Interview with Dan Cox, ABC Newcastle

DAN COX: There are plans to build Australia’s next offshore wind farm for the ocean off the Hunters coast. So an offshore wind zone was officially declared by the federal government earlier this year, and it means there could be wind turbines in the water between Swansea and Port Stephens. We know more needs to be done when it comes to renewable energy, but some of you have concerns about the offshore wind zone for our region.

The Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, is meeting with some locals today to hear those concerns, and he joins me now. Good morning, Minister.

CHRIS BOWEN: Good morning. How are you?

DAN COX: Well, thank you. Some locals are critical there hasn’t been enough consultation with the community before you declared an offshore wind zone in the Hunter, and you’re meeting with residents today. But is that too late?

CHRIS BOWEN: Look, I think it never hurts to do a bit of engagement and talk about the issues. More than happy to do that today. On consultation, the normal approach is for governments traditionally to put an ad in the newspaper and say, “Let us know what you think.” We took a very different view on this. As you’ll recall, I came up to Newcastle, launched the consultation. It was on the front page of the Newcastle Herald. Called for submissions. We letterbox dropped 40,000 pamphlets in the letterboxes across the area saying let us know what you think. There were community drop-in sessions in Womble, Doyalson, Swansea, Newcastle, Merewether, Hawks Nest and Nelsons Bay. We had 80 people come to the Nelsons Bay one. So, look, there certainly was a lot of consultation.

And as a result of that consultation we made changes. The original zone prepared – you know, put out for consultation was 2,800 square kilometres. I reduced that down to 1,800 square kilometres after hearing residents, including around Port Stephens and Nelsons Bay, where I pushed the zone out from 10 kilometres off the shore to 30 kilometres off the shore, which is a very different proposition. And I still see petitioners wandering around saying, you know, the zones – the wind farm is going to be 10 kilometres off our shore, which is just not right.

So I’m looking forward to having chat, you know, if people want a reasonable discussion about the issues. There are genuine issues to be worked through. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and this is stage 1 of really a three-stage process which I think, again, is important for people to understand.

DAN COX: Minister, it’s the beautiful part of the world that worries people. Thirty kilometres off our coast line, you will still see them says the company. Are you okay with that? When people are wandering our coastline from Port Stephens and otherwise, that they will see white wind turbines in the ocean.

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, at 30 kilometres on a clear day you can see them. Many days you would not be able to see them. You know, I live 30 kilometres from the Sydney CBD. If I walk to the top of my hill at the top of my street I can see Sydney Tower some days but not most days. You know, so I think it’s a lot different at 10 kilometres – you can see them very clearly at 10 kilometres. At 30 kilometres, a bit more of a speck in the distance.

Again, I understand these issues. And I understand people’s concerns. But I also understand the jobs that will be created – 3,000 jobs during construction, 1,500 during operation - jobs for the Hunter. I understand that it will power 4.2 million homes. I understand people in the Hunter want to see action on climate change. They want to see local jobs created as well. These are things to be balanced.

I also know and will talk to people about the three-stage process. So I’ve declared the zone. Now we’re calling for expressions of interest for people to operate wind farms. The winners of those expressions of interest will need to declare – will need to prepare management plans about how they’ll work with commercial fishing et cetera, which will need to be out for public consultation and people will have a say on that. They have to be approved by us, the government, the manage plans. If they’re not good enough we’ll send them back. And then there’s environmental approvals. They have to go through separate EPBC approvals. They’re completely separate to me. So there’s – you know, and, again, there’s a lot of public consultation around those environmental approvals. So it’s important we do this. But it’s also important we get it right.

DAN COX: Renewable energy is important, as you talk about. We need to power homes going forward. Why offshore wind zones, why not on land?

CHRIS BOWEN: Good question. Of course, we do have them on land as well. But the rest of the world is doing this as well. You know, we are not the only ones doing this – in fact, we are way behind the rest of the world. If you go to Europe or Asia or America, offshore wind is in. In fact, in Asia often it’s much closer to the coast. They have a different way of doing it. They tend to be about 6 kilometres from the coast, which is not what we would contemplate.

