Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has taken a further step toward opposing the proposed Queensland Adani coal mine as he starts campaigning for the Batman byelection, where Labor is fighting off a strong challenge from the Greens.
Shorten was appearing with Labor’s candidate Ged Kearney, who on Friday resigned as ACTU president to contest the byelection.
Shorten seized on a Guardian Australia report that said Adani put in “an altered laboratory report” when appealing a fine for contamination of wetlands near the Great Barrier Reef.
Shorten said he had become increasingly sceptical of Adani in recent months.
If Adani was “relying on false information, that mine does not deserve to go ahead”.
He called on the government to investigate the claim, and said that if it didn’t, Labor in government would do so.
Kearney said she did not see the mine going ahead. “I know Adani are not good employers,” she said.
Adani will be a big issue in the byelection, with the Greens running hard on it and a grassroots campaign underway. Directly behind Shorten at his news conference demonstrators held up “Stop Adani” signs. A big protest is planned in Canberra when parliament resumes next week.
Earlier this week, Shorten hardened his position on the mine, telling the National Press Club: “We’re certainly looking at the Adani matter very closely. If it doesn’t stack up commercially or if it doesn’t stack up environmentally it will absolutely not receive our support.”
Last year, Shorten was looking on the positive side of the project. In May he said: “There’s no point having a giant coal mine if you wreck the reef but, on the other hand, if the deal does stack up, if the science safeguards are there, if the experts are satisfied, then all well and good and there’ll be jobs created.”
But he did not support the government giving a loan subsidy for the railway that would support the mine.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale tweeted on Friday:
Meanwhile, the Greens moved to up the ante for Labor on the issue of power, releasing a policy calling for the return of the national electricity grid into public ownership, beginning with the acquisition of the interconnectors between regions.
It said the cost of acquiring the five privately owned interconnectors would be A$2.8 billion. “A return to complete public ownership can ensure investment decisions are made in the public interest, not in the interests of profit,” the policy says.
Kearney said renationalisation was worthy of consideration but Shorten was dismissive, saying it was not going to happen.
Biomining is the kind of technique promised by science fiction: a vast tank filled with microorganisms that leach metal from ore, old mobile phones and hard drives.
It sounds futuristic, but it’s currently used to produce about 5% of the world’s gold and 20% of the world’s copper. It’s also used to a lesser extent to extract nickel, zinc, cobalt and rare earth elements. But perhaps it’s most exciting potential is extracting rare earth elements, which are crucial in everything from mobile phones to renewable energy technology.
The Mary Kathleen mine, an exhausted uranium mine in northwest Queensland, contains an estimated A$4 billion in rare earth elements. Biomining offers a cost-effective and environmentally friendly option for getting it out.
Biomining is so versatile that it can be used on other planetary bodies. Bioleaching studies on the international space station have shown microorganisms from extreme environments on Earth can leach a large variety of important minerals and metals from rocks when exposed to the cold, heat, radiation and vacuum of space.
Biomining takes place within large, closed, stirred-tank reactors (bioreactors). These devices generally contain water, microorganisms (bacteria, archaea, or fungi), ore material, and a source of energy for the microbes.
The source of energy required depends on the specific microbe necessary for the job. For example, gold and copper are biologically “leached” from sulfidic ores using microorganisms that can derive energy from inorganic sources, via the oxidation of sulfur and iron.
However, rare earth elements are bioleached from non-sulfidic ores using microorganisms that require an organic carbon source, because these ores do not contain a usable energy source. In this case, sugars are added to allow the microbes to grow.
All living organisms need metals to carry out basic enzyme reactions. Humans get their metals from the trace concentrations in their food. Microbes, however, obtain metals by dissolving them from the minerals in their environment. They do this by producing organic acids and metal-binding compounds. Scientists exploit these traits by mixing microbes in solution with ores and collecting the metal as it floats to the top.
The temperature, sugars, the rate at which the tank is stirred, acidity, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels all need to be monitored and fine-tuned to provide optimal working conditions
The benefits of biomining
Traditional mining methods require harsh chemicals, lots of energy and produce many pollutants. In contrast, biomining uses little energy and produces few microbial by-products such as organic acids and gases.
Because it’s cheap and simple, biomining can effectively exploit low grade sources of metals (such as mine tailings) that would otherwise be uneconomical using traditional methods.
