Those in the Parliament who know me well also know I’ve devoted a large part of my political career resisting what I call “overreach on climate change”.
I believe our climate is changing and growing more erratic. It’s more than likely humans are contributing to that change, so we need to adjust our behaviour and government has a big role to play.
Avoiding overreach is important. In six years the Labor government I served achieved less than we would have liked on energy reform because we left ourselves exposed to the mother of all scare campaigns. A deceitful and ultimately successful campaign that arguably gave Tony Abbott a mandate to unravel much of what we’d achieved.
But had the former government’s policy framework remained in place we would all now be in a much better place. The nation would be operating under an emissions trading scheme in which carbon would be trading at a considerably lower price than $23 a tonne. Intensive trade exposed emitters would be supported, pensioners and low-income families would be protected from any price rises, carbon-revenue would be funding projects that lift productivity in the farm sector and initiatives to protect the environment.
Just as important, our economy would now be better prepared for its energy transition and more advanced.
The coal industry remains strong and it can continue to count on my energetic support. So too can those who keep our coal-fired electricity generators humming, our lights on, fridges cold and our manufacturing plants and other businesses running.
In the not-too-distant-future, Australia’s coal-fired generators will have reached the end of their commercial lives. Four of those generators – with a combined output of about 10,000MW – are in or on the edge of the Hunter. One, with a capacity of 2000MW will be gone in five years. In 20 years, they’ll all be history. It’s not just a problem for the Hunter, such a huge energy supply loss will affect the nation.
The good news is the Hunter is well placed to remain the nation’s powerhouse. The high-voltage transmission lines are here, so are the skills. Solar energy has a foothold. We have excellent wind and geothermal resources and plentiful gas. We have a range of clean energy institutes in Newcastle including the CSIRO. But where is the transitional plan?
Given he backed Tony Abbott when he destroyed Labor’s plan, what is the Turnbull government doing to ensure the lights stay on, prices are stable, and Hunter jobs are preserved?
Malcolm Turnbull has made things worse by putting the cause back further by offering false hope on the development of new “clean coal” generators.
The Rudd government invested a fortune in “carbon capture and storage” but the results have been less then promising. Super critical coal generators are cleaner but, sadly, not clean enough. Energy companies have no interest in building coal-fired generators that require 30 or more years of operation to deliver a decent return on investment.
We cannot further delay the Hunter’s transition by bleating on about “clean coal”. Sadly, it isn’t going to be our future and we don’t have a moment to lose before we accept that and start building a new beginning.
Joel Fitzgibbon is Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Shadow Minister for Rural and Regional Australia. This opinion piece appeared in The Newcastle Herald on Thursday, 23 February 2017.