Coalition’s climate and energy policy in disarray as opposition splits over nuclear and renewables

<span>The MacIntyre windfarm in Queensland. The Nationals leader, David Littleproud, says Australia doesn’t need ‘large-scale industrial windfarms’ such as those proposed for an offshore zone south of Sydney.</span><span>Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian</span>
The MacIntyre windfarm in Queensland. The Nationals leader, David Littleproud, says Australia doesn’t need ‘large-scale industrial windfarms’ such as those proposed for an offshore zone south of Sydney.Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian

The federal Coalition’s climate and energy policy is in disarray, with a senior Liberal contradicting the Nationals’ anti-renewables push and the Queensland LNP leader ruling out allowing nuclear energy in that state.

After the Nationals further undermined the push for net zero by 2050 by claiming the Coalition would “cap” investment in large-scale renewable energy, the Liberal leader in the Senate, Simon Birmingham, declared on Tuesday it is an “important part of the mix”.

On Monday the Nationals leader, David Littleproud, said Australia did not need “large-scale industrial windfarms” such as those proposed for an offshore zone south of Sydney. That position was backed by Nationals senator, Matt Canavan, a longstanding opponent of net zero who nevertheless revealed the position had not been to their party room.

On Tuesday Birmingham contradicted the junior Coalition partner’s stance. The leading member of the Liberals’ moderate faction told Sky News that there is “absolutely a place for large-scale renewables, as part of a technology-neutral approach” and they are an “important part of the mix”.

Related: Andrew Forrest says Coalition’s abandonment of 2030 emissions target would ‘decimate’ economy

Birmingham said that renewables and other sources of power should be judged on reliability – “which is why nuclear is important” – price, including the cost of transmission, and the “social licence” aspects about whether local communities support them.

“There will be difficult discussions on that journey [to net zero by 2050]. We’ve been having them in relation to nuclear energy. The Albanese government has stuck its head in the sand.”

The Coalition is expected to announce its long-awaited nuclear policy as early as Wednesday, after it called a snap joint party room meeting for that morning.

As the federal Coalition attempts to ramp up pressure on Labor for refusing to lift the ban on nuclear energy, it also faces opposition at the state level from its own side of politics, as Guardian Australia revealed in March.

In Queensland the Nuclear Facilities Prohibition Act 2007 bans “the construction and operation of particular nuclear reactors and other facilities in the nuclear fuel cycle”.

On Tuesday, the Queensland Liberal National party leader, David Crisafulli, was asked whether he would consider repealing the legislation if his federal colleagues proposed a nuclear plan that stacked up.

“The answer is no, and I’ve made my view very clear on that … contrary to some of the most childish memes that I’ve seen getting around social media from the Labor party,” he said.

Crisafulli said nuclear is a “matter for Canberra” and it is “not on our plan, not on our agenda”. “The things that we are offering are real and they are tangible, I understand there is that debate in Canberra, fair enough, but I can’t be distracted by it.”

On Tuesday the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, said the federal Coalition wants “to have renewables in the system but we want to do it in a responsible way”, with nuclear energy providing baseload power.

“We need to be able to firm up that intermittent power,” he told reporters in Bomaderry. “It can’t be reliant on the weather for the ability to turn on the lights. A modern economy just doesn’t work like that.”

“I want to make sure we’ve got renewables in the system. We’re happy for batteries, but we can’t pretend that batteries can provide the storage.”

CSIRO’s Gencost report found that electricity from large-scale nuclear reactors would cost between $141 a megawatt hour and $233 a MW/h compared with combining solar and wind at a cost of between $73 and $128 a MW/h – figures that include building transmission lines and energy storage.

The Albanese government on Saturday gave the green light to a 1,022 sq km area, 20km off the Illawarra coast, in the first stage of a process for it to become the country’s fourth dedicated windfarm zone.

Littleproud declared the Coalition was opposed to it and promised to “send the investment signals that there is a cap on where [the Coalition] will go with renewables and where we will put them”.

Related: Guardian Essential poll: Labor vulnerable to Dutton’s climate campaign as voters split on 2030 target

The energy and climate change minister, Chris Bowen, seized on the remarks which he said showed “while the world races to cleaner cheaper reliable renewables, the Nationals wants to stop new investment”.

“Peter Dutton would be worse on climate than Abbott or Morrison and David Littleproud would be worse than Barnaby Joyce,” he posted on X.

A controversial windfarm project in north Queensland backed by mining magnate Andrew Forrest was also approved by the federal government on Tuesday, with a list of conditions to protect threatened species.

Windlab’s Gawara Baya windfarm will see up to 69 turbines built on a cattle property 65km south-west of Ingham.

The environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, said the project would boost the capacity of renewables and put “downward pressure on [electricity] prices”.

Scrutiny of the Coalition’s climate policy is increasing after Dutton announced a plan to oppose the 43% emissions reduction target by 2030, in contradiction of the Paris agreement.

On Tuesday Forrest warned that the proposal would hit Australian exports with penalty carbon taxes, and also cautioned against new limits on large-scale renewables.

“If we flip-flop between policies, if we go back to the past of uncertainty then it of course makes employing people and investing very difficult to impossible,” he told Radio National. “So that would be Australia kicking an own goal.”

With Graham Readfearn