Big new tax? Kloppers can't be serious
IT was almost as if BHP Billiton's Marius Kloppers had already cleared with the government the speech he delivered in favour of a carbon tax. The new Climate Change Minister Greg Combet and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson were quick to welcome it.
And, in his opening salvo to undermine the leader who had just reintroduced him to the shadow ministry, Malcolm Turnbull was tweeting the merits of the carbon tax proposal soon after Kloppers released his speech.
In seeking a price on carbon for Australia, Kloppers presumably is not advocating that BHP start to pay it immediately on the 103 million tonnes of coal a year it sells. If so, even with a tax set as low as $25 a tonne of CO2, he is advocating a payment from his shareholders of $5 billion a year.
That is not much less than the company pays in taxes and royalties each year for all of its Australian operations.
Nor, presumably, is he advocating the tax be placed on coal fuelling the Chinese steel mills that process a great chunk of BHP's annual sales of 125 million tonnes of iron ore. Last year China added 200 gigawatts of coal-based electricity capacity. That's almost seven times the entire coal-based electricity capacity of Australia, a capacity that cannot be increased because Australian investors, unlike their Chinese counterparts, are unable to live with the risk of a future carbon tax.
Kloppers, or at least his shareholders, would also not want a carbon tax levied on the energy used in smelting the million tonnes of aluminium that BHP produces each year.
And the company would surely see some downside in a tax on the 158 million barrels of oil equivalent that BHP sells. At $25 a tonne that would amount to another cool $1bn a year in tax that BHP would pay. Yet Kloppers sees early action on a tax as important to ensure business has the right incentives to act in ways he considers to be necessary. And he would surely know that no matter where the carbon dioxide is discharged, its effects, if any, on world emissions are the same.
If, as Kloppers argues, we need to act ahead of others to maintain competitiveness, governments would be doing a great service to BHP by selecting that company as the first candidate for the new tax.
BHP, in supporting the imposition of a "big new tax" on carbon, is clearly distancing itself from the Abbott opposition's policy.
Rejecting the Liberal Party's line lends credibility to the ALP government. This may well pay dividends to BHP in other areas. Indeed, at the same time as he was advocating a carbon tax, Kloppers urged Julia Gillard to stand by the mining tax he has negotiated alongside Rio and Xstrata.. That version of the proposed mining tax has little adverse impact on BHP's bottom line, though smaller miners expect to be hit by its effects. BHP also has much to gain from getting a favourable response from the soon-to-be appointed replacement for Graeme Samuel at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission on its proposed quasi-merger with Rio in the use of the Pilbara rail lines.
Perhaps Kloppers sees some advantage for his firm in favours a grateful government may be able to offer in these directions. But it is difficult to see what is to be gained if the address was made simply because, as he said, "BHP Billiton is a globally significant producer, exporter and consumer of energy and we want to make a thoughtful and considered contribution to the debate."
That reasoning certainly did not strike a chord with many other business executives, who have said that going it alone would prove harmful to the economy.
Nor, in the end, will his advice be taken by the ALP government. Government ministers are aware that Australia would need to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by more that 80 per cent to meet the stabilisation goals sought. In pursuit of this, a tax far in excess of $50 a tonne of carbon dioxide would be needed. With existing measures this would mean costs approaching $20 billion a year, or more than $1000 a household.
No government will go to the electorate with such a proposal.