While Asia is enjoying low prices for Australian gas, back home things are getting worse. (Origin Energy)
Ian Verrender | Business Editor | ABC News
Fashion has a habit of turning full circle.
Remember that old shirt, the super tight one with the stretchy material and weird collar that you found at the bottom of the wardrobe? What on Earth possessed you to buy it, you wonder. What were you thinking?
For anyone who lived through the ’70s, the memories of those fashion crimes often come back to haunt us.
It was also an era when free market ideology began to assert itself in public policy. And with good reason.
Government-run businesses were inefficient, bloated and bureaucratic. Letting them loose would free up scarce public funds, competition would lower prices and scarce resources would be allocated with the greatest efficiency.
When Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK in the 1980s, she unleashed a wave of privatisations that transformed the economy and contributed to decades of economic growth.
It didn’t take long for the fad to gain ground here. Government-owned businesses from airlines to banks and insurance companies were jettisoned.
Even vital infrastructure like roads, telecommunications and power generators were flogged to the highest bidder with little thought about the long-term consequences.
But have we gone too far? Free market theory, while it’s terrific in theory, has some almighty shortcomings and, as we now are discovering, may not be the economic cure-all we once imagined.
Suddenly, the winds have shifted. Business leaders talk in hushed tones, openly uttering a phrase once considered unmentionable: market failure.
In the past few days, there has even been a call for part nationalisation of our energy industry from a free market wheeler dealer. More on that later.
A fortnight ago, competition chief Rod Sims let fly with his annual swipe at the fee-gouging taking place at our airports.
Airlines and the travelling public were forking out an extra and largely unnecessary $1.6 billion in fees.
What’s going on with gas?
The problems arise when the business being sold is a monopoly, when the buyer, having paid an exorbitant price, is given carte blanche to extract its tonne of flesh. The benefits flow from the community to private interests, often offshore.
Generally, we’re talking about utilities — things like power companies, for instance. And then there is gas.
For years, electricity and gas operated independently. But the two have become intertwined as the shift towards a cleaner environment and lower emissions has thrust gas firmly into the box seat as the transition fuel to generate electricity.
We’ve suddenly discovered, however, we don’t have enough. It’s no exaggeration to describe the power situation now facing eastern Australia on both fronts as a catastrophe. And here’s why.
Within the next four years, Australia will overtake Qatar as the world’s biggest supplier of gas. We are sitting on vast gas reserves. In fact, we’re swimming in the stuff.
And yet, we face critical shortages at home which could starve manufacturers of fuel, see power outages across the eastern states and force energy prices through the roof while any profits that are made will be shipped offshore.
This is a public policy fail of epic proportions.
And it’s worth getting a handle on how it all came about and the shenanigans employed by the gas majors that have deliberately created this crisis and the supposed shortage which is a total con.
How could this happen?
First, however, consider this: the gas we are exporting does not belong to the energy giants. It belongs to us.
Companies like Woodside, Origin and Santos and their foreign partners merely have bought the right to exploit those gas reserves, which was supposed to lead to massive benefits for ordinary Australians.
Here’s the scorecard so far. Having spent close to $250 billion building new export facilities, no-one seemed to think that flooding the globe with extra energy would see global prices drop.
They have. Gas prices into Asia, where we export, have now dropped below what it costs to extract, process and ship the stuff. In fact, the east coast suppliers so far have written off around $6 billion on their new plants.
It gets worse. Extracting the gas from coal seams in Queensland was a little more problematic than originally thought. Then farmers, incensed at the activity taking place on rich agricultural land, began shutting the gates.
That meant the companies couldn’t get enough to satisfy the huge supply contracts they’d written in Japan, South Korea and China. So they plundered the supplies, much of it from Bass Strait, that once powered the domestic market. That’s why we have an artificial shortage.
But wait, there’s more. No-one ever considered that once we were plugged into the global market, we’d be paying global prices. Around the time all these new gas plants were developed, prices in Asia were up to $25 a gigajoule. Back then, we were paying between $2 and $4.
Prepare now to be outraged. Global prices have more than halved to $10 and under. Domestic prices, meanwhile, have soared, to well above $10 because of the domestic shortage.
By putting the domestic market under pressure, they deliberately pushed local prices higher.
The upshot is that we now are paying more than Japanese manufacturers for our own gas. In fact, power company AGL is actively considering buying Australian gas in Japan and shipping it back home. And why not? It’s cheaper there.
That means energy-rich Australia is subsidising Asian manufacturers while penalising our own, a situation likely to force many to the wall.
Just to rub salt into the wound, the ramp-up in exports has not delivered the resources rent tax bonanza once promised by US giant Chevron. In fact, thanks to a shifty cash shuffle, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell until two years ago were booking around $3 billion a year in profit, tax free.
That’s seen our Petroleum Resources Rent Tax proceeds, which in the past delivered around $2 billion a year, plummet. In fact, by the time we overtake Qatar for global gas domination, it’s anticipated our resources tax will collect just $800 million.
Qatar, on the other hand, is expected to receive $26.6 billion in royalties that same year for roughly the same volume of exports.
So what’s being done about it?
Treasurer Scott Morrison last year declared he would urgently look into the matter. He’s called a review to get to the bottom of why soaring exports have coincided with a halving in the resources rent tax collections.
The review panel could do worse than read a report sent out last week by global investment bank Credit Suisse.
Hardly a bastion of left-wing ideologues, the report — entitled The Wolf Who Cried Boy — raises the prospect of Australia establishing a national oil company as one possible solution to the concocted crisis. And it goes straight for the jugular.
“If the gas producers and sellers are the wolves, they themselves are seemingly calling foul just as the danger is truly upon us,” it begins.
“We wonder whether a national oil company, a la Kumul Petroleum in PNG, could work? Instead of the petroleum resources rent tax on future projects, could we see state participation instead?”
Could we indeed? There undoubtedly will be howls of protest from the business lobby and their associated hangers-on. But consider this. Is this not the ultimate form of capitalism?
We are the landlords. The energy companies are tenants. If we had a controlling stake in the business, it would be much easier to ensure the kind of chicanery that has taken place in the past few years was never repeated. There would never be shortages.
And just perhaps, we’d end up with a dividend cheque, maybe even along the same lines as Qatar’s.
Just a thought.