Friday, July 29, 2011


Dam operators followed the rulebook so that's OK -- even if they caused billions of property damage. Were they hired to be human robots or were they supposed to think? What were they paid for?

DAM operators accused of flooding parts of the southeast are set to be cleared of wrongdoing when a report into January's disaster is released next week.

SEQWater yesterday received a glowing report for its handling of the massive releases from Wivenhoe Dam, which contributed to the flooding that affected 22,000 properties in Brisbane and Ipswich.

Mark Babister, an independent hydrologist whose second report to the floods commission of inquiry was yesterday published, said SEQWater followed the dam manual when releasing water from Wivenhoe. Mr Babister's findings are expected to form a key part of the flood inquiry's interim report next Monday, denting prospects of a class action against the dam operators.

Debate has raged since the January floods over whether authorities contributed to the disaster amid suggestions the operators were hoarding drinking water in the dam.

Mr Babister, head of WMAwater, backed Seqwater engineers for releasing water into the Brisbane River at the height of the floods. "With the information available during their operations, and using the strategies defined by the manual, WMAwater believe the flood engineers achieved close to the best possible mitigation result for the January 2011 flood event," he wrote.

Seqwater nearly tripled releases from Wivenhoe Dam in the days before the flood. Releases were escalated from 240,000 megalitres a day on the night of January 10 when the dam was at 158 per cent to 645,000 megalitres the following night when the dam hit 183 per cent. The floods inundated 22,000 homes and businesses during January 12 and 13.

But Mr Babister highlighted the potential benefits of reducing Wivenhoe's normal capacity and changes to the manual to better protect the city from a repeat of the disaster. He said lowering Wivenhoe's level to 75 per cent before the wet season would allow it to "swallow" more water.


When animal activists attack!

Sometimes, you wonder who the real animals are, and what kind of condition they keep themselves in.

On the weekend, I dropped my daughter at a friend’s birthday party at Lennon Brothers Circus. Lennon Brothers is one of the few remaining Australian circuses with animals, and a group of protestors had set up shop out the front.

Never in my life have I encountered such an unruly, rude rabble of misfits, thugs and foaming-at-the-mouth ideologues. Not content to peacefully pursue their aims, they actively victimised the poor helpless children attending the circus with some of the most vile slurs imaginable.

In one instance, one of the protestors yelled through the megaphone “keeping lions in cages is like your mummy and daddy keeping you in jail”. Can you imagine how my eight year old daughter felt? Or any of the other kids walking in? How on earth does victimising children legitimise any grown-up cause – worthy or unworthy?

After dropping my daughter, I calmly approached some of the protestors to express my indignation. Part of that conversation involved me identifying myself as a journalist and pointing out that I have previously written pieces supporting animal welfare.

“Liar!” a woman wearing a lion mask screamed. A man with a spotted bow tie was even worse. Pointing at my four year old son under my arm, then pointing at the lion’s enclosure, he screamed “mammal, mammal!” as though to indicate that both my son and the lions deserved the same humane treatment.

I don’t necessarily disagree with his sentiment. But his tone was another thing entirely. It was the wild, manic tone of someone with severe anger management issues. And it was right in the face of my frightened son.

Now, it just so happens that I’m not such a big fan of circuses with animals, for two simple reasons.

Firstly, I believe the most exciting circus acts are always the ones involving people. Indeed, my daughter came home raving about the contortionist but had little to say about the lions.

Secondly, I don’t believe that performing animals send a good message to kids. It suggests that animals are there for our amusement, which I most firmly believe they are not.

That, by the way, is an entirely different issue from the issue of animal cruelty, which is the main issue the protestors were banging on about in their vicious, mean-spirited way.

So are circuses with animals cruel? Not according to fifth generation circus man and lion tamer Warren Lennon. “The lions have exercise yards available to them from 7 am to 9 or 10 o’clock at night,” he told The Punch yesterday.

“The tricks they do are similar to the movements they make in the wild. They jump, they walk along a plank. We don’t make them jump through fire or anything like that, we don’t use whips and although we use sticks, they are used for direction, not to hit the animals.

