Sunday, February 16, 2020

Finkel: Coal could be sidelined by a push for gas to serve as a transition fuel, and a move toward renewably produced hydrogen

I watched most of Finkel's speech on TV. It was politely received: No eruptions from critics in either direction.  His logic about the interim use of natural gas was basically irrefutable.

Where he went off the rails was in his advocacy of hydrogen as the ultimate fuel. That idea has been around for many years but stumbles on questions of cost and safety.  Basically you take a fuel that is usable in its own right and use its energy to produce a new fuel.  That is very inefficient and inevitably more costly than just using the fuel you already have to do other things

Finkel saw hydrogen as particularly good for powering motor vehicles.  That is again pie in the sky. You need a heavy pressure vessel to store hydrogen and that is both more costly, more tricky to deal with and more dangerous than the simple sheet metal tank that normal motor fuels require

Not gonna happen

Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, has come out in support of the government’s strategy of using gas as a transition fuel to generate electricity while the sector moves away from coal toward clean energy sources.

“We cannot abruptly cease our use of energy,” he told the National Press Club this week. “Make no mistake, this will be the biggest engineering challenge ever undertaken. The energy system is huge, and even with an internationally committed and focused effort, the transition will take many decades.”

“Ultimately, we will need to complement solar and wind with a range of other technologies such as high levels of storage, long-distance transmission, and much better efficiency in the way we use energy.”

“But while these technologies are being scaled up, we need an energy companion today that can react rapidly to changes in solar and wind output. An energy companion that is itself relatively low in emissions, and that only operates when needed. In the short-term, as the prime minister and Minister Angus Taylor have previously stated, natural gas will play that critical role.”

The strategy was first flagged in 2015 by the then-Minister for Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg but was picked up by Prime Minster Scott Morrison just last month, amid devastating bushfires, which climate scientists and bushfire experts have linked to Australia’s love affair with coal and other fossil fuels.

Since the Morrison government has shown a renewed interest in gas, some coalition MPs, most notably from the National Party and from areas that have for many years relied on exporting coal, have stepped up their defense of it and have begun petitioning for government subsidies for coal-fired power.

Australia’s incoming resources minister, Keith Pitt, hasn’t turned away from coal either, telling The Sydney Morning Herald that he will push for more exports. But Pitt also threw his support behind a plan to extract gas from an area in northern New South Wales following a landmark energy deal between the state and federal government, which would see an investment of $2 billion into the east coast market.

Gas is still a fossil fuel, but not all fossil fuels are created equal. Burning natural gas, for example, produces less than half as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity compared to coal and reduces emissions by 33 percent when producing heat.

While natural gas produces less carbon dioxide during burning, it is around 30 times better at holding in the atmosphere, meaning that if enough methane leaks during production, it could be as detrimental to the environment as burning coal, if not worse.

In the northern New South Wales region of Narrabri, the proposed big gas project has been met by both stiff resistance and support from locals. Some argue that the environmental effect will be disastrous for the region’s farmers, while others claim that it is essential to create jobs and boost the economy.

The federal government’s backing revived hopes for the plan, which involves ambitions to extract gas from coal seams lying deep beneath the Pilliga Forest.

In return, the federal government asks that the state government set a target of delivering 70 petajoules a year of new gas into the market. Coincidentally, that’s precisely the estimated output of the Narrabri project.

The project is yet to secure the final state and environmental approvals, but gas giant Santos has already invested around $1.5 billion into it, and now with federal backing, it’s likely to pass all checks unabated.

Morrison has ruled out making any similar energy deal with the state of Victoria to help reduce its carbon emissions and lower power costs unless the state government ditches its longstanding ban on onshore gas exploration.

Siding with the federal government, and also seeing gas as a transition fuel, business groups such as the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and the Energy Users Association have urged the state government to expand conventional onshore gas extraction and lift the ban.

The deal would likely also include guarantees against “premature closures” of coal-powered fire stations in Victoria, which provide around 70 percent of the state’s energy. In return, federal investment would likely include power from the Snowy Hydro 2.0 scheme delivered to Melbourne, Ballarat, Shepparton, and other urban centers across the state.

Finkel, who helped prepare and release the National Hydrogen Strategy late last year, stressed that coal was not an option and tipped hydrogen as the way forward during his speech at the National Press Club. “Enter the hero, hydrogen,” he said, after discussing the perils of climate change.

Hydrogen carries more energy than natural gas and is carbon-free, so the burning of it does not contribute to climate change. Hydrogen can, however, be produced in two ways, through the process of electrolysis, using solar and wind, or through chemical process, using combusting fossil fuels like coal and gas.

