You could say we’d hit the jackpot – four local climate campaigners scoring a meeting with their federal MP, who also happens to be the energy and resources minister in the Rudd Labor Government.

Martin Ferguson holds the eminently safe but greening Victorian seat of Batman. A couple of weekends earlier, an Earth Hour demonstration at his Preston office had called on the champion of emissions-intensive fossil fuel exports and power generation to switch to renewables. Australia is heavily dependent on coal for its domestic energy supply, and is the world’s largest coal exporter.

Now Ferguson was sitting across the table from us, a minder scribbling quietly beside him. He said the Government would take the emissions trading scheme to the Senate again in May, but it would fail and Labor would face the next election without a price on carbon.

What of the Greens’ proposal for an interim, two-year carbon tax? Ferguson offered two main objections: a lack of certainty for business, and the blunt statement that there would “never be a settlement” with the Greens on this issue.

While some business uncertainty is surely a reasonable price to avoid the certainty of climate impacts, Ferguson’s blanket exclusion of a climate settlement seems at odds with claimed negotiations between climate change minister Senator Penny Wong and Greens Senator Christine Milne. In the week following our meeting, in fact, The Age quoted Greens leader Bob Brown as being “in a mood to do a deal” on the ETS.

Nothing, however, would be good enough for the Greens, Ferguson claimed – climate change was, for them, a political question, while for Labor it was an economic and environmental one. He had no reply to the argument that the Greens would be hard-pressed to reject for political motives any plan that actually reflected the climate science, in stark contrast with the measures currently proposed by Labor.

While there was some enthusiasm when the talk switched to renewables, Ferguson said coal “would be with us for both our lifetimes”, with no option, it seemed, to leave it in the ground – an imperative of the strongest current science on solving the climate crisis.

He asserted, instead, that carbon capture and storage (CCS) was a “proven technology”, challenged only by the “cost of deployment”. This contrasted with large-scale concentrated solar thermal (CST) technologies already working in Spain and the United States. Solar, according to Ferguson, needed to be “proved up”.

Yet for James Hansen, the world’s leading climate scientist, clean coal is an “illusion”. In September 2009, ABC TV Four Corners also questioned the beleaguered technology in its program. A few days after our meeting, it also aired ‘A Dirty Business’, a program exposing the health and environmental impacts of coal mining in the NSW Hunter valley. Without the elusive prospect of CCS, coal is more than twice as carbon-intensive as gas, which itself is more than 30 times more carbon-intensive than CST.

Despite the profound challenges of such a massively carbon-intensive energy source, the Government’s current ETS proposal includes $1.5 billion compensation for the coal industry and $7.3 billion for fossil-fuel electricity generators. To these billions of public funds can be added the slated $47-billion, five-year investment in an obsolete power grid that, according to Fairfax green business writer Paddy Manning, “entrenches electricity generation from fossil fuels and will only accelerate climate change”.

Though disagreeing with Manning’s analysis, Ferguson admitted that $100 billion would likely be needed “just to keep where we are” with the current power network – more than a Zero Carbon Australia 2020 plan would spend over 10 years ($92 billion) towards a renewables-friendly smart grid.

Strangely, Ferguson seemed also to draw support for his multi-billion-dollar fossil-fuel grid from evidence at the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission about the role of faulty power lines in the Black Saturday fires. A safe grid is, of course, a necessity, but one geared to fossil fuels would only promote global warming and a consequent worsening of bushfire risk in Australia.

By this stage, however, Ferguson had relaxed. He sat back in his chair, smiling. Here, after all, was the minister for the prevention of blackouts, standing against those he claimed would flick the switch on the super-polluting Hazelwood coal-fired power station tomorrow, without any plan for the workers or for keeping the lights on.

Darren Lewin-Hill met with Ferguson on Friday, 9 April 2010 with representatives from Darebin Climate Action Now, organisers of the meeting, and of the Earth Hour event at Ferguson’s electorate office.