More than 20 Coalition backbench MPs, including some of Malcolm Turnbull’s main political rivals, have formed a governmental lobby group to push for more coal-fired power stations in Australia.
The group, called the Monash Forum after the WWI brigadier general and engineer credited with establishing Victoria’s state-owned, coal-fired power industry in the 1920s, reportedly counts Tony Abbott, and other former ministers Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz among its backers, as well as Barnaby Joyce. Queensland Liberal backbencher George Christensen, who has previously threatened to quit the party, is believed to be a key driver of the group.
The MP is pushing for a coal-fired power station to be built in far north Queensland.
In a Facebook post today Christensen said: “Jobs and lifestyle will depend on coal for a long time to come because the best option right now is coal and the new clean coal technology that also reduces emissions.”
With the private sector unwilling to invest in coal-fired power and the banks also refusing to finance proposals, the group, fronted today by renewable energy critic and NSW MP Craig Kelly, appears to be hoping it can convince the government to spend billions of taxpayer dollars to build and own the power stations in an echo of Sir John Monash’s push 90 years ago.
Kelly chairs the government’s backbench environment and energy committee.
Kelly has rejected suggestions that the group was seeking to undermine the Prime Minister ahead of a meeting of the country’s energy ministers later this month as Turnbull tries to strike a deal with the states over his national energy guarantee (NEG), which aims to deliver reliable supply and reduce emissions.
“Malcolm Turnbull has my full support,” Kelly told ABC radio.
He told The Guardian that the Monash Forum’s manifesto did not call for specific government support for coal, but said the statement of principles emphasised that coal was the best way to deliver “low-cost electricity for consumers and industry”.
He called the NEG policy, which is backed by the Coalition party room a “very good backbone of a policy”. However, numerous members of the government backbench, including Abbott, have been pushing for a greater focus on coal as the best way to drive down energy prices as the sector turns its attention to renewables and battery storage.
“With so much anti-coal rhetoric around in the community we want to ensure that people understand and we’re a voice about how important coal is to our economy,” Kelly told ABC Radio.
The Monash Forum wants to shift the focus in current generation construction away from renewables and in favour of coal.
The Prime Minister said it was important that Australia had a “technology-agnostic energy policy”, while Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg responded saying the government and Monash group “want to see is exactly the same thing, which is lower prices and a more reliable system”.
The NEG still has around half of all power supply generated by coal-fired stations in 2030.
But the Turnbull government is also grappling with the closure of privately owned power stations such as Victoria’s largest coal-fired plant, Hazelwood, which French energy giant Engie such down suddenly last year.
AGL is planning to close its 45-year-old Liddell coal-fired station in NSW in 2022, while the government has been trying to convince the company to keep it online for an additional five years or sell site.
AGL plans to replace Liddell’s capacity with renewables, gas-fired power and batteries, arguing they are more cost-effective alternatives. It is also investigating pumped hydro for the Hunter Valley.
Some Coalition backbenchers have suggested the government compulsorily acquire Liddell and run it in the interim.
But Craig Kelly says the “optimum outcome” for grid stability would be to build a new coal-fired plant to deliver baseload power and if the private sector won’t invest, then “the government may need to step in and assist” in building it.
Kelly has been a regular critic of subsidies for the renewable energy sector.
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