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Malcolm Turnbull wants us to think he's an energy magician

Malcolm Turnbull wants us to believe he's an energy magician, able to pull off a "policy trifecta" of eliminating blackouts and greatly reducing our emissions, all without much increase in the price of electricity and gas.

The main trick magicians use is to direct the audience's attention away from the place where they're doing their sleight-of-hand. That's what Turnbull's up to.

He wants to shift the blame for blackouts away from the feds and onto the states, while doing exactly the same for the big jump in gas prices.

He wants to blame our problems on a too-fast shift to renewables, to justify a new subsidy for new coal-fired power stations.

But the main thing he – and the gas industry – desperately wants to stop us noticing is that the leap in gas prices is a consequence of long-standing federal government policy and has nothing to do with the states' reluctance to let the gas producers frack all over their farmlands.

The balance of supply and demand for natural gas on our eastern seaboard was fine – and would still be today, were it not for the feds' earlier decision to allow foreign investors to build (too many) liquefaction plants near Gladstone in Queensland.

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As the feds understood full well, once you can liquefy natural gas you can ship it overseas. And once you do that you've taken the relatively tiny, closed eastern Australian gas market and opened it up to the huge East Asian gas market, where prices are much higher.

The inevitable consequence was a leap in the price of gas on the eastern seaboard – plus a huge windfall gain to our eastern gas producers.

Now do you see why the gas industry and federal politicians of both stripes keep repeating the economic lie that the problem has been caused by the states' bans on fracking, and could be solved by lifting them?

No amount of increased gas supply on our part would be sufficient to lower the East Asian price of gas, which means no new producer of coal seam gas would be prepared to sell it to local consumers and manufacturers for anything less than they could get by selling it to Japan or China.

Unless, of course, the federal government obliged them to.

I don't object to the policy of export-parity pricing but, like its predecessors, the Turnbull government wants to keep the policy a deep, dark secret because it's so much harder to defend a super-rational policy in these days of populist indulgence than it was when Malcolm Fraser did something similar to petrol prices.

Turnbull wants to keep the super-rational policy, but shift the blame for its economic and political consequences to others.

Had he the courage, he could oblige the gas industry to use its windfall profits to compensate the household and business losers for losses arising from an implicit government policy change.

Turnbull blames South Australia's blackouts on its excessive enthusiasm for renewable energy which, pending the development of storage arrangements, has a problem with intermittent production.

He doesn't admit his parity-pricing policy is contributing. It was expected that gas-fired power generation would ease the transition from coal-fired to renewable generation.

That's because gas-fired power stations emit far less carbon dioxide and can be turned on and off as required to counter renewable energy's intermittency.

Guess what? South Australia has a new and big gas-fired generator at Pelican Point, near Adelaide, but it's been mothballed.

Why? Because the operator had a long-term contract for the supply of gas at a price set at the pre-export-parity level, and decided it was more lucrative to sell the gas into the East Asian market.

Last week Turnbull had the effrontery to argue that now gas-fired power had become uneconomic, we needed to fill the gap by subsidising new-generation "clean" coal-fired power stations.

Small problem. They're hugely expensive, only a bit less emissions-intensive than existing coal-fired stations, can't easily be turned on and off, and would supposedly still be operating 60 years later.

If there's a case for subsidising any fossil fuel-powered generators the obvious candidate is the gas-fired plants the feds' export-parity pricing policy has rendered uneconomic.

So great is the coal industry's hold over the Coalition that, not content with subsidising increased supply of coal from Adani and others at a time when coal is a sunset industry, Turnbull is now making up excuses to subsidise increased demand for coal by local electricity producers.

Economists are always telling politicians not to try picking industry winners. In reality, the politicians are far more inclined to back known losers.

Ross Gittins is the Herald's economics editor.

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