Deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce believes a “transition” from coal to cleaner energy “equals unemployment” in the regions, declaring the Coalition would not use the term during the election.
The Nationals leader has also backed the government’s clean energy fund to support coal, and for other government infrastructure funds to finance the construction of coal-fired power stations, but not for the building of cleaner hydrogen plants.
“Transition to what? There is no other industry here,” Joyce said while visiting the Queensland coal community of Gladstone.
Climate and energy have not featured as major issues in the first two weeks of the federal election campaign, despite polling showing voters rank those as among their highest concerns. That shifted on Sunday, with the prime minister, Scott Morrison, to visit Alice Springs and announce $300m for a Northern Territory energy and jobs package, including $70m for a clean hydrogen hub in Darwin, and $100m for carbon capture and storage connected to natural gas projects from Santos.
In a statement, Morrison said the Coalition wanted to further the NT’s status as a “world leader in energy”, and claimed the funding would create 3,800 jobs. Labor frontbenchers Penny Wong and Mark Butler, standing in for Covid-afflicted leader Anthony Albanese, will also be in Alice Springs on Sunday to make a health announcement.
Speaking on the ABC’s Insiders program, broadcast from Gladstone, Joyce said the Coalition would support the mining and export of coal overseas “as long as they want to buy coal”.
Gladstone exports tens of millions of tonnes of coal per year, as well as housing Queensland’s largest coal-fired power station. It has also been earmarked by state and federal governments as a potential “world leader” in hydrogen, with Fortescue recently starting construction on the world’s largest electrolyser facility in the town.
Joyce waved away a question from Insiders host David Speers about the Coalition’s plan for an energy transition away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner power.
“We are standing by the jobs they’ve got and we’re investing billions towards hydrogen but we’re not going to be saying to people the word ‘transition’ because that equals unemployment,” Joyce said.
“Transition to what? There is no other industry here. But we are investing billions toward hydrogen … what that allows them to do is to see, workers in Gladstone to see there, is the other job at the same pay and same conditions.”
Joyce said the Coalition would assist Fortescue’s development through supporting infrastructure like roads, but that it wouldn’t directly underwrite a hydrogen plan “at this stage”.
The deputy PM did not have the same reservations about underwriting coal projects however, expressing support for extending government finance to such operations.
“If people are looking for support through the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund or the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to make coal cleaner, to make coal more energy efficient, yes, that is certainly something we’d be considering,” Joyce said.
Asked directly about the proposed power station at Collinsville near Townsville, Joyce said he was “happy for us to build it” if a business case proposal “stacks up”.
“It’s not that we’d built it. There should be access if the business case stacks up, that people should be able to access the finance and certain things like the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund, should certainly give it a consideration,” he said.
Also speaking on Insiders, Labor’s shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said the opposition wanted to see towns like Gladstone become “powerhouses of the modern Australian economy”.
He said Labor was supportive of hydrogen and clean energy projects in regional areas, but that the opposition did support new coal projects if they passed environmental approval processes.
“We have said repeatedly that there is a future for coal for the time being because there is an appetite for coal around the world. Over time, our energy mix will change,” Chalmers said.
A key component of Labor’s net zero climate and energy plan – modelled to reduce emissions by 43% by 2030 – is to strengthen the Coalition-designed safeguard mechanism, which obligates 215 large polluters to keep their emissions below a certain level.
Chalmers said Labor’s policy would require companies – which include coal mines – that exceed their emissions cap to buy extra carbon credits to cover the surplus, which is designed as an incentive to reduce emissions.
“Our preference is they reduce emissions in line with the obligations from the clean energy regulator,” he said.
Speaking on Channel Nine, shadow energy minister Chris Bowen stressed Labor’s safeguard mechanism list of 215 companies would be the same as it currently is under the Coalition.
“They put this policy in place to reduce emissions and it hasn’t worked because they haven’t implemented it well,” he claimed.