Production of documents


Mr BARBER (Northern Metropolitan) — By leave, I move:

That in accordance with standing order 11.01, there be tabled in the Council by Monday, 22 June 2015, any agreements in relation to the Advanced Lignite Demonstration Program between the state of Victoria and —

(1)   Coal Energy Australia;

(2)   Ignite Energy Resources; and

(3)   Shanghai Electric Australia Power & Energy Development Pty Limited (SEAPED).

This motion requests that a number of specific documents be released to the chamber relating to a number of grants provided by the previous government to a number of companies seeking to further develop coal in Victoria. This new government talks very loudly on the subject of renewables while privately and rather more quietly putting its money and support behind the development of coal. Just last week we saw the Minister for Energy and Resources throw a lifeline to a proposed massive coalmine down near Corner Inlet, where a company has been exploring for further deposits of coal and wants to squat on that deposit for the next seven years while it works out through other grants provided by the taxpayer the magic formula for clean coal.

That is devastating enough for the landholders, who have had their lives put on hold. It is devastating for all those who value the scenic coastline, the productive agricultural lands and of course the significant and quite threatened native vegetation on that site. But it is because of those issues together with the global impacts of the continued increase in our emissions that we should be concerned about what is being put forward by this government, which is now responsible for the funding and indeed the performance of the so-called Advanced Lignite Demonstration Program.

There is no way that some purported industrial process of clean coal — probably to arrive many decades in the future — is ever going to be able to compete economically with the renewable technologies we have now. Wind and solar are already cheaper than new-build coal and gas projects for energy generation. In fact solar is now competitive with electricity out of the grid. With the rising price of gas, we can forget about gas generation as a so-called interim or transition fuel on the way to zero emissions. Wind is going to be doing that job. It is already doing that job, as we see when a coal-fired power plant at Anglesea closes down for lack of market support when offered for sale.

But nobody ever seems to give up on this dream of clean coal. Coal Energy Australia has been granted $30 million for the development, we are told, of a $143 million demonstration plant producing fertiliser, oil and high-value coal used in steelmaking — to compete, that is, with black coal, of which Australia and the world already have quite a bit. Ignite Energy Resources, the beneficiary of Ms D'Ambrosio's lifeline, has been granted $20 million for the development of an $84 million precommercial plant producing upgraded coal products for local or export markets. That is why it wants to mine this coal down on the beautiful South Gippsland coastline, which it says is adjacent to a nearby port. The locals down there might get a surprise if they think coal is going to be exported over to their current facility. In fact they are looking at a Gladstone-style $500 million to $1 billion coal loader before one single tonne of product could be exported across the coast there, and it is extremely dubious as to who would fund that, let alone who might be the buyer of such a product if it could feasibly be produced.

Then Shanghai Electric Australia Power & Energy Development Pty Ltd wants to get in on the game. It has been granted $25 million for the purported development of a $119 million demonstration plant at the AGL Energy-owned Loy Yang A power station to look at a so-called precommercial briquetting plant and cogeneration unit and the production of briquettes for export to China — that is, to a country which has for the first time reduced its consumption of coal this year as it moves rapidly away from coal-fired electricity, just as some of these chancers from the list I have just read reckon they are going to be able to sell coal in the export market.

When you think of clean coal just think of the words 'expensive coal', because that is what we are looking at down the line — and it could be decades away, if technology like this ever gets up. The fact is renewables and, importantly, energy efficiency are cheaper options to provide our energy needs now than clean coal will ever be. That is the argument from the point of view of the Greens. In terms of releasing these documents, even the supporters of clean coal ought to support this motion. What has happened here is that some tens of millions of dollars have been handed over to these companies, which then have to go and raise extra funds for their development, prove their technology and maybe — just maybe — find a market for it at the end. The most we know about it is the contents of the program's web page.

We need to know a lot more. We need to know what milestones these companies will have to achieve in order to receive the release of any of these public funds. Just because research and development in association with coal has been outsourced to the private sector, where once it might have been done in-house by the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, does not mean we have outsourced the Westminster accountability for how public money is spent.

We had an analogous debate in the previous Parliament, which was associated with the so-called HRL Limited clean coal grant. The issues at play in that instance were exactly the same as is the case with these three grants. Both the state and federal governments had provided money to this company, which was going to build some sort of demonstration plant. The company failed to attract commercial co-investment, and over time it became very clear that the company would not meet its milestones as information about those milestones dribbled out. Eventually the grants were pulled by both the state and federal governments, but only after the whole show had fallen over as a commercial proposition.

For those who want to keep talking about 'Coal, coal, coal forever — a thousand years of coal', I say that it has served its purpose quite nicely. People do not think clean coal is coming any time soon. Even those promoting it will not say that, but it does allow them to further delay action, to keep supporting the historical legacy of our big, dumb and centralised energy system. It allows them to avoid the necessary changes that have to be made to involve co-generation, energy efficiency and renewables into the grid and, for that matter, to allow more of us to become both energy producers and energy consumers. I am not just talking about a significant number of houses with solar panels, but also the businesses that are increasingly moving down this path.

However, people still seem hypnotised by the huge coal deposits in the Latrobe Valley. They have an obsession with finding some future market for some sort of product out of it. If that is the case, though, they should be shouting from the rooftops as to how these funds will be expended. In the previous Parliament, when a very similar documents motion was moved, we eventually, belatedly, obtained some small amounts of information through both the Freedom of Information Act 1982 and through accountability from the then Minister for Energy and Resources, Mr O'Brien, but it was after the whole thing had fallen over, and we still to this day do not know how much the public paid out and how much of the original promised grant we were able to claw back.

For that reason we want to see, in a similar form, material for these three grants that was eventually made available in relation to HRL. While we are at it, the Minister for Energy and Resources could start regularly reporting to Parliament as to whether her clean coal dream is getting any closer or whether we are just throwing public money down a very big hole in the ground.