Coal companies rebuke Dutton as Coalition pushes on with nuclear plans

The nation’s largest coal-fired electricity suppliers have rejected Coalition leader Peter Dutton’s argument that Australia should abandon its 2030 climate target,as the federal opposition prepares to unveil the sites of future nuclear power plants on Wednesday.

Dutton is expected to reveal his nuclear power plan after he called a snap shadow cabinet meeting on Tuesday night,which followed a meeting of backbench MPs whose electorates will be named as potential hosts of nuclear power stations.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is set to announce the Coalition’s nuclear power plan on Wednesday morning.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is set to announce the Coalition’s nuclear power plan on Wednesday morning.Louise Kennerley

The announcement will end months of speculation about the proposed locations and sharpen the political debate after Duttonreignited the nation’s climate wars by pledging to dump the government’s target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030.

Instead,he is pushing to unwind Australia’s ban on nuclear energy and build up to seven nuclear reactors across the nation to achieve the longer-term 2050 target of net zero emissions. According to the CSIRO and the energy market operator,a nuclear generator in Australia could not be builtuntil at least 2040 and would cost at least $16 billion.

Peak power-industry group the Australian Energy Council intervened in the debate to insist the nation must retain the target to provide certainty for investors. “Just because a target will be challenging to meet,that is not a reason to stop trying,” said Ben Barnes,the council’s interim chief executive.

The group represents the nation’s biggest electric utilities including AGL,Origin,EnergyAustralia and Alinta,which own major coal- and gas-fired power plants while also investing heavily in renewables. These companies have said they have no plans to develop nuclear energy in Australia.

The full Coalition party room will meet online on Wednesday before Dutton makes his announcement. Opposition climate spokesman Ted O’Brien had in recent days been asking colleagues which aspects of the nuclear policy it would be most helpful to announce imminently.

“The debate on climate in recent weeks has really accelerated the nuclear announcement,” one MP said. Dutton’s office was contacted for comment.

On Tuesday,the opposition leader backed Nationals leader David Littleproud’s declaration that a future Coalition government would halt the development of renewable energy in regional Australia and scrap the nascent offshore wind industry,except off Gippsland where projects are most advanced.

But opposition frontbencher Simon Birmingham seemingly contradicted Littleproud on Tuesday,saying:“There is absolutely a place for large-scale renewables.”

The opposition is at odds over scrapping Australia’s offshore wind industry.

The opposition is at odds over scrapping Australia’s offshore wind industry.Supplied

Both major power generators and investors in renewable energy have warned for more than a decade that policy uncertainty has hamstrung investment needed to compensate for the closure of coal-fired power stations.

Capital markets’ confidence in funding projects related to Australia’s energy transition has rallied in the past two years amid significant improvements in policy and regulatory certainty,according to the Investor Group on Climate Change,a coalition of 104 global and local investors such as AustralianSuper,Cbus,HESTA,Fidelity,BlackRock and Vanguard.

However,concerns are growing within the energy industry that Dutton’s plan to scrap the Albanese government’s 2030 climate target will unleash further uncertainty and crimp access to the capital needed to build enough replacement wind and solar farms,transmission infrastructure and batteries in time for the accelerating closures of ageing coal plants.

Dutton has said the opposition remains committed to net zero emissions by 2050 but will not reveal its interim climate targets until after the federal election,due by May next year.

On Tuesday,the Australian Energy Council said interim targets provide certainty to industry and serve as a “stepping stone” to the ultimate goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

“The energy sector will continue to do most of the heavy lifting to reduce emissions between now and 2030,which will enable other sectors to achieve their decarbonisation objectives,” Barnes said.

“It’s critical that we continue to work towards reducing our emissions as quickly as is possible and affordable.”

However,he said meeting the legislated targets would still be challenging. “There is more work to be done to keep us on track,” he said.

Earlier on Tuesday,mining magnate Andrew Forrest,who has become one of Australia’s biggest owners of renewable energy through his private Squadron Energy,told ABC Radio that Dutton’s nuclear power push would “decimate” Australia’s export-dependent economy by incurring higher import taxes from trading partners that had more ambitious climate policies.

Dutton dismissed Forrest’s remarks,arguing Australia was the only G20 nation with a ban on nuclear energy,and claiming the technology must be a vital part of the future energy mix to supplement renewable energy in periods of low wind and sun.

“Andrew Forrest,I know well. He’s a good friend and a great Australian,and he’s very heavily invested,billions of dollars into renewable energies,” Dutton said.

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Nick Toscano is a business reporter for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

Mike Foley is the climate and energy correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

James Massola is national affairs editor. He has previously been Sunday political correspondent and South-East Asia correspondent.

Paul Sakkal is federal political correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald who previously covered Victorian politics and has won two Walkley awards.

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