Energy At A Crossroads: Fossil Fuels Renewed

  • Date: 06/02/17
  • Graham Lloyd, The Australian

Everything, it seems, is now up for grabs in this year’s review of climate and energy policy.

As air pollution rules were tightened across the US under Barack Obama, “rolling coal” became a popular pastime for many of the disaffected. Enthusiasts modified their diesel engines to emit as much black smoke as possible on demand, sometimes for the cameras and into the faces of a passing cyclist or Prius driver.

Fast forward and electric cars are still hot with the hipsters but the Prius is passe, Donald Trump is in the White House and pick-up trucks are the biggest selling cars in the US, thanks to a world awash with cheap oil.

For critics, Malcolm Turnbull is now “rolling coal”, blowing black smoke to the urban elites, Labor and the Greens, criticising a “mindless rush to renewables” that raises prices for ordinary people and can push whole states into darkness.

Having “drawn the battle lines” in an address to the National Press Club, the Prime Minister has set a key plank of the political contest for the year.

It represents a reality check on action on climate change, a pitch to jobs and security but with just enough support for battery storage and new technology developments to avoid his being cast a Luddite.

In doing so, the federal government is facing the post-Trump reality and showing the Coalition has been paying attention to lessons that have bedevilled energy policy renewal at home and abroad. […]

But Germany is still building new-generation, coal-fired electricity plants to help replace the production lost from turning its back on domestic nuclear.

Against a backdrop of supply concerns and high state-based ­renewable energy targets, the Turnbull government is arguing Australia should follow suit and showcase the latest in high-­efficiency coal technology.

For new generation coal plants to work, proponents would need a guarantee of access, possibly in the form of renewable energy certificates or “capacity payments” as has happened in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

Everything, it seems, is now up for grabs in this year’s review of climate and energy policy.

By publicly hedging on renewables and considering coal, the Turnbull government is reflecting a broader new global reality.

Renewables are not going away and there will be improvements in battery storage and grid management and other energy efficiencies but the transformation is coming both in the political response to climate change and the practical ­response to ensuring stable and ­affordable supplies of power.

To appreciate how quickly and fundamentally things are changing, it is necessary to go no further than a one-hour press briefing held jointly this week by the ­Global Warming Policy Foundation and Foreign Press Association in London.

The briefing was attended by reporters from the major British newspapers including The Times, The Financial Times, The Guardian and the world’s leading wire agencies and special-interest energy publications.

They were there to hear comments from Myron Ebell, who served as head of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s transition team from early September until January 19, when he helped to draft an advisory action plan on how to implement Trump’s campaign promises.

Rising from a sea of incredulity was a question from one journalist present that underscored just how things had changed.

“Me and my colleagues in this room haven’t spent much time speaking to people like yourselves and the Global Warming Policy Foundation over recent times because nothing you have to say has any support in fact,” the journalist said.

“There are a lot of politicians and policymakers who have determined what you have to offer is essentially meaningless in terms of where the planet should be going, where the economy should be going and business should be going, but yet here we are all sitting in a room listening to you again. Why do you think that is?” he asked.

Ebell said: “Well, elections are surprising things sometimes.”

Ebell’s analysis is as relevant for Brexit as the US presidential race and provides some clues as to how debate is being fundamentally recast in other democracies, including Australia.

Trump was elected President, Ebell says, largely because he figured out and supported policies that were popular in the heartland of the US, that are not those of the bicoastal elite.

Energy policy is central to the divide.

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