cheaper international alternatives.

And there is no doubt where the electorate sympathies lie on this matter. They have quite clearly demonstrated their support for renewables, and many are acting with their own wallets by installing rooftop solar.

In fact, that is what is expected to happen. Check out this graph from ACIL Allen, it suggests clearly that if th target is adjusted to a “real” 20 per cent, then consumer bills will rise $66 a year, rather than fall $166 a year under the current target.

Furthermore, investment in wind, in particular, is trashed, large solar is reduced. Only household solar – a no brainer economically according to BNEF – continues, albeit slightly reduced. Emissions actually rise. Maybe that’s why the Coalition MPs don’t want to put their name to the petition.

ubs acil allen

One thing is for certain: If this is the best that the “moderates” can offer, then the RET is headed for a massive hair-cut, if not repeal. Only the Palmer United Party stands in the way, and given the declarations of PUP’s Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie this week, that support is not certain, nor is it long term.  

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  • Chris Fraser

    In my inexpert view this must be seriously good journalism to be able to wangle out a few names of petitioners. But I’m just as confused as everyone why petitioners are not announcing themselves, so they can be lauded by Mr Abbott as champions ! Do they not want his anti-RET backing ?

  • howardpatr

    The interesting thing about Angus Taylor MP is that he says he is and has long been concerned about global warming but all his words and actions, (like protesting against prospective wind turbines to provide renewable energy to the ACT), suggest he is strongly opposed to most matters concerning the the evolution and development of the renewable energy future.

    Then again perhaps he is concerned about global morning but feels he must tow the “Mad Monk Abbott” line; a line the leaders of the Anglican Church in Australia have taken exception to.

    • Blair Donaldson

      I had a reasonably long email exchange with Angus Taylor regarding climate change in renewables. He says all the right words but it’s obvious he is just playing for time. He said he opposed wind energy but thought geothermal and CCS should be encouraged. When I pointed out that no large scale geothermal plant operated in Australia or anywhere else for that matter and that CCS was decades away, he dodged. I suggested that he was like the firemen standing outside a burning home saying that while he was worried about the inhabitants, he couldn’t fight the fire yet because the most efficient nozzle for his hose was not yet available.

      • howardpatr

        Your response from Angus Taylor is similar to mine. Seems he has a blockage when it comes to accepting that renewable energy technologies will and need to evolve.

        Perhaps “Mad Monk Abbott” has convinced him that creationism is true and such matters are in the hands his god so he, Angus Taylor, should adopt the approaches taken by by him and Hunt – lies and more lies about all matters concerning global warming.

        • Blair Donaldson

          It’s a real worry when our national leaders eschew science in favour of religion, believing their imaginary friend will fix everything. It worries me what Abbott is going to cost us in the long run.

          • Douglas Hynd

            Abbott doesn’t have religion on his side anyway. Anglican church told him today to start making policy on the scientific evidence. He is also ignoring the clearly expressed view of his own church, the Catholic church on this issue – the Vatican has been very clear on this issue

          • Blair Donaldson

            I almost always think “megalomaniac” whenever I see Abbott making some statement to reporters. You can tell he doesn’t believe what he’s saying by his (mostly) careful choice of words in some instances and blatant distortions at other times.

          • Miles Harding

            Hi Blair,
            I think more of a Doctor Who episode where The Master has used mind control to get elected as the PM of Britain. The Master and Tony are not vary far apart in personality, policy or ambition.
            Tony is also The Master of juxtaposing foot and mouth, which seems to do at every opportunity. 🙂

          • Blair Donaldson

            G’day Miles. Sir Pository certainly is adept at shooting himself in the foot when one or both are not in his mouth, and I for one would like to see him continue in that vein. The thing that worries me is how far he will drag the country backwards before he gets turfed out. We are going to have to work extra hard just to catch up to where we should be – had we been blessed with leaders who respected honesty and reality.

            I hope there will be some accounting for the bastardry practised by Tony Abbott and company in the not too distant future. Mostly I hope TA will be relegated to history as the fossil fool, the object example of how not to manage an economy.

          • wideEyedPupil

            The Vatican, under Pope Francis also appointed prominent and strident Climate Change denialist Cardinal Pell to see over the Holy Seas investments (including fossil fuels no doubt). Actions speak louder than words you holiness.

  • Blair Donaldson

    Dan Tehan is being a bit cute with the truth I think. If he really supported renewals, he would publicly denounce the right-wing loons who want to keep fossil fuels alive and well at the expense of renewables. As it currently stands, he has a leg either side of the fence and it’s not a good look. It suggests he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions.

    As for the aluminium industry. Wouldn’t we be better off importing and processing ingots rather than running inefficient smelters that are heavily subsidised to keep them barely economically viable?

  • Robert Johnston

    They would be crazy to come out. They sent their letter last week knowing full well Palmer has said he will block changes legislative changes to the RET. To get the exemption they want it must therefore be done without changing the target itself – this means every one of those 25 MP’s constituents will transfer their own money into the pockets of the smelters that have already enjoyed power contract subsidies since they opened. Now those same smelters want to take the cost savings of the reduced wholesale electricity prices from the RET and stick the costs of the scheme on the good people of those communities in which they do business. Big business running roughshod over the community again. Electoral suicide for these mystery 25 MP’s if those communities are aware its happening!

    • Blair Donaldson

      Making those communities aware should be a priority.

  • sean

    you would think that as a tasmanian senator she would block any reduction for the huge economic benefit it brings to her state. but then again, who knows what the chocolate wheel of her mind will stop at.

  • Winston

    Giles, I can’t for the life of me think who the petition might be for. If I wanted to change something, and thought a petition would be an effective vehicle for that change, I’d make and get signatures on a petition to go to … MPs.

    So why would MPs need to petition anyone for anything? Aren’t they in charge?

    • Good point. But it sort of stands up to my original theory, that the Coalition MPs feel so disenfranchised, and so terrified by what the PMs office might get up to, that their only recourse was a petition, and to make it public, except they didn’t want their name on it. Perhaps they should have sent it to the IPA instead.

      • Alen

        The IPA and PM’s office are two separate bodies? Hmm I just assumed since their theories seem to basically be identical, they were joined as one a long time ago now (since the election anyway).

        • wideEyedPupil

          Simple division of labour one arm writes the other arm copies into legislation.

  • Les Johnston

    I guess the fossils will become known in the fullness of time. I suppose that secretiveness applies to the energy policies of the COALition just like it applies to asylum seeker policy. The adult COALition government is also not wishing to implement an independent corruption commission a further manifestation of secretiveness. The secrets of the COALition reflects a Government which treats the public with contempt. This is never the signature mark of a forward thinking Government for all Australians.

  • Brett Watters

    Has anyone thought of marketing aluminium with a green star rating by going full renewable for their electricity? Or are they just leaning on old technology.
    They could charge a premium and export the product into Germany and other green markets.