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Griffin thrives as Alinta wavers

While the world is full of brave people who try to predict the future, the fluctuating fortunes of Western Australian energy companies Alinta and The Griffin Group show how dangerous this practice can be.

Three years ago, Griffin, whose main business at the time was coal mining, faced an uncertain future after being told it would lose its major sales contract.

Today it appears to be thriving, with its first coal-fired power station in operation, a second under construction, plans for a third proceeding and, importantly, coal suddenly looking like a very secure fuel.

Alinta, by contrast, finds itself mired in the state's gas crisis and the uncertainty swirling around its owner, the Babcock & Brown investment group.

That's a big turnaround from the situation last year, when rival investment banks Macquarie and Babcock fought a desperate and expensive battle to win control.

Alinta seemed to have everything going for it 12 months ago - an impressive track record of growth, a diversified business and a focus on gas, which was seen as a 'green and clean' fuel for the future.

Coal, by contrast, has been widely perceived as a dirty fuel with little future, despite all of the talk about clean coal technologies.

Griffin's nadir probably came in August 2005, when two major decisions went against it.

The state government concluded a long-running tender process by selecting NewGen Power (formerly Wambo Power Ventures, and part-owned by the Babcock & Brown group) as the preferred developer of a new base-load power station.

The government sold Wambo's gas-fired proposal as being both commercially attractive and environmentally responsible.

At the time it seemed likely that most new power stations would use gas.

The losers in that tender were WA's two coal miners - Griffin and Wesfarmers' Premier Coal businesses.

Premier got a big consolation prize, when Western Power (before its break-up) contracted to buy all of its coal from Premier from 2010.

Griffin missed out on the power station deal and lost its long-running coal supply contract, with owner Rick Stowe saying at the time he was bitterly disappointed.

This was at a time when Alinta was going flat-out building gas-fired co-generation power stations at Alcoa's alumina refineries.

However, the construction of new co-generation units has been put on hold because of the squeezing of domestic supply and the tripling of gas prices during the past two years.

This has been bad news for all of the state's gas consumers, and none is larger than Alcoa.

The poor long-term outlook for domestic gas supplies has been highlighted by Alcoa's decision to make large investments in two speculative gas projects, which it hopes will provide additional supplies to the south of the state.

Alcoa is investing $40 million in ARC Energy's Canning Basin exploration program and is earning a 65 per cent stake in the Warro gas field, which will cost more than $100 million to develop.

The situation has been made even worse by the explosion at Apache Energy's Varanus Island facility.

Alinta, like WA as a whole, gets one-third of its gas from Varanus Island, which is expected to be out of action for two months or more.

Alinta is a victim of the explosion, but because it is involved in rationing gas sales, risks the ire of business owners who don't know from one day to the next whether they will be able to open their doors for business.

Adding to the uncertainty for Alinta is the speculation surrounding the Babcock & Brown group.

The share price of Babcock and its listed satellite funds plunged last week, as investors speculated on their financial health.

Alinta's direct owner, Babcock & Brown Power, said last week its earnings would be adversely affected by the gas crisis but it was not expected to be material.

It has also appointed investment bank UBS to manage the sale of undisclosed assets - a process that could evolve rapidly.

The fluctuating fortunes of Griffin and Alinta are a microcosm of issues facing WA as a whole.

The state wants low-cost energy, it wants energy security and it wants to be environmentally responsible.

Balancing those competing goals has always been a challenge, and that will continue.

Adding a global credit squeeze into the mix adds to the challenge, and leaves prudent financial managers feeling very pleased.

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