ACCC eyes mandatory code for gas companies

The consumer watchdog has confirmed it's involved in work to determine the best big-stick solution to surging energy prices.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is focused on the code of conduct option, which could see the voluntary code made mandatory and the inclusion of a "reasonable pricing" principle.

"We are in the process of preparing that advice but it's premature to comment on it," ACCC chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb told a parliamentary committee on Thursday.

At this stage, no gas supplier has signed up to the voluntary code.

She said price mechanisms at the wholesale level were top of the agenda but targeting retail prices had not been ruled out.

Ms Cass-Gottlieb said the option of a super profits tax on gas companies was not being investigated.

Finance Minister Katy Gallagher also explained why price was not embedded into the heads of agreement brokered by the resources minister with gas exporters.

She said the government had faced back-to-back challenges on energy since taking office and supply shortages were the concern when the agreements were negotiated.

"I'm not saying that dealt with every issue we're seeing in the energy market at the moment - that's clearly not the case - but it dealt with part of the problem," Senator Gallagher said.

LNP senator Susan McDonald asked if energy players had raised concerns about a price cap or any other price-restricting mechanism leading to lower gas supplies more broadly.

"Some stakeholders in consultation have made comments to that effect," Ms Cass-Gottlieb said.

"We are conscious of those questions and taking them into account."

Senator McDonald also raised concerns that smaller manufacturers and energy customers - which are not large enough to contract directly with producers - were being overlooked in the discussions about energy market intervention.

Ms Cass-Gottlieb said the ACCC was looking into the prospect of allowing small manufacturers to bargain collectively with producers to secure lower prices.

"We are trying to test the question of bargaining power and improving bargaining power in multiple ways so that we can address those questions," she said.

While she said the immediate focus was on the top of the supply chain, the consumer regulator was also monitoring retailers.

"If the parties are not operating in a properly competitive fashion and there are any competition concerns, we would watch it very closely and take action," she said.

Among the public, intervention in the energy market is popular, with almost nine in 10 Australians wanting the government to intervene in the gas market as prices soar.

An Australia Institute study found 86 per cent of people support export controls or a windfall profits tax after the federal budget forecast a combined 50 per cent spike in gas and electricity prices in the next two years.

The windfall profits tax could collect $20 billion in revenue.

The Greens have outlined such a plan, writing to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese calling for support on a coal and gas profits tax, combined with a price cap.

Under costings by the Parliamentary Budget Office commissioned by the Greens, the average household would save $776 by March 2024 under a plan to freeze electricity bills at pre-Ukraine invasion levels for two years.

This would be funded by a windfall tax on coal, oil, and gas companies recording mega profits.

Energy Minister Chris Bowen said the government's work on lowering prices was continuing.

He told parliament gas prices had lifted by 270 per cent under the coalition's watch.

"The gas companies would say that's fantastic but Australian consumers would not," Mr Bowen said.