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MUNGO MACCALLUM: The Coalition unveils its energy policy

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Cartoon by Bruce Keogh/keoghcartoons.com.au

At least the Coalition's latest energy plan is not all about gas.

Last week the bumbling Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, breathlessly revealed that there are all sorts of goodies: hydrogen, energy storage, "green" steel and aluminium, carbon capture and soil carbon.

This scattergun approach, he claims, includes the best bets for a policy that will drive prices down and reduce emissions, very much in that order.

So we are not really talking about coal – except that we are, given that so-called "blue" hydrogen and carbon capture both intimately involve the forbidden fossil. And we are most certainly not talking about renewables, which can look after themselves.

No, this is all about technology, the great wave of the future. And, as we start to unpick it, a long way into a very uncertain future. Even assuming that Taylor’s gamble pays off, we are looking at a good decade before we can hope to collect.

The only technology that is really going ahead is energy storage – batteries are becoming bigger, more efficient and much cheaper even as we speak but, ironically, the beneficiaries are far more likely to involve renewables than any iteration of fossils.

Hydrogen is possibly feasible, but Taylor is obviously thinking about it as so-called "blue" hydrogen, a spinoff from turning coal and gas into products like plastic, with all the carbon emissions that entails. "Green" hydrogen, from the clean process of electrolysis of water, is much further down the years. As are so-called "green" steel and aluminium, on everybody’s wish list in about 2040, if we are lucky.

Soil carbon is an old idea of Tony Abbott’s devised to satisfy Australia’s targets at Kyoto. It can be useful for the farmers but affects emissions reduction only at the fringe.

Which leaves us the rainbow gold of carbon capture. It is not quite true that this is a proven failure – not quite. It can be done and it has been, on a small, basically experimental scale. But after many, many years of effort, it remains horrendously expensive, totally unacceptable to industry and inapplicable to a serious attack on our climate crisis.

Taylor’s package has little to do with economics, in the short term, and almost nothing to do with emissions reduction in any time frame you want to discuss. But then, it isn’t meant to – hence his refusal to talk about targets, unlike some more "open" and "transparent" regimes such as the People’s Republic of China. The best Taylor can manage is a hope that we may get to zero emissions in the latter half of the Century.

In other words, we will do nothing for the next thirty years and start thinking about it some time in the following fifty. Even from a party room resigned to the constant inanities of this risible Minister, this is too silly to accept.

However, the conservatives will settle for a political fix, a policy whose only real purpose is to demonstrate that they have a policy. It will be dismissed by the international community and derided by the critics who have long despaired that the Government might take notice of the science and take positive action.

But it will pacify the party room – well, most of it. The hardliners, like the coal-obsessed Matt Canavan, have already made it clear they cannot be wooed. Like his archenemy Malcolm Turnbull, he thinks enshrining gas in centre stage is, as Turnbull bluntly asserts, plain crazy.

And there are others, less extreme, who have grave doubts that it can survive the scrutiny of the next round of climate talks when the pressure will ramp up for tougher targets and more stringent measures. A new energy policy may be needed before the next election.

There are also other concerns. It is not entirely clear who was responsible for putting together the mish-mash Taylor delivered, but presumably, there was input from Morrison’s National COVID-19 Coordination Commission – after all, that is supposed to be its job. And it just happens that several members of that commission stand to profit massively if the gas bonanza at the core of it goes ahead.

The Chairman, Neville Power – the previous CEO of Fortescue Metals Group – is particularly vulnerable to the charge of conflict of interest.

This is in no sense criminal. At worst it can be seen as crony capitalism at its most blatant and cynical. But even if it were labelled corrupt, apparently that would not matter.

In an astonishing decision recently, the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), a body previously regarded as a serious watchdog with a few teeth ready to bite, told us that the widespread and bipartisan tradition of pork-barrelling was not illegal – no surprises there, we had long been resigned to that. But it was not even to be seen as corrupt.

Hang on. According to my Macquarie Dictionary, corrupt means 'dishonest, especially involving bribery' – the very essence of pork-barrelling – in which undeservedly favourable treatment is meted out to certain groups of people in the hope of securing their votes.

To say such behaviour is not corrupt is not just a question of nit-picking or pedantry, it is a denial of reality. Such is the abysmal level of the accepted standard of conduct that our current politics have now plumbed.

And this is the standard that Taylor espouses. The national interest is at best secondary – if it can be spun as part of his policy agenda, it can sometimes be helpful, but it is not the real point. What is vital is to look after your mates, and especially the ones who make lavish donations to party funds. Secure the base.

And thus it is with the energy package. It has never been about emissions, or even cutting costs – the consumers have got used to the idea that any reductions in their bills are likely to be both temporary and illusory. Power, after all, is what the economists call an inelastic demand, which has to be paid for, however exorbitant the charges.

And power is politics. Mao Tse Tung said power grew out of the barrel of a gun. Morrison says it hisses through the valve of a gas cylinder; a somewhat less compelling image, but a handy prop to replace Morrison’s carboniferous pet rock in question time.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery.

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