Australia's fossil fuel reliance means alternative energies are overlooked

Nov 10, 2004 01:00 AM

by Karen Percy

Now to the next instalment in our series on energy. And today we're looking at Australia's reliance on fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal. It's certainly true that we have plenty of these resources, and they make up a big part of our export sector. They're also cheap and reliable. But, in the case of coal in particular, they're big contributors to the greenhouse gas problem.
Despite this, the Federal Government's white paper on energy, released in June, continues to push traditional industries. And, some critics are warning that our dependence on fossil fuels is hindering the push to find alternatives.

Karen Percy: If Australia's economic prosperity once rode on the sheep's back, it's now very much a case of coal that's firing the economic engine.

William McKell (archival): My government has continually stressed the importance of coal production to the plans for Australia's expansion and development and to the maintenance of all citizens in gainful employment.

Karen Percy: That's Federal Governor General, sir William McKell, back in 1948. Five-and-a-half decades on, the same arguments have been made by the current Federal Government about not just coal, but fossil fuels in general, says Clive Hamilton is from the public independent think tank, the Australia Institute.

Clive Hamilton: When the Government thinks energy, it thinks coal and gas. Australia has huge reserves of coal, and the reality is that sooner or later we're going to have to decide that like uranium, we're going to have to leave a lot of it in the ground.

Karen Percy: Australia is the leading global exporter of black coal, some $ 12 bn worth a year. It has an abundance of other energy resources too.
This continent provides 8 % of the world's LNG, and has 40 % of the world's low cost uranium reserves. We also have oil reserves for decades to come, and natural gas for a century or more. The problem is, these kinds of fuels cause all kinds of problems, says Erwin Jackson from the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Erwin Jackson: Well, Australia is in a position where we have vast coal resources which we can access very cheaply which means that we burn an awful lot of coal, which actually makes us the highest per capita greenhouse polluters in the industrialised world.

Karen Percy: The coal industry knows it needs to do more on the emissions issue, especially here in Australia where coal burning accounts for one third of greenhouse gases.
But Mark O'Neill from the Australian Coal Association says it's not an easy task, especially given the fact that the nation's energy needs are expected to rise by 50 % in the next 15 years.

Mark O’Neill: Most of the coal we use is actually for base load power, that's the power we need 24 hours a day 7 days a week to keep the lights on. And if you look at it, for base load power, you've really only got coal, oil, gas, hydro to a certain extent, or nuclear power. And there are limitations with all of those things, which is why we use coal.
If you're referring to cleaner energy sources like renewables, like wind and solar power, well of course they've got great potential, but until we find ways of storing energy from them for times when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine, they will continue just to be a minor part of the supply.

Karen Percy: The Federal Government isn't ignoring alternative fuels. As part of its energy white paper produced in June, it announced a fund worth half a billion dollars to work towards low emission energy. $ 134 mm was pledged to help renewable technologies get to market and $ 75 mm for better take up of solar technology.
But proponents of alternative fuels were greatly disappointed by the paper, especially the mandatory renewable energy target, where the modest targets set three years ago will remain, but the industry now has another decade to achieve it.

The Australia Institute's Clive Hamilton
Clive Hamilton: It called for a very small increase in Australia's renewable energy production, and yet it led to an enormous amount of activity within the alternative energy industries, and many people thought well, this only demonstrates just how effectively the market can work if given the right signals.

Karen Percy: Clive Hamilton believes that the Federal Government has been unduly influenced by the fossil fuel industry.

Clive Hamilton: We had the unedifying spectacle of some very secret minutes being leaked a couple of months ago about a meeting the Prime Minister and the Energy Minister had with senior people from the fossil industries in May, and they effectively went to these captains of industry and said we're in a bit of trouble with our climate change policy, please tell us what we should do that will look after your interests and get us out of a political bind.

Karen Percy: It's a notion that's rejected by Mark O'Neill from the Australian Coal Association.

Mark O’Neill: The so-called power of the fossil fuel lobby doesn't stop governments imposing ever-increasing royalties and taxeson the industry, but really governments in every jurisdiction are actually focussed on maintaining a vibrant economy -- GDP growth, employment growth, low interest rates and so on.

Karen Percy: So far Australia and the United States are refusing to sign the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse emissions, drawn up in 1997, despite the fact that Australia is working towards some of the targets set in Kyoto.
No matter what policies are adopted by the Federal Government, the Australia Institute's Clive Hamilton believes there will be pressure internationally for Australia to move towards a greener energy industry.

Source: The World Today
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