Australia — Victoria’s energy minister has come under attack over a $100 million funding snub to programs to reduce the bushfire risk of power lines.
Electricity companies Powercor and SP AusNet, which are both being sued over fires sparked by power lines on Black Saturday, were refused extra funding to carry out bushfire mitigation measures in 2005.
Powercor applied to the Essential Services Commission (ESC) for $26 million over five years to bury power lines underground in high risk bushfire areas.
Both companies wanted a combined $81 million to clear vegetation around lines, but received only $4.4 million.
The proposals were knocked back by the energy watchdog in 2005 during negotiations over power prices.
In a public accounts and estimates hearing in state parliament on Tuesday, the opposition accused the government of interfering in the watchdog’s decision so it could boast about cheaper electricity bills at the expense of lives.
Energy Minister Peter Batchelor hit back, branding the claims were factually wrong and politically motivated.
“They are seeking to make political mileage out of a very difficult set of circumstances Victoria faced and you should be ashamed of yourself for trying to politically exploit the bushfires,” he told the hearing.
“It’s a pretty grubby tactic.”
In a heated exchange with opposition treasury spokesman Kim Wells, Mr Batchelor said the government did not interfere with the ESC’s decision.
Mr Wells said Mr Batchelor’s predecessor, Theo Theophanous, wrote to the ESC appeal panel opposing the extra funding and then trumpeted the outcome in a media release in February 2006.
Mr Batchelor said the ESC granted the power companies a 30 per cent increase in capital expenditure and 21 per cent in operating expenditure, enough for them to meet their requirements.
He said in 2007 Powercor alone underspent its capital allowance by more than $28 million, money that could have financed the five-year underground power line program in one year.
“Complying with bushfire and safety regulations is unambiguously the responsibility of the distributors and there’s no evidence that they’ve got insufficient funds to undertake all the necessary tasks in this area,” he said.
“For the opposition and Mr Wells, in particular, to suggest that the distributors haven’t got enough money to spend on bushfire mitigation, or that the state government’s blocked the funding is simply wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong.”