Countries are increasingly turning to biomining such as Finland, Chile and Uganda. Chile has exhausted much of its copper rich ores and now utilises biomining, while Uganda has been extracting cobalt from copper mine tailings for over a decade.
The rare earth elements include the group of 15 lanthanides near the bottom of the periodic table, plus scandium and yttrium. They are widely used in just about all electronics and are increasingly sought after by the electric vehicle and renewable energy industries.
The unique atomic properties of these elements make them useful as magnets and phosphors. They’re used as strong lightweight magnets in electric vehicles, wind turbines, hard disc drives, medical equipment and as phosphors in energy efficiency lighting and in the LEDs of mobile phones, televisions and laptops.
Despite their name, rare earth elements are not rare and some are in fact more abundant than copper, nickel and lead in the Earth’s crust. However, unlike these primary metals which form ores (a naturally occurring mineral or rock from which a useful substance can be easily extracted), rare earth elements are widely dispersed. Thus to be economically feasible they are generally mined as secondary products alongside primary metals such as iron and copper.
Over 90% of the world’s rare earth elements come from China where production monopolies, trade restrictions and illegal mining have caused prices to fluctuate dramatically over the years.
These reports encourage research and development into alternative mining methods such as biomining as a potential mitigation strategy.
Heeding these calls, laboratories in Curtin, and Berkeley Universities have used microorganisms to dissolve common rare-earth-element-bearing minerals. These pilot scale studies have shown promising results, with extraction rates growing closer to those of conventional mining methods.
Because most electronics have a notoriously short lifespan and poor recyclability, laboratories are experimenting with “urban” biomining. For example, bioleaching studies have seen success in extracting rare earth elements from the phosphor powder lining fluorescent globes, and the use of microorganisms to recycle rare earth elements from electronic wastes such as hard drive magnets.
The rare earth elements are critical for the future of our technology. Biomining offers a way to obtain these valuable resources in a way that is both environmentally sustainable and economically feasible.
The coal mine proposed for Queensland’s Galilee Basin by Indian mining giant Adani has been a moveable feast, with many stories about its scale, purpose, financing, job prospects, and commerciality. The prospect of a return of the Palaszczuk government in Queensland is effectively the death knell for the project.
Labor has so pledged to block a concessional, taxpayer-funded loan, while embracing a significantly expanded program to develop regional solar thermal power in the state.
It seems the proposal has been reduced in scale, with the original A$21 billion plan reined back to just its initial stage, costing about A$5 billion. Its purpose has changed from exporting coal to India’s Adani Power, to now possibly shipping coal to Bangladesh and Pakistan. Its job prospects are confusing with early estimates well in excess of 10,000, down more recently to fewer than 1,500, after Adani admitted that the mine’s operations will be heavily automated.
The project’s financing has been under a continuous cloud given the scale of the debts of the Adani Group, and the reluctance of global banks in a world transitioning to low-emission technologies. All of this is complicated by the potential for concessional finance from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund (NAIF) and Chinese money. As a high-cost, low-grade coal project, its commerciality has bounced around, given variations in “offtake prices” and expectations on coal futures prices.
The latest version is that the project has been scaled down from some 60 metric tonnes per year (mtpa) to about 25mtpa, requiring an extra investment of some A$2 billion for the mine development, and A$3.3 billion for the rail link to the export terminal at Abbot Point, but avoiding the need to expand Abbot Point. Adani Enterprises is already financially strapped, with net debt exceeding market capitalisation, and the Adani family needing to refinance Abbot Point. The Adani family has already spent some A$3.5 billion on acquiring the deposit and developing their Australian project to date.
So with virtually no capacity to inject additional equity, the focus is on whether even this scaled-down proposal can be financed by additional debt? This is why a government-sponsored concessional loan of up to A$1 billion from the NAIF to build the rail link has been seen as crucial to the project moving forward. It could be accepted by potential financiers as low-cost, high-risk “quasi equity”. It would also effectively hand Adani a monopoly position in standard gauge rail, in turn creating monopoly conditions at Abbot Point.
A more recent constraint on sentiment towards to the project has come from the Indian government’s rapidly changing attitudes to future power generation, accelerating the transition from coal-fired power to renewables. Recent statements by RK Singh, India’s Minister of Power and New and Renewable Energy have confirmed that India can exceed its target of 275 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2027, a massive shift from its historic reliance on coal.
