Coal fires up election debate

Climate change re-entered the election debate on Saturday as both parties announced new policies.

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The opposition said it would axe hundreds of millions of dollars of funding to clean up coal, as it warned the industry should not get a “free ride”.

The funding is central to Labor’s plan to shore up the future of Australia’s massive coal industry in a carbon-constrained world.

It’s for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), a controversial technology which aims to capture and bury greenhouse pollution from power stations. Plans to develop CCS are progressing slowly and critics say it’s too expensive.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott announced on Saturday that he would pull funding from CCS if elected.

Almost $400 million to build power plants with CCS would be spent elsewhere, and $300 million would be cut from a CCS institute.

Opposition infrastructure spokesman Ian MacFarlane said the industry should pay a greater share – it has contributed, but governments have paid more.

“At the moment there is too much reliance, almost too much of a free ride, by the coal industry on the government,” Mr MacFarlane told reporters in Perth.

“The mining companies, the coal companies have to invest more of their own money in this technology.”

Mr MacFarlane said CCS “hasn’t advanced at the speed anyone expected … we have to look at other technologies”.

The opposition would redirect the CCS money to provide tax credits to investors in mineral exploration, and to invest in climate technologies that would bury emissions underground, in the soil and in algae.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard defended Labor’s investment in CCS.

“We’ve been very big investors too in Carbon Capture and Storage because it’s an important technology for the future, particularly a nation with as much coal as we have,” she told reporters in northern NSW.

Australia is the world’s biggest coal exporter, and most of Australia’s electricity comes from coal.

Ms Gillard turned the climate focus to farmers as she donned boots for a trip to an agricultural research institute in northern NSW.

Labor wants to make it easier for farmers to earn money from green measures like planting trees, and environmentally-friendly management of cattle and wildfires.

Ms Gillard said the scheme could be worth $500 million to farmers over the next decade, and noted indigenous land managers could benefit.

“(It’s) good for our world, good for our atmosphere as we are reducing the amount of carbon,” she told reporters.

“Good for farmers as they get an income stream from a market-based mechanism where the money is coming from polluters, it is the polluters who pay.”

The scheme, to start in mid-2011, would tap into the international trade in carbon credits. Labor would set up the rules and laws required for farmers to participate.

Conservation groups tentatively welcomed the proposal, while the National Farmers Federation said Labor’s scheme would help but there were problems with the market.

The Liberals and the Greens said Labor was filling the gap from the Greenhouse Friendly scheme, which was axed several months ago.

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