Warburton not extreme enough for Abbott?

Reports that Tony Abbott has urged RET Review panel head Dick Warburton to look again at abolishing the scheme may be more about political calculations than an actual intention to kill the scheme entirely.

The Australian Financial Review's Phil Coorey has gotten everyone running scared with his report today, 'Abbott’s plan to axe the RET'. The suggestion is the government’s intention is to abolish the Renewable Energy Target entirely rather than reduce it from 41,000GWh to about 26,000GWh, or a so-called ‘real 20 per cent’ market share.

Renewable energy advocacy groups have been quick to respond with alarm. But one wonders whether this alarm is misplaced, and that instead this is actually a strategic leak by the Prime Minister’s Office to recast the terms of the debate.

Coorey’s article claims that Tony Abbott asked Dick Warburton, who is chairing the review of the RET, to do more work on the option of terminating the target altogether. This was apparently after Warburton’s review leant towards just scaling the target back.

The implication being drawn is that Abbott wants to abolish the target altogether.

But what seems more likely is that Abbott is keen for the Warburton Review to push the boundaries of the debate, to make cutting the target to the ‘real 20 per cent’ option appear reasonable and middle of the road. He doesn’t want to look like he has simply caved-in to the demands of the fossil fuel companies, big power companies and climate change denial wing of his party.

The problem. though. for Abbott is the key business lobbies – in the Energy Supply Association, the Business Council of Australia, the Oil and Gas Association and APPEA – have all called for a real 20 per cent target, not abolishing the scheme (although APPEA are, admittedly, confused calling for the target to be reduced to a real 20 per cent and calling for it to be “discontinued” on the same page of their submission).

Indeed, the Australian Industry Group bucked the script by saying the RET was most likely to make electricity cheaper for its members. Therefore, while it felt the current level of the target was too challenging, it wants as high a target as can be reasonably achieved by the industry.

In addition, several of the companies with the most to gain from undermining the RET – Origin Energy, Energy Australia and GDF Suez – didn’t ask for the RET to be abolished, but rather cut to a real 20 per cent.

The reason why is made obvious by modelling released today by Jacobs-SKM which shows that scaling back the target to a real 20 per cent delivers them a billion-dollar windfall with minimal additional gain from abolishing the target. At the same time, calling for the scheme to be abolished altogether leaves them completely exposed as hypocrites given their past squawking about the sovereign risk perils from regulatory changes.

At this stage if Abbott decides to go with a real 20 per cent it can be easily painted as a cave-in to big corporate interests.

A review led by a climate science doubter and anti-carbon tax warrior in Dick Warburton, supported by a vociferous RET critic in Brian Fisher recommending a real 20 per cent, does little to help Abbott recast himself as a sensible moderate.

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