This accelerates the likely end to coal imports by India, which has seen the Adani project seek alternative markets in Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Indeed, there is now documentary evidence of an electricity offtake agreement with the Bangladeshi government’s power board, setting a contractual “cost plus plus” supply of low-quality imported coal delivered at prices that are likely to approach 50% above the current coal spot price. But even at the current futures price of about US$80 per tonne, the Carmichael mine could be cashflow-positive.
Funding the Carmichael mine
Can the Adani group hope to raise the necessary additional debt? This is a two-pronged challenge – the family needs to refinance Abbot Point requiring some A$1.5 billion over the next 12 months, and the A$5 billion-plus project itself.
It looks like the family had to enlist the services of second-tier investment bank Jeffries to initiate a bond refinancing for Abbot Point – to be rated just above junk bond status. However, Jefferies reportedly pulled out within a week, its reasoning unstated.
With some 20 to 30 global banks, including Australia’s big four, having ruled out financing the mine, and Indian banks strapped for capacity, the focus has shifted to Chinese group CMEC as a potential financier, against likely Bangladesh or Pakistani alternatives. However, even with such offtake agreements the project’s longer–term viability is questionable.
Obviously the Chinese Communist Party, and other Chinese authorities, will need to think carefully about the potential consequences of getting involved now that the project lacks direct financial support from state and federal governments in Australia. This is especially so when the issue of Chinese influence and involvement in Australia generally, and in our politics specifically, is becoming controversial.
I also suspect that the federal Labor opposition may now adopt a position against the Adani project, in light of Queensland’s state election result.
The bottom line for financing is an assessment of the longer-term risks with Adani Enterprises, the family, and the project. Both the company and the family are already heavily exposed financially, and the project is a high-cost, high-risk one.
Bearing in mind the Paris climate agreement, the rapidly falling costs of reliable renewables, and India’s shifting energy strategy, the development of any new coal mine is certainly a very big call.
I suspect that the Adani project is already a stranded asset, and definitely not worthy of either Australian taxpayer support or Chinese investment.
Interactive: what the Adani coal mine means for Queensland
Queensland election campaigns often focus on bigprojects for the regions, such as for roads, power plants and mines. But research suggests that mega projects, such as in gas and coal, have not transformed skills or improved employment prospects in regional Queensland.
Take away the temporary booms from construction and other short-term jobs, and employment growth overall is no better than before the global financial crisis. Certainly Queensland’s regions are no more resilient. Instead of these mega projects, what’s needed are new sources of economic value in knowledge, services, and technology.
These projects fell far short of generating new skills and enduring businesses in the regions. Continuing dependence on resources and agriculture also creates its own vulnerabilities, as both are challenged by market and investment volatility, and increased climate risk.
Overall the focus on mega projects has weakened social and economic resilience in communities across Queensland. Resilience refers to the capacity of regional communities to handle risks and manage change. Resilient regions deepen and diversify their economies.
Megaproject sugar highs
Annual construction spending in the resources sector peaked at A$36.6 billion in Queensland in 2013-14, and has dropped by 70% since. Unemployment has doubled in Queensland’s northern, central and outback regions.
The impact is seen in Townsville, Rockhampton, and Gladstone, who are now pitching to become bases for “Fly In Fly Out” workers. Rather than drive their own local economic development, these cities are punting on the next big mining project.
Gladstone is already the pin-up of the construction boom-bust development model. The port city boasts a highly trained workforce in alumina and aluminium processing, cement, liquid natural gas and chemical manufacturing. Still, it waits on the next big mining construction boom.
What regional Queensland really needs is politicians to abandon short-term economic fixes, in favour of a sustainable long term vision. Policies would have greater impact if they focused on skills and enterprise training. Stronger regional collaboration to broker opportunities for smart businesses is essential.
Just north of Brisbane, Moreton Regional Council is showing the way by transforming a former industrial site into a university campus. Tertiary education will come to the fast growing region along with a research and technology park, creating the jobs of the future.
Regional Queensland can also learn from the European Commission’s “smart specialisation” structural assistance programs that help regions build knowledge-based competitive industries through strategic public funding and support for research and development etc.
Integral to the European strategy is strong collaboration between the research and university sectors, and regional industries. Strong cooperation between levels of government is key to the success. The industries are as varied as cheese manufacturing in Spain, new transport systems in Finland, and materials manufacturing in France.
