Governments

Kean to retain energy for time being, as solar farm critic elected Nationals boss

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The newly minted treasurer of New South Wales, Matt Kean, will hold on to the energy and environment portfolios for the time being, but a reshuffle is expected in the not too distant future.

Kean’s office confirmed to RenewEconomy on Wednesday that the architect of the state’s renewable energy infrastructure roadmap would retain the portfolios, in addition to taking on the new responsibilities as treasurer, “for the time being”.

It is unclear whether Kean will retain the portfolios for the long-term with a broader reshuffle of portfolios anticipated, following a weekend of upheaval for the NSW government that saw Gladys Berejiklian quit and Dominic Perrottet easily beating Rob Stokes to become the new premier.

Holding on to multiple portfolio is not unprecedented, as Perrottet held additional ministerial responsibilities during his own time as state treasurer.

Kean, who has established himself as a leader amongst Australian energy ministers for committing NSW to an ambitious energy transformation plan, and a stronger interim climate target, and played a key role in the cross factional deal that elevated Perrottet to the top position.

Under Berejiklian, Kean was able to secure support for the creation of several new renewable energy zones, designed to attract more than $30 billion in investment in new wind, solar and storage projects to replace at least four large coal fired power stations expected to close by 2035.

Kean has also been highly critical of his federal Liberal counterparts, at times clashing with federal energy minister Angus Taylor, including by pushing back against plans to subsidise coal fired power stations and criticising Taylor’s lack of support for a transition to renewable energy.

However, a replacement will need to be found for the transport and roads portfolio. Current transport minister Andrew Constance announced that he would seek to shift to federal politics and would step down from the ministry this week.

Like Kean, Constance has been able to win support for significant government investments in electric vehicle infrastructure, including a plan to transition the 9,000 strong Sydney bus fleet to electric models and a $490 million funding package to build New South Wales’ electric vehicle infrastructure.

Constance was likewise critical of the federal government’s response to the 2019/20 bushfire crisis, severely impacting his south-coast electorate. The bushfires took a heavy personal toll on Constance, almost pushing him out of politics altogether.

Kean will need to apply this influence in his new role to ensure that the NSW government remains committed to the significant investments in transforming the state’s energy system under the new premier.

Perrottet insisted on Tuesday that there would be no change to the climate and energy policies, but he has been highly critical of such targets in the past, including in 2018 when he said the Labor opposition’s target to cut emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 was “unrealistically short”.

Meanwhile, the Nationals have elected Bathurst MP Paul Toole to take over as state party leader, and replace John Barilaro as deputy premier.

Toole has previously spoken out against solar farm developments, including a project proposed to be built on land near Bathurst, with Toole suggesting that solar projects should not be built on prime agricultural land.

“Issues such as visual impact, noise, environmental safeguards, disturbance to farming operations and livestock, biodiversity risks such as pest, diseases and weeds, impacts on property values and operational concerns must be considered,” Toole said at the time.

“I am still to be convinced that Bathurst is a good location given our environment where we experience long cold winters and fog for long periods of the year.”

The question of using prime agricultural land has emerged as a major talking point for opponents of solar projects in some regions, even if the developers themselves insist that the land chosen is not prime, and does not necessarily prevent other activities.

In an odd twist, it was subsequently revealed that relatives of Toole owned the land earmarked for the project.

Nationals upper house MLC, Bronnie Taylor, has also been elected as deputy leader of the NSW Nationals – filling the position left vacant by Toole. Taylor lives in Nimmitabel, in the Monaro region, and is the sister-in-law of federal energy minister Angus Taylor.

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