(Update: Gary Gray, former ACTU leader and Woodside Petroleum executive, has been appointed to replace Ferguson. Combet’s Climate Change department is merged with the Industry Department to become the Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. Combet’s energy efficiency functions will be merged into the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism.)
The departure of Federal Energy and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has departed, unlamented by The Greens, environmental campaigners and many in the renewables industry. But they should be careful what they wish for: Compared to what’s coming, Ferguson may seem like Santa Claus.
The antipathy held towards him by the Greens and environmental NGOs in particular is probably best reflected by how well he was perceived by the oil, gas, coal and energy utility companies, who all praised him for understanding their commercial needs. Ferguson himself was particularly proud of overseeing the biggest resources boom in the nation’s history, focused mostly on LNG and coal.
This understanding did, not, it seems, extend to renewables. Yes2Renewables focused on Friday on the failure of the Solar Flagships scheme, which Ferguson administered, and it might have also pointed to the Renewable Energy Development Program, or the Geothermal Drilling Program, where few projects progressed and little money was spent, mostly due to bad choices by the department, and poorly focused deeds of arrangement.
Indeed, Ferguson managed to not spend $1.7 billion in government grants for renewables. The good news is that it is now in the hands of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
Ferguson did however, have a soft spot for R&D. One of his biggest legacies may be the well funded Australian Solar Institute, now part of ARENA, which will continue valuable research into solar PV, solar thermal, and energy storage. Ferguson delighted at attending announcements on new research projects.
It may be because R&D doesn’t threaten his other clients – it comes from the Bjorn Lomborg school of renewable developement, let it flourish in the laboratory, but for goodness sake don’t let it be deployed. Otherwise, this might happen!
R&D is a fascination that Ferguson shares with the man who was his predecessor and is his likely long term successor, the Coalition’s Ian Macfarlane. No matter who Prime Minister Julia Gillard appoints as interim energy minister on Monday – be it Gary Gray (the former Woodside Petroleum corporate spinner who co-founded climate denialist organisation, the Lavoisier Group, according to Crikey, in the same portfolio, or Greg Combet in a combined climate change/energy portfolio (that would be smart idea), it’s a lame-duck appointment. The polls point to a thumping win for the Coalition in September, and that means MacFarlane will hold sway.
Macfarlane and Ferguson were like two peas in a pod – in fact it would be difficult to think of another portfolio where the Minister and the opposition spokesman have been in such furious agreement during this government. They share enthusiasm for large resource projects, centralised generation and for new technologies. Macfarlane gushed, for instance, over the wave energy technology of Perth-based Carnegie. Again, another technology that most would think was “over the horizon”.
Macfarlane, however, is not supportive of wind or solar, telling the clean energy industry last year that these technologies are expensive and unreliable. And the key difference between him and Ferguson is that Macfarlane will not be encumbered by a minority government with the Greens, and the way that Labor is performing he may not even have to worry about the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate. That means the right wing faction of his coalition – and the vociferous anti wind and solar campaigners – will have full voice.
Nor will Macfarlane have to worry about a climate change department, which under Labor has held carriage over the principal parts of the Renewable Energy Target, and which the Coalition will abolish, or even the independent advice and commentary of a highly specialised team at the Climate Change Authority, which the coalition will also abolish.
Not that he has ever been bothered with independent advice. In 2005, Macfarlane dismissed the findings of the Tambling inquiry and brought the then mandatory renewable energy target (MRET) to an abrupt halt, ending an emerging renewables manufacturing industry, and bringing large scale development to a stop. He will be under intense pressure by conservative state governments, generators and utilities such as Origin Energy to do the same with the current target. As bizarre as it may seem, Ferguson may actually be missed.