The Europeans have found that changing business culture and boosting entrepreneurship are just as important to creating opportunity as large infrastructure projects.
What Queensland should do
Queensland should rethink its big projects for a big country approach. Regional jobs that depend on project investment without generating local income are not sustainable. Small business and community must be restored to centre stage in development strategy.
Small and medium businesses collectively account for more than 99% of all business in Queensland, and three times as many people work in the state’s A$20 billion manufacturing sector (169,000) as work directly in the resources sector (48,000).
But small and medium businesses lack the profile of the “big end of town”, and the large resources companies have been effective at selling the narrative that they are central to the A$300 billion Queensland economy.
The priority for developing Queensland’s regions should be investment that generates small business growth, local income, new skills and communities. Particular emphasis has to be given to attracting and retaining talented people.
The state government can best help regional Queensland by heeding the Productivity Commission’s call to help regional Australia adapt and exploit the opportunities of ever present change. This requires greater local initiative, making the most of competitive strengths, and training people to better engage with the world.
The global services sector is a $US47 trillion industry. For regional Queensland to tap into this sector will require skills in fields as diverse as big data, biotechnology, genetics, robotics, communications, and digital manufacturing.
This approach challenges the current politically dominated top down model of regional development. It’s a vision for regional Queensland that extends beyond resources, agriculture, tourism and construction to the people themselves.
Vital Signs is a weekly economic wrap from UNSW economics professor and Harvard PhD Richard Holden (@profholden). Vital Signs aims to contextualise weekly economic events and cut through the noise of the data affecting global economies.
This week: Australia continues to grow jobs, but wages aren’t keeping up and policymakers are running out of options.
Let’s begin with an economy that is doing relatively well.
In the US, the data were both predictable and moderately positive.
Consumer prices (as measured by the CPI) were up only 0.1% in October, but this was in line with expectations. Recall that two major hurricanes drove up gasoline prices in September, and those increases rolled off (they were up 13.1% in September and fell 2.4% in October). The year-on-year CPI increase was 2.0% – again, in line with expectations.
The Producer Price Index (PPI) rose by a healthy 2.6% on a year-on-year basis – despite a drop in gasoline prices for producers of 4.6% (note the difference between wholesale and retail price changes). Perhaps most importantly, there were relatively strong increases in elements of the index that the US Federal Reserve cares most about (as they are less cyclical than, say, energy prices), like healthcare costs.
Less expected, but happy news, was the 0.2% rise in retail sales. That puts retail sales up 4.6% on an annual basis. This is further evidence of the solid rebound in the US economy.
But the continued depressing news is about wages. The wage-price index was up 0.5% for the third quarter, below market expectations of 0.7%. That puts annual wages growth at 2.0%. With inflation running at 1.8%, that means real wages growth is effectively zero. And it has been like that for a long time.
This is causing enormous problems for Australian households and policymakers.
Recall that Australian households are among the most highly leveraged in the world – with debts at around 190% of GDP. So what is going to reduce that debt?
There are two possibilities: more inflation or more income. Inflation helps reduce the debt in real terms, and income helps for obvious reasons. Right now, both avenues look shaky.
That leaves us with heavily indebted households, with no obvious way out. This, of course, puts a strain on consumer spending, which in turn affects business investment and employment, and the whole (vicious) cycle loops back on itself.
What is the cut-through for policymakers?
The RBA could drop interest rates from their current 1.50% level – and increasingly some economists are suggesting that. The worry is that a rate cut might further fuel housing prices, making the problem worse, not better.
Federal income tax cuts would be another avenue, but with the budget in structural deficit, and with an economically illiterate crossbench, that looks unlikely.
The government could embark on a major infrastructure spending plan, which could rejuvenate regional employment in areas hit by the forces of globalisation. With interest rates at very low levels, for very long maturities, this seems like a good idea, as long as the projects are assessed on a rational basis.
The concern in this regard is politics. Both major parties have their predilections and bases to pander to. A bad outcome would be, for example, a big coal mine investment by the Coalition, and some uneconomic green-energy boondoggle by the opposition.
There’s still plenty of time to go in the current Queensland state election campaign, but early signs from the social media trail offer some encouragement for Labor premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. She is receiving considerably more retweets than Liberal Opposition Leader Tim Nicholls, and chatter about the controversial Adani mine project has declined in recent days.
