It is understandable that the media has focused on the Coalition political shambles revealed by, and arising from, last week’s ABC Four Corners program, but it was not the most surprising thing. We all know Barnaby Joyce is loopy about the ETS and that the Liberals harbour some out and out climate deniers, even if Nick Minchin’s performance was exceptional in the depth of the damage he inflicted on his leader’s credibility, and in torpedoing his party’s negotiation with the government.

None of this was a surprise though it may make it moot to discuss the CPRS and the current state of play of the politics. Penny Wong’s concession on the weekend to the farmers is yet another abnegation of responsible consideration of the third largest source of greenhouse gas in Australia. As Bernard Keane said in his cri de coeur (Take your CPRS and shove it, yesterday, item 3) between the timid government and obstructionist opposition the CPRS has become worse than a joke.

Notwithstanding all that, the most surprising revelation was that Ian Macfarlane, Shadow Minister responsible for the negotiations with government, has unambiguously declared he no longer believes that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will solve Australia’s coal problem. This author recently wrote that it was almost unimaginable that Macfarlane (or Martin Ferguson, Energy Minister) would ever accept the hard facts about Clean Coal. I am happy to give him a genuine apology for my misjudgement.

But (well, of course) a few points.

First, he did not make clear why he has completely reversed his opinion on this, from such a strong advocate of the Clean Coal solution when in government and until recently to such an irretrievable refutation. He said:

The reality is that you are not going to see another coal-fired power station built in Australia. (…) That concept (CCS) will not materialise for 20 years and probably never.

Presumably a significant factor was the very frank report by the Global CCS Institute report, which Crikey explained stated “a viable business case for commercial scale, integrated projects has not been established at this time for coal-fired power generation and other large CO2-emitting industries”. The scientific, technical, timing and commercial facts are irrefutable that CCS will not be viable until 2030-2040 at the earliest. The government-sponsored analysis could not have reported otherwise without losing international credibility.

Second, it is not clear why Macfarlane chose this time to make such an admission that has wide-ranging implications for any serious CO2 abatement strategy. The sunny view is that this could aid the painful acceptance in Australia that we should turn to alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind and geothermal.

Of course, Macfarlane is not in power and it is notable that so far, 18 days after the report’s official release, there has been no government response and it may be too much to hope that they will come as clean on Clean Coal. There have, however, been significant — if long overdue — federal grants to support geothermal and wave power. Announcing these grants Martin Ferguson said he placed the same level of importance on geothermal as CCS, which is at least progress.

So far so good. For a change there are a few slivers of appropriate action or reality reassessment by government and opposition. As Tony Kevin said yesterday (The Australian climate movement needs to take a good, hard look at itself, yesterday, item 16) the government needs to start “with serious and unbiased R&D into how the different forms of alternative energy might be rapidly integrated into a dependable, emissions-free national grid”.

Feasibly the Liberals may also be fashioning an energy policy to differentiate themselves from the government. The other favourite of the fossil fuel lobby is gas but while it is a lot cleaner than coal, it is still a heavy emitter of greenhouse gas and is considerably more expensive than existing coal-fired plants. Those coal generators cannot be retrofitted to burn gas so it would still require massive new capital expenditure. It is also more expensive, which again leads back to the only rational options: renewable energy sources.

Except for one other highly contentious option. Ziggy Switkowski was spruiking it again, most likely in reaction to last week’s UK government’s announcement to fast-track 10 new nuclear reactors. Add to that Malcolm Turnbull’s recent visit there, and it would come as no surprise if the Liberals were considering a commitment to revisit nuclear power. As politically risky as that might seem, it may just possibly help mollify his fracturing party with a halfway plausible energy and climate strategy. Or not.

On the other hand, as we have discussed previously an honest report on nuclear power would be not much better than the report on CCS. Many have already reacted in disbelief to the UK claim to build their planned reactors in a mere eight years compared to the 15 years it took to build the last one (begun 1981, finished 1995). For an opposition that is mired in irreconcilable differences, the nuclear option (energy policy not coalition party politics) involves mere rhetoric — a pretence at a solution with no foreseeable action until the far future. Perfect policy for denialists.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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