The pro-coal ‘Monash Forum’ may do little but blacken the name of a revered Australian


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

The coal industry has a new voice in parliament, in the form of the so-called Monash Forum – an informal government faction featuring former prime minister Tony Abbott and backbench energy committee chair Craig Kelly.

The group, which also reportedly contains former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce alongside as many as 11 of his Nationals colleagues, is agitating for the government to go beyond its current energy policy and build a taxpayer-funded coal power station.

As several commentators have pointed out, the move is a calculated push by the usual backbench suspects to put pressure on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, two weeks ahead of crucial talks with state and territory leaders over the design of the National Energy Guarantee (NEG).




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Perversely, the Monash Forum’s members want the NEG to prove its “technology neutral” credentials by including coal as well as renewables. And let’s not forget that the NEG policy was cooked up when it became clear that Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target was unpalatable to Coalition MPs (but not economists).

What’s in a name?

In choosing to form a group like this, opponents of action on climate change are trying to give themselves gravitas, in three possible ways.

First and foremost, they are aiming for the “halo effect” of taking a known public figure and claiming some of his (and it’s usually a he) intellectual cachet. First and foremost here are groups named after scientific figures.

In 2000, a group of climate deniers, including the late Ray Evans and former Labor finance minister Peter Walsh, set up the grandly named Lavoisier Group to undermine progress towards Australian ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and a domestic emissions trading scheme. Economist John Quiggin probably said it best when he wrote that the group was “devoted to the proposition that basic principles of physics discovered by, among others, the famous French scientist Antoine Lavoisier, cease to apply when they come into conflict with the interests of the Australian coal industry”.

Then in 2011, opponents of Julia Gillard’s carbon pricing scheme created the Galileo Movement – casting themselves, like their Renaissance namesake, as heroic dissidents to an unthinking orthodoxy.

The second aim is to create a name that implies a stolid, no-nonsense approach to policy. One example is the now defunct Tasman Institute, which was an influential voice against climate action and in favour of electricity privatisation in the 1990s.

The third tactic takes this approach a step further, by creating a name that sounds impartial or even pro-environmental, thus obfuscating the group’s true intent, which is to stymie climate policy. Previous examples include the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, the Global Climate Coalition, the Australian Climate Science Coalition, and the Australian Environment Foundation, launched in 2005 to the chagrin of the existing Australian Conservation Foundation.

The Monash Forum – with its implied connotations of nation-building and high-minded political debate – is perhaps trying to achieve all three of these goals, this time from within parliament itself rather than the surrounding policy development bubble.

Monash on the march

For the younger readers among us, John Monash was arguably Australia’s most revered soldier, described by British war historian AJP Taylor as “the only general of creative originality produced by the First World War”.

The Monash Forum’s founders also hark back to his role in helping kick-start the exploitation of Victoria’s enormous brown coal reserves in the 1920s.

But the Returned and Services League is not impressed that this former serviceman has been pressed into political service, declaring that “Monash’s name is sacrosanct and should be above this form of political posturing”.

What’s more, the name is bound to create confusion over whether it is affiliated in some way with Monash University (it isn’t), and there will doubtless be some unhappy faces at the Economic Society of Australia’s ESA Monash Forum (which is).

Will coal really make a comeback?

In seeking to deliver new coal-fired power stations, the new Monash Forum is attempting to mine a seam that has already been extensively excavated.

The Minerals Council of Australia, which [merged with the Australian Coal Association in 2013], has been trying for years to kickstart public support for coal. Who could forget the “Australians for Coal” and “Little Black Rock” campaigns, or last year’s “Coal: Making the future possible”?

But the council’s latest energy and climate policy statement refers to coal only once, prompting headlines that it has gone cold on coal. BHP has considered quitting the council over its pugnacious stance, while Rio Tinto is selling off Australian coal assets. The mining lobby may soon have to recalibrate its priorities – lithium, anyone?

The problem for coal’s proponents is that most Australians are keen to see the back of it. The promised global wave of “High Efficiency, Low Emission” coal plants has failed to materialise. And stunts such as Treasurer Scott Morrison waving a lump of coal in parliament are derided by a public who are far more energised by the prospect of renewables.




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When he was prime minister, Abbott tried to sabotage investment in large-scale renewables so as to keep the way clear for fossil fuels. But tellingly, he left subsidies for rooftop solar panels largely untouched, presumably realising that voters saw renewable energy as sensible and viable, on a small scale at least.

The problem for advocates of renewables, and climate action more broadly, is that winning slowly on climate change is the same as losing, as Bill McKibben noted last year.