Twitter and Facebook are now a standard part of the campaigning toolkit for all major parties. Previous state and federal campaigns suggest that voters who’ve already seen a party’s messages in their social media feeds may be a little more open to a chat when the local candidate comes doorknocking. (Labor’s internal review of its 2013 campaign stresses the combination of online and in-person campaigning, for example.)
On Twitter, we’ve identified 60 Labor and 48 Liberal National Party candidates, as well as central party and campaign accounts. The Greens are represented by 34 accounts, while One Nation and Katter’s Australian Party each have only a handful of tweeting candidates. Combined, over the first two weeks of the campaign, they’ve sent some 3,300 tweets in total, and received some 54,000 @mentions and retweets.
These are far from evenly distributed, however. @mentions of parties and politicians tend to favour the incumbent, and this is not surprising: more of the debate on social media and elsewhere will be about the track record of the current government, rather than about the promises of the opposition.
It’s the retweets that tell a more remarkable story. The nearly 7,000 retweets for Labor candidates’ tweets amount to more than twelve times the 570 retweets received by the LNP. During an election campaign, retweets usually do indicate some level of endorsement.
The pattern in this election is considerably different from recent elections. In 2016, for example, the incumbent federal Coalition received far fewer retweets than the Labor opposition. In the 2015 Queensland election, Campbell Newman’s incumbent Liberal National Party government also struggled to attract retweets for its messages.
These patterns do not point to a significant mood for change or substantial willingness amongst Twitter users to promote the LNP’s campaign messages. Conservative commentators may want to chalk this up to a purported left-wing bias in the Australian Twittersphere – but that claim is not borne out by our analysis, showing Twitter contains sizeable communities of both left-wing and right-wing supporters.
Adani and One Nation generate heat for the major parties
Labor also seems to have weathered the early onslaught of critical coverage well.
The first week of the campaign saw a substantial volume of debate about the controversial Adani mine project, which divides opinion between the southeastern population centres around Brisbane (where concerns about environmental impacts are high) and the regional centres near the mine (which anticipate greater job prospects from the mine).
During week one some 1,500 tweets per day, both by and to candidates, contained the word “Adani”. Hashtags related to the controversy (#adani, #stopadani, #coralnotcoal, and others) were the most prominent topical hashtags in our overall dataset, in addition to generic tags like #qldvotes, #qldpol, and #auspol.
The story is further complicated by the fact that, in his role at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Premier Palaszczuk’s partner was involved in Adani’s application for a A$1 billion loan. Palaszczuk announced at the end of the first week of campaigning that she would veto that loan if the application were successful.
Judging by our Twitter data, this veto threat appears to have neutralised the Adani debate to some extent. “Adani” tweets by and to candidates declined from 1,500 to less than 600 in week two. The overall volume of tweets by and to these accounts has also dropped from over 5,000 to some 3,700 per day in week two.
This shift in position may indicate that Labor believes that supporting Adani will lose more votes in the southeast than it will gain further north. Our social media patterns seem to bear out this view.
Meanwhile, with Pauline Hanson’s much-publicised arrival on the campaign trail the second week has seen more discussion about the role that One Nation may play in the next parliament. In particular, the announcement on the evening of Friday 10 November that the LNP will preference One Nation over Labor in more than half the seats in Queensland has already generated substantial debate. Some 20% of tweets by and to candidates on the following Saturday included keywords related to One Nation and/or preferencing.
While the LNP announcement – after the evening news on a Friday – was probably timed to minimise media scrutiny of its decision, it remains to be seen whether this debate will carry over into the third week of the campaign. Labor will no doubt seek to exploit this preference arrangement to attract traditional conservative voters who remain critical of One Nation.
And finally, if you’re still uncertain about which hashtag to use to join the debate: in tweets by and to candidate accounts, plain old #qldvotes leads #qldvotes2017 by more than ten to one so far. It’s a landslide.
Even though Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced she would be vetoing the around A$1 billion loan to Adani for a rail link to its proposed Carmichael coal mine, funds could still flow to the company.
Currently in caretaker mode for the Queensland election, the premier would need the consent of the opposition party to exercise such a right. That is very unlikely given the LNP’s longstanding support of Adani’s mine.
This means any veto could not be exercised until late November, or more realistically, December 2017.
As the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) loan doesn’t need state approval (but rather explicit veto) it could also mean the money will make its way to Adani, without any direct action by the state government.