For now, the hydrogen strategy has recognized the need to reduce emissions to combat climate change and is only considering options using fossil fuels if they come with carbon capture and storage, which involves pumping carbon emissions into underground cavities. According to the Australian Institute, carbon capture and storage projects have a poor track record of delivering on their promises, and now the industry is using the same “unsuccessful technology” to promote hydrogen.

Fears also remain that hydrogen is being used as a lifeline for coal. Prior to discussing the terms of the strategy with Finkel and state energy ministers, Angus Taylor, the federal minister for energy, suggested that hydrogen production should be “technology neutral,” indicating it could be done using coal.


More education dollars don’t make sense

Australia’s four million school students may now be back in class, but it seems policymakers remain unschooled on education policy directions.

The new school year comes on the back of December’s disappointing results from the OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) — which showed Australian students’ performance has dropped not only in relative terms to other countries, but also in absolute terms.

At the same time, new Productivity Commission figures released last week show taxpayer funding is higher than it’s ever been — and it’s even increasing faster than ever.

Still, the silence on education policy from federal parliament’s first sitting weeks of the year is deafening.

It appears policymakers see business as usual as the apparent fix to the ailing school system. However, spending more over again, and expecting a different outcome, must surely be the definition of policy insanity.

To achieve an improvement in student outcomes demands a change in performance culture throughout the system, root and branch. That’s because everywhere in education policy, performance has lamentably become a dirty word.

In the way of improvements are vested interests that’ve been crippling policymaking for years, particularly in terms of assessment, competition and performance management — much to the disservice of students, parents, taxpayers, and even teachers.

For students, performance can be revived with a high-expectations environment that welcomes, rather than fears, testing — much like exists in the cleverest countries in the world. Straightforward as it sounds, research shows that simply setting high expectations actually leads to higher achievement.

When it comes to schools, genuine competitive pressure about performance makes them accountable and provides assurance to parents and taxpayers. The jury is in that parents do value the transparency that comes with tools like the MySchool website. And OECD research is clear that school systems with more accountability do better.

Teachers suffer, too, from the anti-performance crusade. That’s because their performance is never consistently, independently or objectively assessed once they’re at the chalkface. This denies them the benefits of further development from the basic performance management practices enjoyed in just about any other Australian workplace. Principals have their hands are tied, meaning they can’t reward top performing teachers, and also can’t do much about those who don’t meet the bar.

If teachers aren’t working in an environment requiring, encouraging and helping them to meet high standards, is it any wonder that students don’t perform?

Before another $60 billion of public investment in schooling is made this year, policymakers would do well to shake up the approach to funding.

Yes, money matters when it comes to student outcomes — but only when it’s used to incentivise performance for teachers and schools. That requires a wholesale shift in funding from inputs to outcomes.

When it comes to spending the education dollar, it makes policy sense to reward rather than shirk performance.


Paul Barry forgets the ABC of calling out media bias

His name is Paul Barry and if he is to be believed, he is leading the fight against bias in the Australian media. This week the Media Watch host presented an Australian Communications and Media Authority survey of around 2000 people which revealed 85 per cent of respondents had concerns that “news is reported from a particular point of view rather than being balanced or impartial”.

“That will come as no great surprise to fans of Media Watch, which regularly reveals how bad news and current affairs coverage can be,” proclaimed a self-congratulatory Barry. He then listed eight cases of what he claimed were examples of these breaches, two of which were from News Corp newspapers. Tellingly, he did not cite any from ABC.

Keen to point out this survey was not a reflection on “all journalism” (you know what’s coming next) he stated that “the ABC is praised by several respondents”. Of course. Referring to ACMA’s attempt to encourage the media to self-regulate, Barry was pessimistic. “What’s the chance of that,” he asked rhetorically. “Not much.”

If Barry is in the mood for self-regulation, he does not have to look far. The day after his bias denunciation, ABC Canberra radio presenter Adam Shirley hosted a panel to discuss the subjects “What makes a good man” and “When does a man become toxic”. Two of the three panellists were women. Not that the ABC is likely to discuss the subject of what makes a woman toxic, but if it did you can imagine the reaction from the sisters if a man were on the panel, let alone if men outnumbered the women.

But it gets even better. One woman was feminist, author and Sydney Morning Herald columnist Jane Caro. Just the night before, Barry, had slammed “presenters on current affairs shows who have an opinion on everything”. Presumably this does not extend to panellists.

The other woman was feminist and former ABC journalist Virginia Hausseger, now director of The 50/50 by 2030 Foundation. During the discussion she observed “I am disgusted at what I see in news media and popular culture now in terms of representation of women”.

Now think back to 2007 when Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan used the term “deliberately barren” to refer to the fact that then opposition deputy leader Julia Gillard did not have children. It was a sexist and stupid remark and he was right to apologise for it. That was not enough for Hausseger. Writing for the Canberra Times, she said he “deserves to be castrated”. Undoubtedly many readers would have been disgusted by what she – my bad, I had forgotten we were talking about toxic masculinity.