The ConversationPerhaps that is the ultimate aim of the Monash Forum and those who share its goals. Renewable energy may win in the end, but it will win slowly enough that coal can earn one last payday.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

AGL rejects Turnbull call to keep operating Liddell coal-fired power station



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Malcolm Turnbull told parliament on Tuesday he and Josh Frydenberg are in discussions with AGL about keeping Liddell operating beyond 2022.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Energy giant AGL has delivered an initial sharp rebuff to Malcolm Turnbull’s plea to extend the life of the Liddell coal-fired power station by at least five years.

But Turnbull is said to be determined to keep Liddell open and is exploring all options, saying on Tuesday night that while AGL wanted to get out of coal, it would be prepared to sell the power plant.

Turnbull on Tuesday rang AGL chief Andy Vesey to discuss lengthening Liddell’s life, after the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) warned urgent action is needed to ensure Australia has adequate reliable power during the transition to cleaner energy.

The Liddell plant, located in New South Wales’ Hunter region, is set to close in 2022, and AGL has had a long-running advertising campaign saying things need to change and “we are getting out of coal starting 2022 and ending 2050”.

Turnbull told parliament in Question Time that he and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg “are already in discussions” with AGL “about how we can ensure that the power station stays in operation for at least another five years after 2022”.

Vesey fired off tweets reiterating the company’s intentions. Responding to a Tony Abbott tweet that had said “good that AGL is no longer getting out of coal!”, Vesey tweeted: “We’re getting out of coal. We committed to the closure of the Liddell power station in 2022, the end of its operating life”.

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In another tweet, Vesey said “keeping old coal plants open won’t deliver the reliable, affordable energy our customers need”.

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After the tweets Turnbull rang Vesey again. Later Turnbull told reporters: “I’ve spoken to him several times about this matter. He says AGL wants to get out of coal, but he has said that he is prepared to sell to a responsible party and that’s what we’re talking about.”

“Mr Vesey has obligations to his shareholders, my commitment is to all Australians – families, businesses big and small – to deliver affordable and reliable electricity,” he said.

Turnbull appeared to rule out the government buying the station, saying “I think it’s better that the private sector owns generators like that”.

He said there were “obviously other options but one option clearly, that I responsibly as prime minister have to explore, is keeping Liddell going”.

Tony Wood, energy program director at the Grattan Institute, said on Tuesday night that a sale of Liddell would be possible if the price was right and there was a commercially viable market for the power.

The AEMO report says the National Energy Market (NEM) “is not delivering enough investment in flexible dispatchable resources to maintain the defined target level of supply reliability, as the transition from traditional generation to variable energy resources proceeds”.

It stresses immediacy, saying “short-term measures will be necessary until a long-term solution is agreed and becomes fully effective”.

The problem posed by the planned Liddell closure is a recurring theme in the AEMO report, which is also cool on new power plants “with uncertain long-term business viability”. Liddell, commissioned in the early 1970s, has a total capacity of 2,000 megawatts.

AEMO says that consideration should be given “to the possible extension of the capability of some existing resources … This could take the form of life-extension or investment to increase the flexibility of current dispatchable resources, and thereby improving their business viability and extending their life in the market.”

The report recommends:

  • before the coming summer: a strategic reserve of about 1,000 megawatts of flexible dispatchable energy resources is needed to maintain reliable supply in South Australia and Victoria. AEMO is already acting to deliver this.

  • up to 2020-22: progressively decreasing levels of strategic reserve will be required over the summers – and new mechanisms to deliver these must be put in place in time for 2018-19.

  • before the scheduled 2022 Liddell retirement about 1,000 megawatts of new investment is expected to be needed to preserve supply reliability in NSW and Victoria. Mechanisms should be established in the NEM design to deal with these and similar needs for the long term.

The government, which has before it the proposed clean energy target policy recommended by the Finkel report, in June commissioned the AEMO to assess the risks to reliability and affordability posed by the closure of the Hazelwood power station and similar closures to come.

Apart from the Vesey tweets, a spokesperson for AGL reiterated AGL’s position on closing Liddell. “AGL has committed to the closure of the Liddell power station in 2022, which is the end of its operating life.

“AGL has provided this advance notice to avoid the volatility created by the sudden exit of other coal-fired power stations. AGL is actively assessing what capacity will be needed post 2022 and we, along with other market participants, will consider AEMO’s report in light of these plans,” the spokesperson said.

Frydenberg said that “building on our actions to date including putting in place new restrictions on the export of gas and opening up discussions with AGL over Liddell, the Turnbull government will leave no stone unturned to ensure affordable and reliable power for all Australians”.

Labor’s climate change spokesman Mark Butler, referencing a Vesey tweet, said Turnbull’s “claim of a five-year extension didn’t last five minutes”.

Butler said the government’s policy inaction was driving up electricity prices and a clean energy target “is the solution to crippling policy paralysis.

The Conversation“Yet the government refuses to act, citing any and all excuse to delay, when everyone knows it is internal Coalition division and the weakness of the prime minister that are really to blame,” Butler said.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.