How would Commonwealth money make its way to Adani?
The NAIF body was established in 2016 and administers A$5 billion in Commonwealth funds. It’s been empowered to award grants to the northern states and Northern Territory for infrastructure projects. Practically, however, these jurisdictions are used as financial conduits to pass this money to large corporations operating in northern Australia.
The NAIF is established under the “tied-grants” provision of the Constitution, Section 96, which states:
…the [Commonwealth] parliament may grant financial assistance to any state on such terms and conditions as the [Commonwealth] parliament thinks fit.
This section was intended to provide for a short-term (around ten years) mechanism for central funds to be granted to the new states affected by the restructuring of national public finances, after federation. However, the Commonwealth parliament continued to use this section well into the 20th century (and increasingly today) to grant funds to cash-strapped states.
Over time, the Commonwealth started to impose terms that required the states do things that were outside of the Commonwealth’s legislative power – such as education or, indeed, infrastructure development.
… commence consultation with the relevant jurisdiction as soon as practicable after receiving an investment proposal
In Adani’s case, the Investment Rules indicate that the “jurisdiction” is the “state or territory the infrastructure project is located”, namely Queensland. The state government after reviewing project and investment may provide:
… written notification that financial assistance should not be provided to a project.
If that is the case then the NAIF is not permitted to provide the grant money to the applicant (Adani). But that doesn’t mean the state hasn’t consented to the loan.
The problem is that the High Court has never really addressed what the word “state” means in Section 96. Specifically who should the money be paid to: the “parliament of the state”; “government of the state” or, as seems to be implied in the Palaszczuk statements the “premier of the state”?
Conventionally, when we talk of “state consent” to funds, we envision a complex process by which money is paid into a central state fund under the control of state parliament. However, the NAIF legislation appears to allow for merely the state government to consent in a very minimal way, simply by passing the money directly to Adani without the state parliament ever reviewing or approving the transaction.
The NAIF legislation also doesn’t specify who in the government might consent. To date, it is the treasurer who seems to have been most actively involved in working with the NAIF, and indeed Adani. It seems that, so long as the state has been “consulted”, unless it takes active steps to stop the loan, it will go ahead.
Does Palaszczuk have a ‘veto’ power?
The premier’s reasoning for the veto is a continuation of her government’s legacy of having “no role to date in the federal government’s NAIF Loan Assessment Process for Adani” and no “role in the future”.
These statements seem to be contrary to earlier ones by the Queensland treasurer, Curtis Pitt, that the government would “do what is required” to facilitate Commonwealth funds going to Adani. In fact, as early as November 2016, Pitt declared in state parliament:
Since we came to office, we have been working very closely with the Commonwealth government to facilitate … the NAIF – in North Queensland… It is through the NAIF facility, which the state wholeheartedly supports, that Adani can get the infrastructure support that it needs.
As a result, it would seem that everything needed to pass the NAIF funds to Adani is provided for. The only thing to actively stop it is a formal, written statement by Palaszczuk to the NAIF refusing the loan (not to the prime minister as she claimed). Given Palaszczuk’s statement that she intends to write this statement, it is clear that no formal notice has yet been issued to the NAIF.
However, it would seem that a “Master Facility Agreement” between Queensland and the NAIF has already been agreed to and set up. This agreement seems to envision the treasurer of Queensland passing the money to Adani, without it ever going into the state’s bank accounts. Hence, in May this year, the Queensland treasurer confirmed that:
Our role, for constitutional reasons, is the legal financing contract, the loan agreement including the drawdown and timing, repayment of interest — all of those things have to have state involvement constitutionally.
So, unless the Queensland opposition takes the very unlikely step of agreeing to a veto, Palaszczuk would appear to lack the power to issue one herself until after the election.
In the interim, NAIF has no legal restrictions on issuing the loan and, with the apparent agreement of the Queensland treasury, this money is likely to flow through to Adani. While Palaszczuk can say her government gave no active assistance to Adani, without active measures to block the loan, it would certainly be a silent partner in the process.
It took quite a while, but the Turnbull government this week finally “landed” its package for the biggest shake-up of media rules in decades.
The Senate deal was done thanks to a sprinkling of sugar for crossbenchers. Handouts for Nick Xenophon to help regional and small publishers, so he could say he was promoting “diversity”. Promises to Pauline Hanson to put some burdens on the ABC, so One Nation could brag it was chasing “the elephant in the room”.
