Abbott recalls one of the dirty dozen

While the media have focussed on Dick Warburton's appointment to chair the review of the Renewable Energy Target, it is appointment of Brian Fisher that elicits the loudest laughter and most sorrowful despair from experienced clean energy players.

The Abbott government announced yesterday who will head up their review of the Renewable Energy Target. 

One of the four, Matt Zema, head of the Australia Energy Market Operator, seems eminently qualified given he is responsible for managing power system reliability and transmission planning for the eastern National Electricity Market. Zema's history also seems to indicate that he is relatively impartial with no strong public views expressed on either renewable energy or climate change science. 

However, one cannot say the same for the other three.

It has already been widely reported that the chair of the review panel will be Dick Warburton, who has publicly stated since 2009 that he doubts that the burning of fossil fuels contributes significantly to global warming. 

Another panel member, Shirley In’t Veld, former managing director of Western Australia’s state owned power generator Verve Energy is generally considered no friend of renewable energy. In a Senate committee inquiry into the carbon price, In’t Veld said that, basically, there was no capacity for the WA southwest interconnected system to reduce its use of coal below existing levels of about 70 per cent of electricity supply because gas was too expensive and renewables unreliable. Here’s part of what she said:

Chair: So our best chance to lower the emissions intensity would be to have better technology to clean up, for want of a better word, coal fired power stations, because we have to continue to rely on coal?

In't Veld: That is right, yes.

Chair: In the context of this debate there is a lot of talk about renewable energy coming onstream, like wind powered stations, solar and a range of others. That is not going to be able to fill the breach?

In't Veld: No, because the difficulty with the solar and wind is that it is highly intermittent…

Yet in chatting to those with a long history in Australian climate change policy it was panel member, Brian Fisher, that evoked the loudest laughter and most sorrowful despair in equal measure.

During the Howard government, Fisher headed up its agriculture, energy and resource economics analysis agency ABARE (now the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics). 

Guy Pearse in his 2006 PhD thesis – which interviewed a range of senior government officials, politicians and industry lobbyists about the role of fossil-fuel interests in influencing climate change policy – contained this memorable interview extract about Fisher with one such figure:

Interviewee: ABARE has, talking about personalities, very strong players [in government climate change policy]. Brian Fisher is a very strong player… he was always mad then, he’s still mad and there’s this very strong view coming through agricultural economics and that economic profession, they’re almost the intellectual equivalent of the Sceptics Society, agricultural economists particularly. They spend their lives trying to stare down farmers over subsidies so … there’s this intellectual sort of framework which basically if anything smells like it’s an excuse for government intervention they’ll oppose it. So they’re very anti-interventionist. On agricultural subsidies, and Fisher’s written a number of books about that, and that same flavour comes into his approach to greenhouse. On greenhouse, he’s sceptical of the science and even if he isn’t sceptical of the science he says that if the government accepts that something needs to be done radically on greenhouse then basically it opens up public coffers to a whole pile of charlatans from the renewables industry …

Pearse: Has he expressed that explicitly to you?

Interviewee: Oh yes, yes informally yes, sure.

During Fisher’s time heading up ABARE, the bureau produced what were clear outlier estimates relative to other macroeconomic modellers suggesting an extremely high economic cost from reducing emissions under a future Kyoto Protocol, as shown in the chart below (see top line – ‘ABARE-GTEM’).

Marginal costs of US carbon emissions reduction in 2010 under Kyoto Scenarios, according to different economic models

Graph for Abbott recalls one of the dirty dozen

Source: Pew Center on Global Climate Change

One problem was that the modelling was part funded by a series of high emission businesses. An ombudsman investigation observed: “Information obtained by the Ombudsman indicated that ABARE had adopted a funding structure and administrative practices for its climate change research projects which failed to adequately protect ABARE as a public sector research agency from allegations of undue influence by vested interests.”

After successfully seeing off Kyoto, ABARE under Fisher continued to produce assorted reports that argued the government should avoid policies focused on providing an immediate market to pull forward the deployment of emissions reduction technologies (so called ‘technology-pull’ policies, such as carbon pricing, renewable energy targets and feed-in tariffs) on the basis that effective emissions reduction technologies didn’t yet exist.

Instead ABARE recommended a focus on moon-shot technology research and development, particularly on clean coal (referred to as ‘technology push’ policies). This technology-push not pull argument reached a crescendo in 2006 as Fisher championed the Howard-Bush Asia Pacific Partnership of Clean Development and Climate. Can’t remember this initiative? Don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything. 

In a January 2006 report, Fisher argued:

Both technology ‘push’ (for example, research and development policies) and ‘pull’ (for example, emissions trading) will be required in the long term [my emphasis]. However, it will be important to ensure that ... the necessary technologies to substantially reduce emissions actually exist and are capable of deployment before technology ‘pull’ policies are adopted.

Over 2006 with calls to implement an emissions trading scheme becoming louder, Fisher rushed out a report to preempt the CSIRO-led Energy Futures Forum, pushing the ‘wait for a miracle strategy’:

‘Late action’, based on a plausible expectation that renewed emphasis on a technology solution to climate change would result in the development and diffusion of cleaner and more cost competitive technologies beyond 2050, is estimated to cost the global economy (as well as the Australian economy) substantially less than any ‘early action’ involving the use of existing technologies

After leaving government, over 2008-09 Fisher – much to the surprise of his former ABARE staff – suddenly reversed his prior optimism about clean coal. He now suggested Treasury carbon pricing modelling was flawed due to its assumption that carbon capture and storage would plunge in cost – precisely what he projected while at ABARE.

Working first for Charles River and Associates and then Concept Economics he was paid by the oil and gas industry, electricity generators and the mining industry, each separately, to paint grim pictures of the economic consequences from government efforts to reduce carbon emissions in the near term.

In credit for these efforts, Clive Hamilton named him as one of the 'dirty dozen' who had done greatest harm to efforts to control Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions under the Rudd-Gillard Labor Government.

However, since 2009 his influence waned under a hostile Labor government.

Now, Abbott has recalled him from the bench.

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