THE long road to the white paper Securing Australia’s Energy Future began three years ago when the Council of Australian Governments agreed to a review of electricity markets.

The aim of the review by former federal resources minister Warwick Parer was to determine a role for natural gas in electricity generation as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Aside from confirming coal’s pre-eminence as a primary energy source, the Parer review attempted to head off criticism of its support for coal by proposing a greenhouse gas emissions trading system.

Shortly after Parer reported in late 2002, John Howard told business leaders his Government “was developing a strategic plan for Australia’s long-term energy policy bringing together and enhancing the many areas of policy work already being done”.

The white paper was supposed to be the answer.

However, it took far longer than the Prime Minister planned – 2003 was supposed to be the Coalition’s year of energy – and it came to be dominated by political issues such as LPG excise, ethanol as a petrol extender, and ultimately the future of the mandatory renewable energy target, in which Australia once led the world.

And alongside those issues was the alarming decline in Australia’s self-sufficiency in crude oil, which forecasters say means we will have to import most of our crude oil and petroleum products from overseas by 2008.

That meant energy policy development was continually sidetracked, to the point where the Energy Supply Association, representing electricity generators, was able to claim yesterday that the white paper was more concerned with climate change than with providing a clear message to the energy investors.

Mark O’Neill of the Australian Coal Association welcomed the white paper as being good for the economy and the environment, but few other industry representatives were as supportive.

One was the executive director of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, Robyn Priddle, who said the white paper had a long-term focus and set technology pathways for all fuel sources – renewable energy, coal, oil and natural gas.

Unsurprisingly Greenpeace went on the attack, saying the Howard statement would increase the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, to the detriment of all Australians.

Former Fraser government senator Peter Rae, who is chairman of the Renewable Energy Generators of Australia, said nothing had been done to get more renewable energy into the national electricity market at a time when the rest of the world was accelerating the uptake of renewable technologies.

Australian Conservation Foundation director Don Henry said the 60 to 70 per cent of Australians who cared about the environment would be dismayed the Howard Government had once again passed up the opportunity to invest in a clean energy future, giving more money to big polluters, such as the coal industry.

At the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, there was dismay that the country’s future energy security appeared not to have been addressed.

The association’s Barry Jones said the critical issue for the nation was the declining level of self-sufficiency in crude oil production.

“Given the world’s growing dependence on Middle East supplies, Australia cannot ignore the precipice it faces in coming years,” he said.