The concessions don’t mean as much as the crossbenchers will claim, while the rule changes potentially mean a great deal. It might have seemed a tortuous process, but from the government’s point of view it has been a significant win at little cost.
If only the nation’s long-term energy policy could be “landed” as readily.
With the media changes, the industry stakeholders were united, in contrast to the vastly more complicated area of energy, as it transitions from fossil fuels to renewables, via a mixed system.
In another major difference with media policy, the most difficult negotiations on energy, at least imminently, are not with crossbenchers but within the government’s own ranks.
Just as it did in the dying days of his leadership in 2009, the coal cloud hangs darkly over Malcolm Turnbull. And once again, the Nationals are big players in the debate – and so is Tony Abbott.
But Turnbull’s own positions then and now are poles apart. In 2009, he famously championed the move to renewables, via a carbon price, which triggered his downfall. This time, bowing to the power of coal, he has increasingly become its vociferous public advocate.
When the government released the Finkel report on energy security in June, Turnbull made it clear he saw its centrepiece, a clean energy target (CET), as a torch to light the path to the future.
Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s CET, with its particular focus on reducing emissions, was never going to be implemented in a pure form. Coal was always set for a larger role than Finkel would want, as Turnbull quickly made clear.
The CET debate should be seen as choosing a place on a spectrum rather than accepting or rejecting a single point. But at the start, even Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce was (sort of) on board for a CET, provided it allowed coal in.
Progressively, however, the Finkel blueprint has been pushed further and further on to the defensive.
The sharpest setback for it came last week, with the release of the report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) warning of electricity shortages in coming years. The government had commissioned the report when it became panicky about so-called “dispatchable” power – power available whenever needed to meet demand – as the consequences of the closure of Hazelwood in Victoria sank in.
Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said the AEMO report “reset the debate”. Joyce invoked John Maynard Keynes’ observation about changing his mind when he got new information – the report contained “new information”, Joyce said.
In fact the “resetting” had been creeping up well before the AEMO report. Abbott, especially, had been hard at work prosecuting the case against renewables.
Abbott – who was deposed two years ago this week – currently has two campaigns running: against the CET, and in opposition to same-sex marriage. He is highly energised and said to be enjoying himself.
On Thursday he was unequivocal. “We need to get right away from talking about renewable energy targets and clean energy targets and start talking about a 100% reliable energy target, ‘cause nothing else will do,” he said on 2GB.
“I welcome these signs that we are moving away from a clean energy target to a reliable energy target,” he said. Renewables always had to have a back-up “and if there’s got to be back-up you’ve got to ask the question, what useful purpose do they serve?
“Now there may well be some circumstances in which renewables in conjunction with back-up measures are economic, and if they’re economic and dependable, fair enough, but at the moment, they’re neither.”
The Nationals’ Matt Canavan, former resources minister who is on the backbench awaiting the citizenship case, has been a very loud voice for coal. The Nationals had the megaphone out at their weekend federal conference, calling for subsidies for renewables to be phased out.
As coal has muscled its way to the centre of the stage, we’ve seen the showdown between the government and AGL over the future of its Liddell coal-fired power station. This battle has a way to go.
At a trivial but symbolic level, there’s been the suggestion that whatever policy the government finally produces will avoid the sensitive “clean energy target” label. Maybe the focus groups are already at work on that one.
Despite the apparent mess, the government believes it can turn the energy debate to its political advantage. This is certainly the view among Nationals.
The strategy involves being seen to do a lot of things – Turnbull rehearses the check list of interventions on gas, power bills and the like – and demonising Labor’s attachment to renewables, with derision against “Blackout Bill”, “Brownout Butler” and “No Coal Joel [Fitzgibbon]”.
The government accuses Labor of selling out working-class people in favour of leftist, inner-city followers concerned about climate change. Turnbull is now emphasising the cost and reliability of power, with emissions reduction referred to sotto voce.
The Nationals are convinced their priority for coal will work well for them in the regions. They say it fits with the two issues that come at the top in their polling – jobs and cost of living.
When Abbott was fighting the Labor government, the carbon tax’s impact on the cost of living was an obvious plus for him. The question is whether power prices and cost of living can play for the Coalition when it is in office. The government and some observers suggest it will.