Shirley turned to what he referred to as “the bloke in the room”, journalist and author Phil Barker, who duly noted “Men are constrained by this performance of masculinity that results ultimately in horrific domestic violence and male suicide” You might remember Barker. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2017 spoke of his reaction to reports that journalist Tracey Spicer was about to release allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment against 60 figures in the media and entertainment industry. “’Oh my god it’s going to be a bloodbath!’ I shouted, delightedly,” he wrote.

Forget that this turned out to be the year’s biggest journalistic fizzer, and instead consider Barker’s language and fervour in that article. “In a war there’s always friendly fire, collateral damage,” he said gleefully, declaring to readers he was part of the “far left”. And finally: “So there’s no way around it. Some innocent men are going to get shot in the head. So be it.” Barker, incidentally, teaches male students about “positive masculinity”.

Now consider that ABC editorial policies require journalists to “present a diversity of perspectives” and “not unduly favour one perspective over another”. If that was a balanced panel, then my name is Beatrix Potter. We know the ABC holds that masculinity is inherently violent and misogynistic.

"We need to do the hard work and for all men to put their hands up and acknowledge their misogyny, acknowledge the fact that they are profiting from toxic masculinity in some way, even if they are not violent." @nicheholas #TheDrum

— ABC The Drum (@ABCthedrum) April 2, 2019
But would it be too much trouble for future ABC panels if the token male was someone other than the bloke who effusively parrots this misandrist drivel?

If Barry’s record of umpiring on his home turf is any indication, this carefree disregard of editorial policies is not likely to be mentioned on his show. In reviewing Media Watch’s Monday episodes for the latter half of 2019, I noted eight segments critical of ABC presenters compared with 24 in respect to News Corp columnists and presenters (this does not include Barry’s criticism of Fox News media).

That represents a disproportionate focus of three to one. That disparity increases even further when the focus shifts to Barry’s Twitter account as revealed by The Australian’s Associate Editor Chris Kenny on Sky News’ Kenny on Media this week. Of Barry’s last 300 tweets (those in which he was not replying to another user), 47 of them – around 15 per cent – targeted News Corp columnists and presenters. Conversely only two of them – 0.66 per cent – highlighted lapses by ABC presenters. Seventy-six of the sample – around 25 per cent – referred to climate change, a topic regularly seized on by Barry to castigate those portrayed as climate sceptics.

Barry also appears to have different rules for ABC programs compared to the standard he applies to commercial media. In October, he criticised Studio 10s Kerri-Anne Kennerley and Sky News’ Peta Credlin for joking about driving over Extinction Rebellion protesters who were blocking major intersections. “I think it’s time they got some new material and perhaps stopped making jokes about killing protesters,” said Barry. “Because some nutter out there might just take them up on it.

But Barry’s cease and desist notice was, well, noticeably absent when it came to covering ABC Q&A’s all-female panellists episode last November. During this debacle, feminist Mona Eltahawy asked “how many rapists must we kill” and indigenous activist Nayuka Gorrie declared that “violence is okay” to bring about change, urging people to “burn stuff”.

Barry’s response was to gently admonish Q&A host Fran Kelly for not challenging those views. “A bit more pushback was what Q&A needed,” he said, saving his condemnation for ABC’s decision to take the program down. Declaring it was “a massive over-reaction” and “a real failure of nerve,” he said it was “Q&A’s job to be confronting and at times offensive,” and “ABC management’s job to defend its right to be so.”

So, jokes on commercial television about using climate protesters as speed bumps must be stopped, but deadly serious panellists on the national broadcaster who call for extrajudicial killings and other violence as a means of effecting change require only “pushback”. Clear now?

Last August, Barry made positive mention of ABC presenter and activist Benjamin Law for donating $36 of his “hard-earned cash” to readers who cancelled their subscription to The Australian. This newspaper’s crime was to highlight alarming practices regarding children and teenagers diagnosed with “gender dysphoria”, particularly the health authorities’ embracement of the “affirmation model”. Barry claimed this coverage of this major public interest issue was “one-sided”.

Less than two weeks before, the ABC documentary “Waltzing the Dragon”, written and presented by Law, featured an interview with historian Dr Sophie Couchman regarding the Lambing Flat Riots in Burrangong, NSW in 1860. In that episode she noted reports that Australian miners had scalped their Chinese counterparts. However, what had been omitted from this screening was Couchman’s noting conflicting accounts that no scalping had occurred. Following the backlash, ABC subsequently apologised, acknowledging that an “error of judgment” had occurred in the editing process which had misrepresented Couchman. As for Barry and Media Watch, let’s just say a rather large dragon waltzed on by without them noticing.