The Punch contacted Animal Liberation, who organised the protest. They said their immediate goal is to lobby local councils to outlaw animal circuses, while their long term goal is to shift all circus animals to free range zoos. This is what happened with the elephant Arna from Stardust Circus, who trampled and killed a handler.

Animal Liberation believe the animal “snapped”, although there was some suggestion the animal was only trying to nudge its handler awake after he suffered a heart attack, and inadvertently crushed him.

Whatever the truth in the case of Arna the elephant, Warren Lennon believes free range zoos would be a death warrant for circus-raised lions. “These lions they would die in a free range zoo. They were born in the circus and they are used to the companionship of the trainers. I’d like to see these animal libbers save some species from dying over in Africa. Lions are on the endangered species list, you know.”

Lennon believes that Australia leads the world on regulations for animals in circuses and zoos. But Animal Liberation Communications Manager Lynda Stoner doesn’t see it that way. “Animals were never intended to be objects of entertainment,” she says. “At Taronga Zoo in Sydney, there are signs explaining the dysfunctional behaviour of former circus elephants, who spend much of the day swaying back and forth.”

Stoner and her colleague Emma Hurst, who helped organise the protest, were both shocked when I told them of the behaviour of many of the protestors. That’s shocked as in disgusted, not shocked as in surprised, because this was not the first report of shonky misbehaviour that had filtered back to head office.

Hurst suggested that the news of the protest went out via Facebook, and that some of the protestors might have been blow-ins who were not members of Animal Liberation. “I stand by our right to be there and hand out flyers, but Animal Liberation is a completely non-violent organisation, and we do not support any sort of abuse towards people or anything like that,” she said.

That’s good to hear. Most animal rights groups these days are reasonably level-headed. Well, maybe not PETA, but most. But those lunatic protestors out the front of Lennon Brothers circus were anything but level-headed, that’s for sure.

And with their inexcusable behaviour, they completely invalidated their cause.


Tony Abbott says 'draconian' carbon cop force will chase 'invisible' substance

TONY Abbott has attacked the sweeping powers of a new carbon tax regulator, questioning how it can effectively monitor invisible gas emissions.

The Opposition Leader this morning lashed the powers of the Clean Energy Regulator, set out in a draft legislative package, likening the body to a “carbon cop”.

The new regulator will be able to enter workplaces and compel individuals to hand over self-incriminating evidence and sensitive records.

“I mean this is a draconian new police force chasing an invisible, odourless, weightless, tasteless substance,” Mr Abbott told Nine's Today Show. “Not only is the carbon tax going to be with you every time you turn on the TV or open the fridge or get into bed with the electric blanket on, there's now going to be a carbon cop. “The carbon cop could hit you with 10 years in jail (and) million dollar plus fines.”

But Treasurer Wayne Swan laughed off the criticism, saying tough enforcement powers were needed to prevent rorting of the carbon scheme. "If people break the law and if people commit fraud, they commit a crime and they are punished for it under any law of the nation," he said. "I think the reports today are pretty ridiculous to be frank."

Under the draft legislation, attempts to subvert the scheme would be punishable by 10-year jail terms and fines of up to $1.1 million.

Climate Change Minister Greg Combet said the tough approach followed instances of fraud in the European Union's emissions trading scheme. “In Europe the emissions trading scheme has experienced some problems with the scheme's integrity and the government has had a look at what those issues have been and we've designed our proposed legislation here on the basis of what we believe to be world's best practice,” he told ABC radio.

Mr Combet denied the government was rushing to introduce the carbon tax legislation into parliament, despite only allowing three weeks of consultation on the exposure draft. “There won't be too many surprises for businesses in what the government has put forward,” he said.

The carbon tax package will consist of 14 bills, the majority of which were released in draft form yesterday for public feedback. The package will establish the $23-a-tonne carbon price, mechanisms to pay household compensation and a new Climate Change Authority and Clean Energy Regulator.

Inspectors working for the regulator would be able to obtain warrants to search work places, monitor activity and copy documents. The enforcement provisions will be further strengthened by an extra $12.8 million over four years for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.