It does seem counterintuitive. Unless the voters are very gullible, you’d think they’d judge on results not rhetoric – that is, what their power bills are looking like when they get to the ballot box.
On the other hand, the government argues that if it can assert Labor’s policies would bring even higher bills, it can gain a tactical advantage.
Regardless of what the public are thinking, it’s clear that business – the constituency critical for future investment – remains deeply unimpressed with the politicking.
Unless and until the government gets to grips with the substance of what needs to be done, the lack of a coherent energy policy will remain an indictment of the politicians and a burden on Australian families and enterprises.
Australia was warned earlier this year that a shortage of gas could create an energy crisis. A report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) suggested a shortfall could occur in 3 of the next 13 years.
A couple of weeks ago, in a dramatic intervention, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared that there was a shortage of gas supplies for eastern Australia and that certain restrictions may be placed on gas exports.
But do we really need “more gas supply and more gas suppliers”? In a report published today, my colleague Tim Forcey and I review AEMO’s initial report and its results and recommendations. Our work finds there is a shortage of “cheap” gas, but not a gas supply “shortfall”. Moreover, high gas prices combined with falling renewable and storage costs mean that there are cheaper options than developing new gas resources.
What gas shortfall?
The AEMO report suggests that eastern Australia face a shortfall in 3 of the next 13 financial years – 2018-19, 2020-21 and 2021-22. The largest gap modelled by AEMO is equal to only 0.19% of the annual electricity supply, or 363 gigawatt hours.
In gas supply terms, this is equivalent to only 0.2% of the annual gas supply. But AEMO’s modelling considers a range of possible scenarios, with a variation of roughly plus or minus 5%, far larger than the possible shortfall.
Just 11 days after the report warning of a supply gap, AEMO published updated electricity demand forecasts. In this update, AEMO reduced its forecast electricity demand by roughly 1%. This reduction in demand is more than four times greater than the largest forecast shortfall.
A day later, Shell announced it would proceed with Project Ruby, a gas field with 161 new wells. This was not included in the AEMO modelling process.
Alternatives to gas
Gas has historically been characterised as a transition fuel on the pathway to a zero-emissions power system. The falling costs of renewable energy and storage technologies combined with rising gas costs means this pathway and may indeed be a detour, particularly when taking into account Australia’s climate commitments.
This is also a sentiment increasingly reflected by the industry, with gas producer AGL suggesting that:
the National Electricity Market […] here in Australia could transition
directly from being dominated by coal-fired baseload to being dominated by storable renewables.
Gas generation generally falls into two categories: open cycle gas turbines (OCGT) and combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT). These two technologies effectively play different roles in the energy sector. Open cycle turbines are highly flexible, and are used occasionally over the year to provide peak capacity. Combined cycle turbines, on the other hand, operate continuously and provide large amounts of energy over a year.
Each of these technologies is now under competitive threat from renewable generation and storage. Flexible capacity can also be provided by energy storage technologies, while bulk energy can be provided by renewable energy. These are compared below.
Energy: renewables vs gas
The chart below compares the cost of providing bulk energy with gas and renewable technologies. We’ve represented the price of new CCGT, PV (which stands for photovoltic solar) and wind as the cost of providing energy over the lifetime of the plant.
The other two gas generation costs illustrated, CCGT and Steam, represent the cost of energy from existing plants, at their respective thermal efficiencies. The steam thermal efficiency is similar to that of a highly flexible open cycle gas turbine.
Surprisingly – and depending somewhat on gas price and capital cost assumptions – new renewable energy projects provide cheaper energy than existing gas generators.
Flexible capacity: storage vs gas
The next chart compares the cost of providing flexible capacity from gas and storage technologies (again, taking the cost over the lifetime of the plant).
In this analysis we compare the cost of capacity from OCGT with that from diesel and various storage technologies, including battery and Pumped Hydro Energy Storage (PHES). As can be seen, storage technologies can compete with OCGT in providing flexible capacity, depending on technology and capital cost.
Another option, not shown here, is demand response. This is the strategy of giving consumers incentives to reduce their energy use during critical times, and is cheaper again.
What is clear is AEMO’s forecast gas shortfall is very small, and that it may have already been made up by revised demand forecasts and new gas field developments. But the question of how Australia should deal with any future shortfall invites a larger debate, including the role of gas in our electricity system, and whether the falling costs of renewable energy and storage technology mean we’ve outgrown gas.