News | 15th May, 2011

Hazelwood man to steer power policy

Sunday, 15 May 2011
Melissa Fyfe, The Age

The man who has spent years protecting the interests of Victoria's most polluting brown coal power station will become the Baillieu government's top energy and resources adviser in a controversial move that has angered the environment movement.

Patrick Gibbons will arrive in the Premier's office tomorrow, straight from the company that owns the brown-coal-fired plant Hazelwood. His appointment is controversial not just because he lobbied governments on behalf of Hazelwood but also because he was once a Labor staff member, working for former Bracks government minister Theo Theophanous.

Mr Gibbons has had a long and successful career in energy policy. He worked recently as corporate affairs manager at Alcoa, the aluminium giant that for years has been influential in arguing against a price on carbon and was also executive director of the body representing Australia's electricity retailers. "The coal industry will be thrilled to have this direct line into the Premier's office," said Environment Victoria's campaigns director Mark Wakeham. ''The Premier should be getting independent advice about the best way for Victoria to move to a clean energy future. Instead it looks like the fox is being put in charge of the henhouse.''

The appointment comes after Ted Baillieu last week described Victoria's legislated target to cut emissions 20 per cent by 2020 as ''aspirational'' and Energy Minister Michael O'Brien said he would not continue with the former government's talks with Hazelwood over a staged closure.

A Victorian government source said there was no connection between Mr Gibbons's appointment and the Coalition decision to abandon Labor's strategy of paying Hazelwood's owners, International Power, to begin a closedown.

The Coalition accused Environment Victoria of running a campaign against the government, and defended its appointment, saying policy advisers are chosen because they are experts and leaders in their field, with accomplished careers.

''Mr Gibbons negotiated the Kyoto protocol on behalf of the Commonwealth, served both the Keating and Howard governments, was a senior officer in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and a ministerial adviser in the Howard government before becoming one of Australia's leading policy experts in the private sector,'' said a spokesman for the government.

At International Power, which recently merged with GDF Suez of France, Mr Gibbons was the principal adviser on public policy and also looked after regulatory affairs, which meant talking to governments about the impact of carbon pricing policies on the company's assets. One source familiar with Victoria's energy sector said: ''He's been trying to sandbag International Power against any sort of climate policy. Now he's in government he can have a more active role.''

The government's budget was criticised for lack of action on climate change but it delivered an extra $41 million for low emissions technology projects and $20 million for community-based environmental projects.