Now, there’s good reasons. Australia is the world’s largest island so we have –

DAN COX: Lots of land.

CHRIS BOWEN: Lots of land and lots of water around us. The thing about offshore wind – there’s two things really. One, it’s very windy and it’s windy at different times. It’s different times to when it’s windy onshore, and it also tends to be windy in the evening when solar is turning down. So it’s very useful for stabilising our grid. It’s very energy rich. One turn of one turbine powers as much energy as the solar panels on your roof do all day. All day. It’s one turn of one turbine off the shore.

Also it’s jobs rich. Because they turn very quickly they need a lot more maintenance and these maintenance workers, because they’re offshore there are ships. There’s port jobs. There’s a lot of local jobs created. So it’s energy rich and jobs rich and it’s useful energy to stabilising the grid at the same time.

DAN COX: Locals you will hear from today are concerned that not enough research has been done into the environmental impact, especially on marine life in particular, with cables under the water and white wind turbines in the water affecting whales and things like that. Can you look locals in the eye today and say you’re happy with the research that’s been done?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, I can certainly tell people that there’s a lot of research that’s been done. Yes. Now, there’s a lot of – you know, if you look on the internet you’ll see a lot of claims, but what we look at are the actually scientifically proven peer reviewed academic research. And that’s very different to what a lot of people will see. Now, again, when we proceed to expressions of interest the proponents will have to put in place their marine life management plans. They’ll have to consult on those and we’ll have to be happy with them. And then they’ll also have to go through environmental approvals.

But offshore wind co-exists with marine life obviously right around the world. Whales, in particular, co-exist with, you know, infrastructure in our seas already – oil rigs, gas rigs, cargo ships, cruise ships, you know, ports right around the world. You know, there were whales in Sydney Harbour the other day around the ships and the ferries. So, you know, yes, the ocean is to be shared. But – and we take the impact on marine life and whales very, very seriously. We think about how that works and we think about how the management can co-exist, just as offshore infrastructure does right around the world today.

DAN COX: Your government’s plan is to invest billions in clean energy projects. And then we see projects like Snowy 2.0 blow out from 2 billion to 12 billion. When we see that happen, what other projects, Minister, miss out when money needs to be redirected to renewable projects?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, I mean, Snowy 2.0 is a bit of a different one to everything else. It was – it’s a good project. It’s a very important project. I give credit to the previous government for coming up with the idea. But the planning wasn’t good enough. There was not enough checking of the soil and now it’s costing a lot more than we were originally told. And projects around the world are blowing out, not just energy projects. Every project around the world, every major infrastructure project around the world is experiencing cost blowouts at the moment –

DAN COX: So what misses out, Minister, when that is the case?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, in relation to Snowy, there’ll be – there’s a government investment in Snowy. It’s not on budget money. It’s not like money that we would otherwise spend on other things; it’s an investment through equity in Snowy. So it doesn’t reflect in a budgetary treatment. And Snowy also has reserves which they will have spent on other projects, and they put into the projects, both Kurri Kurri and Snowy 2.0. So it’s not like that we sit there and say, “Well, we’ll now have to spend this money on Snowy so we can’t spend that money on these other things,” because there’s a different budget process.

DAN COX: People are very passionate in this region about why they live in this region and its beauty. Mitch has gotten in touch to say this should go off the Northern Beaches of Sydney, should it not?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, the other thing – we look at various things when we’re declaring offshore wind zones. We look at the wind quality. We also look at areas undergoing economic change. The Hunter is undergoing economic change. Coal-fired power stations are closing. We need to create new jobs. This offshore wind creates thousands of jobs often for people leaving other coal-fired power stations, which will eventually close. We are creating new jobs for those people. So that’s – this is a good investment in the region. Again, I know the region well. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time in the Hunter, as you know. I’m back and forth up the highway all the time, so I know the area well. I know how beautiful it is. But I also know how important it is to create jobs for locals and to harness the opportunities of the energy revolution.

DAN COX: Minister Bowen, thank you for your time. You will no doubt hear from some very passionate locals today. Thank you for joining us.

CHRIS BOWEN: Looking forward to a good, respectful and open chat. Good on you.