And yet Barry would have us believe there is no entrenched bias at the ABC. Not so according to his predecessor Jonathan Holmes, who hosted Media Watch from 2008-13. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2016, Holmes stated it was “undeniable” that ABC’s capital city radio presenters leaned more to the left than the right. “I say ‘undeniably’, but senior ABC managers for decades have chosen, if not to deny it, then to ignore it, and they’ve certainly failed to do anything about it,” he said.

When ABC presenters repeatedly fail to abide by the broadcaster’s statutory charter, it also falls on Barry to acknowledge and expose its cultural bias. What are the chances of that? Answer, not much.

Self regulation needs to get serious and do it properly. Stamp out blatant lies. Draw a line between news and ads. Wind back bias. Respect the facts.

— Paul Barry (@TheRealPBarry) February 10, 2020
Thanks Ben for bringing the @australian gender coverage to our attention.

— Paul Barry (@TheRealPBarry) August 19, 2019


No vintage: Australian vineyards dump grape harvest as bushfire smoke takes its toll

It was late October when Adrian Sparks caught sight of the first smoke rising from the hilly horizon. Within days the haze evolved into drift smoke, which grew thicker as the mountain behind the Mount Pleasant winery in the Hunter Valley caught fire.

“It was full on,” Adrian says. “There was smoke all through November and December. A clear day would still be hazy. At its worst, some days our eyes would sting. We’d be coughing. You’d have to stay inside with the doors shut and the air conditioning going. It was like an apocalypse..”

Though the winery suffered no fire damage, the blanket of smoke that was its legacy has caused nightmares for it and the broader Hunter Valley wine industry, thanks to what is known as “smoke taint”.

Within the Hunter at least, the taint is forcing growers to confront the possibility that an entire year’s harvest will be dumped, with some vineyards choosing not to produce a 2020 vintage at all.

The phenomenon occurs when smoke binds to the skin of grapes, ruining the taste of wine made from the fruit. For an industry where perception equals success, the reputational damage caused by selling a vintage affected by smoke taint can be lethal.

Sparks had seen the effects of smoke on wine grapes before. Years earlier he encountered the problem while working as a winemaker in the Yarra Valley, around the time of the Black Saturday bushfires.

“It wasn’t as bad in 2009,” he says. “This is first time ever I’ve seen a company pull the pin on a vintage. I’ve been with the company for 20-odd years and I’ve never pulled the pin on an entire vintage.”

On 14 January the winery that ordinarily produces 30,000 cases of wine in a year decided it wouldn’t take the risk and scrapped its 2020 vintage entirely.

Mount Pleasant wasn’t alone. While vineyards further away from the fires escaped the worst, among the first to speak publicly about the issue was Bruce Tyrrell.

Tyrrell’s Wines – the family have operated in the Hunter Valley since 1858 – ordinarily harvests 1,200 tonnes of grapes but this year lost 80% of its crop.

“We didn’t have any immediate fire, we just had the smoke hanging around,” Tyrrell says. “We made the decision early, we weren’t going to take the risk with the brand. If a sommelier at a restaurant in New York opens a bottle of ours in 2030 and that wine has smoke taint, I’ve lost a whole lot of work.

“We’ve worked too long, too hard to build the reputation to get where we are to let it go in five minutes. We’ve been here for 160 years and I’d like to see the family here in another 160 years.”

Brokenwood Wines, Meerea Park Wines and Davis Wine Group have all made the similar difficult decisions about their harvests with some being left unpicked.

Christina Tulloch, the chief executive of Tulloch Wines and president of the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association, says the full economic cost is yet to be known. The community is already hurting after the bushfires cost it $42m in lost tourism.

“That’s the economic loss based purely on visitation – people visiting cellar doors,” she says. “It is still too early to put a figure on the loss in production as we would normally be in the middle of vintage. We are hearing reports of between 50 to 90% of crop loss due to smoke taint.

“Overall, we’re saying the loss will be more likely to be around 80 to 90% in reduction of tonnage that is brought into wineries in the 2020 year.”

A similar story is playing out elsewhere. When bushfires tore through the Adelaide Hills before Christmas, a third of the wine-producing region was hit hard, as were grape growers on Kangaroo Island off the coast. Those who weren’t directly affected by the fires themselves watched the smoke linger over their fruit.

Anita Poddar, of Wine Australia, still says she is hopeful the worst may be avoided. Out of 64 wine-producing regions which make up the $6.25bn industry, just 1% have been affected by the fires. With authorities still assessing the direct and indirect damage, there is a chance some regions may escape unharmed.

“At this stage it is still too early to tell what the exact situation is,” Poddar says.

“We started doing research on smoke taint in 2003. What happens is when there’s fresh, heavy smoke, it lands on the outside of the grape, and specific compounds get into the skin, not the flesh. It’s a one-season thing – next season the vines are fine.”


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

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