Coal baron Trevor St Baker says he has not sought taxpayer support for Liddell | Australia news
The coal baron Trevor St Baker has clarified he has not sought taxpayer support to redevelop a power station he doesn’t own, and insists he is not “compulsively wanting or needing” to build a new coal-powered station in Australia.
St Baker told Guardian Australia in an interview he had not sought assistance from the Morrison government’s power generation underwriting program to redevelop the ageing Liddell power station, which is owned by one of his competitors, the energy giant AGL.
The politically connected businessman created the impression he had made such a proposal during an interview on the ABC on Wednesday morning, when he referenced three projects he had put before the government, in the process flagging his interest in redeveloping Liddell in New South Wales, which AGL plans to close in 2022, replacing it with a combination of renewables and gas.
St Baker’s company signalled it was interested in buying the ageing Liddell plant in 2017 when the then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull publicly castigated AGL for the planned closure. The businessman confirmed he had discussed the future of Liddell with the government while Turnbull was prime minister.
“I have in the previous Coalition structure, they know that my recommendation was that they and the NSW government should work through how the development approval for a 2,000MW baseload 24/7 power station on the Liddell property, even though it might be retrospective, should attach to the land title, which would place them in a better position to make demands of AGL, to either keep the 2,000MW of baseload going or have to sell it to someone prepared to do that,” St Baker said.
“I put it on record that I thought it was a good idea, but it was in the business of good ideas rather than proposals.”
He said that was the extent of his discussion about Liddell with government representatives, and he was invited to give his view. “I always prefer to speak to ministers and shadow ministers in the company of others and my competitors even, because I don’t care if I don’t build a power station.
“I’ve got lots of other investments in the electricity sector. It’s a bit awesome, borrowing billions of dollars in all this uncertainty, but that’s just the business I’m in, but I’m not compulsively wanting or needing to do that.
“I’m the largest developer in the last 15 years in power generation, in 24/7 generation in Australia, so I’ve more or less got a responsibility to offer those corporate skills if there’s a need for them.”
St Baker said he had not discussed his interest in Liddell with the current energy minister, Angus Taylor, and he had not put a proposal concerning the future of the plant to the controversial underwriting program, where taxpayers will help fund new power generation. “We haven’t put in a proposal in relation to Liddell. We’ve only put a proposal in relation to something we can do.”
The coal baron’s proposal in NSW relates to a new coal development at Vales Point, which he controls.
But St Baker made it clear he would prefer to redevelop Liddell rather than pursue the Vales Point project that was the subject of his expression of interest; and he continued to express frustration with AGL’s refusal to sell the plant. “The point we are always making is the company that controls Liddell controls all of the business opportunities that arise.
“The natural thing that should be done is the [power station] should be kept going – and all the people like me that have worked all their lives in the electricity sector trying to get electricity to businesses and energy and jobs to Australia have been totally and utterly unbelieving that any company could allow a power station to fall into disrepair. That’s unsatisfactory, it’s not in our DNA if you like.”
He said he had expressed himself in the way he did during Wednesday morning’s interview on the ABC because he believed a redevelopment of Liddell “is a better solution than Vales Point”.
St Baker said building a new high-efficiency coal plant on the Liddell site, using some of the existing infrastructure, would be “a better solution for the state”.
The Morrison government proposed the so-called “big stick” package to create a divestiture power that would have allowed energy companies to be broken up if there was evidence of price gouging.
Some energy experts have long suspected the policy was a mechanism to remove Liddell from AGL’s ownership, and the former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce had argued publicly the power was necessary because of AGL’s refusal to delay the closure of Liddell.
The government was forced to pull the package because it would have to cop an amendment championed by the Greens and supported by Labor in the House that would prohibit taxpayer support for new coal-fired power. But rebel Queensland Nationals want the “big stick” back on the agenda before parliament rises.
A fight about coal has fractured the government over the course of the past week, with Nationals brawling with Liberals and among themselves about what projects should be supported by the government underwriting program.
While Liberals in city seats remain concerned that the government risks losing the coming election, at least in part, because of its record on climate change, Nationals are keeping up the pressure for new coal developments.
The energy minister, Angus Taylor, has confirmed the Morrison government is continuing to assess new coal-generation projects despite pushback from moderate Liberals, but he says taxpayers will only support projects that are “viable”.
On the hustings in Victoria on Wednesday, where the government is battling a voter backlash about its record on climate change, Scott Morrison did not mention coal when asked by journalists about colleagues lobbying for coal-fired projects.
“Our plans are about supporting the development of commercially viable and feasible baseload power all around the country,” the prime minister said. “It could be gas, it could be hydrogen, it could be any number of sources of energy, it can be hydro as we have said and it can be other traditional sources.
“But at the end of the day, we’re about getting lower power prices. It’s about having sensible emission reduction targets.”