Chris Bowen warns energy generators against market manipulation amid crisis

The energy minister, Chris Bowen, has declared any power generator using the cover of the current energy crisis to engage in market manipulation will face action from regulators wielding the “full force of their powers”.

In a wide-ranging interview with Guardian Australia’s political podcast, the new federal minister said he was not aware of any specific allegations, but he acknowledged there was often speculation about inappropriate behaviour in Australia’s energy market.

“I would put it this way: if there is any [market manipulation] I would be deeply, deeply concerned by it, and any action taken by the regulators to deal with it would have my full support,” Bowen said.

“I wouldn’t care who owns the generators doing it, I would not tolerate it,” he said.

“I’m not saying there is [market manipulation] to be clear … I’m saying if there were, I would not tolerate it”.

Bowen noted manipulation was only possible in instances where a market was “not functioning well or if it is too dominated by a certain number of players”.

The new minister said he had been very clear that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the energy regulator needed to have sufficient powers to police market behaviour.

Bowen’s warning to the generators comes amid soaring wholesale power prices as well as domestic shortages of gas. Compounding those difficulties, ageing coal fired power plants have also had generation capacity offline. On Friday, AGL Energy confirmed one unit at the Loy Yang A power plant in Victoria would be offline until Spring.

Bowen was sworn in as the federal climate change and energy minister just over two weeks ago after holding the same portfolio in opposition. He told the podcast that during the swearing in ceremony at government house he was getting text messages from staff saying “I think we might have a bit of a crisis on our hands”.

He characterised his opening couple of weeks in the Albanese ministry as a “baptism of fire” requiring a rapid-fire meeting with state counterparts to try to reach some early agreements to ease the current pressures, as well as land a new consensus on developing a national transition plan to decarbonise the economy.

In the May election Labor took to voters a policy that includes a commitment to deliver a 43% cut in emissions by 2030. But Bowen, borrowing language from the Morrison government, said his objective was to “meet and beat” that target.

He said Labor would legislate the 43% target and lodge an updated nationally determined contribution with the United Nations recording that commitment, because that’s what Labor told voters it would do in the run up to the election.

“Frankly, it’s important if we’re going to bring Australia with us, we have to hold true,” Bowen said. “In 2010 there was a close election and then … government policy changed just after election and … we lost the Australian people. They were no longer part of the project of what we’re trying to achieve because we lost confidence.

“I won’t let that happen.”

But he said his ambition was to over achieve on the election promise. “The previous government is to talk about meeting and beating, and, you know, I’d like to meet and beat as well.

“In due course we will develop and publish a 2035 target as we are obliged to do, and the better we do between now and 2030, the better that 2035 target can be.”

Bowen acknowledged the May election meant a significantly larger crossbench would take its place in the 47th parliament, including a number of climate-focused independents. He also acknowledged the higher vote for the Greens.

He said he had already spoken to all of the teal independents, and some of the incoming MPs more than once. Bowen said he would also speak to the Greens leader, Adam Bandt, when he recovered from illness.

Bowen said his message to the crossbench was Labor had its own electoral mandate, and he hoped that would be respected. But he said he would look to collaborate in the new parliament.

“We seek to end the climate wars,” Bowen said. “I don’t know whether the climate wars will end or not because we can’t just declare the climate wars over. We as the new government seek to end the climate wars and bring Australians together with us.”

The minister also said the gas industry needed to understand the incoming government was serious about fixing problems in the energy market, including a lack of domestic supply. He said the Morrison government’s gas trigger needed to be overhauled.

He said that could involve “tough conversations with people”. Bowen said he had respect for Australian gas producers “but respectfully, Australians, I think, are entitled to say, well, that gas comes from under Australian ground”.

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