'Clean coal' project is a personal endeavour not linked to lobby groups

A ‘clean coal’ advocacy organisation which is opposed to higher renewable energy targets and seeks to give a voice for businesses “being crippled by massive gas and electricity bills” has been launched by a former spokesman for AGL, with apparent assistance from a former advisor to Malcolm Turnbull.

The Australian Power Project, which appears to have launched in late 2016, calls for businesses affected to share their stories and urges government to take a “middle road” in energy policy, and has been quoted in media reports.

“This cost burden makes it difficult for businesses to grow and to employ more Australians, meaning the entire national economy is paying a heavy price,” its website said.

“The recent State-wide power blackout in South Australia has finally focused minds in Canberra on the very real challenges being faced by Australian businesses caused by out-of-control energy prices – a situation which can only be made worse by the introduction of high renewable energy targets.”

Its chief executive, Nathan Vass, is a former head of corporate communications for AGL and former group manager for corporate affairs at Fortescue Metals but said the project was a personal endeavour and he was “not working for or with anyone else or any organisation”.

On Monday Vass published an opinion piece in the Australian praising federal resources minister Matt Canavan for pledging that coal would remain a key part of Australia’s energy mix. He urged Turnbull to seize the “unexplored middle ground” between reducing emissions and keeping electricity prices down.

Vass pointed to clean coal, and to carbon capture and storage, a technology under development and of contested viability, but which Vass said had “struggled to gain political traction … In part due to the tough task of selling the process of pumping up to 90% of the carbon emitted from power stations several kilometres below the earth’s surface, where it is then stored — perhaps indefinitely. In reality, this process simply returns the carbon to where it originated and has been safely stored for many millions of years.”

The article described the project as an organisation promoting sustainable energy policy.

Vass was not available to be interviewed, but in emails told Guardian Australia he set up the organisation as a personal project after the South Australian blackout which he said “highlighted the lack of leadership in the energy space”.

He said he hoped the submissions received from businesses could be considered “in the context” of the inquiries launched following the blackout. “The Project accepts Australia must meet its emission reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement and transition to a clean energy future,” he said.

“But the Project believes there can be a middle path to a clean energy future that involves the utilisation of both renewables and clean coal technologies now in use around the world.”

Vass said his interest in energy policy stemmed from his time working for AGL and Fortescue Metals, and that he funded the project himself without any assistance. “What I am about is trying to get some momentum going in a discussion about energy affordability for small business so they can employ more Australians,” he said.

Several posts on the project’s website republished unattributed media stories and carried the byline of Thomas Tudehope, former media advisor to Malcolm Turnbull and now head of digital at lobby group Crosby Textor. After questions from Guardian Australia, the byline was removed.

Vass said he had spoken with the web developer and Tudehope’s name was selected incorrectly as he had done some work for the developer in the past. Vass’s LinkedIn profile describes the Australian Power Project as “the leading advocacy organisation calling for a balanced and sustainable approach to achieving a clean energy future for the nation”.

“It is critical that Australia embraces a national energy policy framework that sets out a clear pathway to meeting our commitments to the Paris Agreement, while promoting prosperity and employment growth and leveraging our resource advantage as one of the world’s top four coal producers.”

A Facebook page set up in November for the organisation had just six members, including Vass. Two other members are former Liberal advisors, one of whom was also a corporate marketing and public relations manager for AGL.

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