The usual Greenie unrealism in estimates of carbon tax effects

Henry Ergas

EARLIER this week, Wayne Swan said the results of updated Treasury modelling of the government's proposed carbon tax would not differ much from those already released.

If our Defence planners told us it didn't matter to their modelling whether our next war was with China or with Vanuatu, we would worry about the quality of their planning.

So it is not reassuring that increasing the starting carbon price by more than 10 per cent, closing the Hazelwood generator early, slashing the number of permits that can be purchased overseas, precluding the borrowing of permits from the future and using realistic assumptions about what other countries are doing would have little impact on the policy's estimated costs. That said, many adjustments that should be made will likely not be made. The modelling will therefore remain an exercise in the economics of nirvana: easily assumed, less easily attained. But even were significant adjustments made, there is a technical reason why the model's estimate of costs might change little.

That reason is a quirk in Treasury's modelling. Called the "marginal abatement cost curve" or MAC, it provides abatement like manna from heaven, that is, at no cost. But it is even better: for the more the price of bread rises, the more manna showers from the skies. Or in this case, the higher the permit price, the more abatement we get for free.

The mechanics of this device can be explained as follows. As the carbon price rises producers replace more emissions-intensive processes with less emissions-intensive alternatives. This typically involves some investment costs. For example, a firm might spend an additional $100 on scrubbers to reduce emissions. As the scrubbers must be paid for, the firm's costs and prices would rise, causing, among other things, changes in demand.

But here comes the interesting bit. As the carbon price rises, the MAC kicks in, and provides further reductions in emissions, but without requiring new investment. And the higher the permit price, the more of those reductions it generates. It is as if the scrubber, without needing to be replaced, suddenly eliminated more emissions simply because the carbon price had increased.

And the savings generated by the MAC are not trivial. Indeed, thanks to a parameter in the model, in principle up to 90 per cent of emissions affected by the MAC could be eliminated at no cost. In practice, the reductions are unlikely to approach that ceiling. In the modelling for Australia, for example, the MAC does not apply to some sectors that are large emitters of carbon. But it does apply to other important activities, including mining.

And because the quantity of free emissions reductions increases as the carbon price rises, the model reduces the estimated cost of toughening the policy, as the government has done by (for instance) limiting purchases of permits from overseas.

How can such a mechanism be justified? The best gloss that can be put on it is that higher carbon prices would induce emissions-savings innovation beyond that assumed in the base case. And that could indeed happen. But if that is what the MAC is assumed to be doing, there are at least three problems with the way it does it.

First, induced innovation is highly uncertain and involves long delays: there can be many years between a price change and the successful technical advances it has encouraged. And even once innovations are available, their spread is typically slow. But the modelling assumes a virtually immediate and predictable response.

Second, once emissions are substantially reduced, finding innovations that can reduce them further becomes ever more difficult. But in Treasury's MAC curve, the opposite occurs.

Third and last, the best things in life may be free, but new technologies are not. Innovations are costly and must be paid for. Indeed, it is the prospect of reaping those rewards that ensures innovations occur. That Treasury, of all places, would instead assume a free lunch is truly remarkable.

How big is the resulting error? Without access to the model, no one can tell. It is therefore not surprising that the government refuses to disclose it. But this refusal hardly flatters Treasury's hard work and the millions of taxpayer dollars spent on the model. Has Swan so little confidence in his department that he cannot face the risk of criticism?

Nor is that refusal consistent with a loudly proclaimed commitment to science. For science grows by disclosure and refutation, not secrecy and manipulation.

And it is even less consistent with the pledge of openness on which Labor was elected. But few governments have shown as flexible an attitude to the relationship between principles and practice as that of Julia Gillard. It professes a belief in informed argument but works on the basis that what others don't know can't hurt it. Little wonder it is reduced to selling its policies like bars of soap. And its credibility lies in tatters. A modest step it could take to restore confidence would be to release the Treasury model. Until that is done, Swan's assurances will be little more than wasteful emissions of carbon dioxide.


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