Interview with Lindsay McDougall, ABC Illawarra

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: Chris Bowen, the Energy and Climate Change Minister joins us now. Thank you for being with us, Mr Bowen.

CHRIS BOWEN: Pleasure.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: Now, we've been talking about this all day, BlueScope's got 136.8 million as part of 200 million from the Government, this is going towards the reline and the upgrade of its No. 6 blast furnace. We know, we love BlueScope here, but this is a blast furnace that turns iron ore and coking coal into iron, it's a very carbon intensive process. How does it get Australia closer to our renewables goals?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, the first thing I'd say, Lindsay, is that the renewable goal requires a lot of steel, and it makes no sense to me or the Government to have that steel made overseas. We're going to need a lot of steel for all elements of the supply chain.

In relation to decarbonisation, Australia has two steel makers, BlueScope, which is very important here where we are in the Illawarra today, and Liberty in Whyalla, and they're both on a decarbonisation journey, and they've got different pathways but the same destination, that is green steel.

But green steel isn't yet commercial anywhere in the world, but you need to work with companies like BlueScope and Liberty to help them make it commercial, and what really this particular investment in the No. 6 blast furnace in Port Kembla does is really give BlueScope the time to continue their investments in decarbonisation.

In relation to Whyalla and Liberty, they're investing in an electric arc furnace, which is another way of very much reducing emissions.

But I had a long session with BlueScope today on their plans to reduce emissions, and you know, I believe they're very serious about it. Indeed, and they're required to under law too, under the Safeguard Mechanism.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: That's right, the safeguard mechanism. But this is, I mean you talk about securing the long term future of the steel industry as we undergo the transformation to net zero. Are you sure it's not just funding the delaying of green steel and green hydrogen?

CHRIS BOWEN: Oh, certainly not, certainly not, and I mean the two are related but quite different, and just yesterday we were announcing more support for green hydrogen in Townsville. 

But this is really about working with BlueScope as they work on their plans, and you know, again, I've had a long session with them today on their plans. They're required under law, under the Safeguard Mechanism, to reduce their emissions by 4.9 per cent a year. They're working on various elements of direct reduction iron and other things which can reduce their emissions over time, but nobody should suggest that it's an easy process for them. It is what we call a hard to abate sector.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: Yes. Well, I mean 63.2 million to Liberty in Whyalla, they're only getting half the amount BlueScope is. Would it be prudent to fund an actual green project more than one that is just on its way to being green?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, they are both on their way to being green, and the difference is largely in relation to the amount of steel they produce, BlueScope is Australia's biggest steel producer. Liberty's very important but they're not as big as BlueScope.

You know, BlueScope is approaching its hundredth anniversary in Port Kembla, and I see no reason why they shouldn't be making steel in 100 years' time in Port Kembla, but it will very, very different, and it will be net zero steel, and that's not going to happen easily and it's not going to happen without big investments, and big investments from the BlueScope Board, and given it's a national endeavour, big investments from the Government as well.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: I'm guessing you don't mean it will take another hundred years to get to green steel though?

CHRIS BOWEN: No, of course not, of course not. But it will be green by - what I'm saying is I want them making steel in 100 years' time, but it certainly will be green steel a long time before then.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: Yeah, and this is, as you mentioned, we need to - we'll need a lot of steel to make things like wind turbines, and that is the other big topic here in the Illawarra, the proposed offshore wind zone areas, there is broad support for renewables and a change to our energy system. But a lot of people are still worried here about the offshore wind zones. Do you have a message for those people?

CHRIS BOWEN: Yeah, look, I'm reading through all the submissions, I take that process very seriously, that's why it's not being rushed. You know, some people say, "Why hasn't he decided yet?" 'Cause I take it seriously; I work through the issues.

Now inevitably, Lindsay, there's legitimate issues, there's people who have got concerns which I should take on board, questions they want answered, things they want to know that I've considered, things that I should consider, things that they bring to my attention.

Inevitably also, perhaps sadly inevitably, there's also disinformation and misinformation, and, you know, ill founded concerns, and some people making political points.

I've got to sift through and determine which is which and look at all the evidence, look the evidence across the board; you know, a lot of people have got very legitimate concerns about whale migration, for example. But also there's the fact that offshore wind exists right around the world and there's no impact that has been shown in any study on whale migration.

So these two issues need to be, you know, these sorts of issues are what I need to weigh up, again a lot of jobs for the Illawarra going forward, but I've got to get it right. 

And when I come back and make my announcement, I'll be showing how I've taken into account all those issues.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: Yeah, we've had people here from Denmark, and Denmark's had offshore wind farms since the 90s, one of the biggest producers of offshore wind, but do you think the Government is selling this message well if people are still talking about the dead whales and the ruined surf breaks? And do you feel, I mean I feel like some communities, the communities here have kind of been torn apart over their differing opinions on wind farms. Is that somehow - is that in some way the Government's responsibility?

CHRIS BOWEN: Look, I think we all have responsibility to make sure that the facts are out there. I mean again, there's some politicians out there, you know, spreading misinformation, and, but then there's also legitimate concerns.

And certainly when I come back and make my announcement, that's when obviously I'll be in a strong position to deal with all those concerns that have been raised, give answers, run through the issues, and also run through the next stages. I mean we're at stage 1 of a long process. Declaring the zone is the beginning, then I call for expressions of interest.

The people who want to run the offshore wind farms have to put in very, very detailed licence applications, then they get a feasibility licence, then they move to commercial licence, there's community consultation at both stages. They've got to show me how they're dealing with community management plans, how they're interacting with fishing, how they're interacting with the built environment and the natural environment, they separately have to go through environmental approvals.

All this is part of the process. We're starting an industry from scratch here, Lindsay. I mean Australia doesn't have an offshore wind industry, as you said, it's existed since the 1990s in other parts of the world. We've never had one, which is a bit ironic given we're the largest island in the world, we have more coastline to deal with than any other country in the world, but nevertheless we are catching up, and we will have an offshore wind industry, but we do need to get it right.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: So if I was to circle a date in the calendar when you were to come back and make your announcement, do we have a vague timeline for that once you get through the 14,000 submissions just from our area alone?

CHRIS BOWEN: I wouldn't be recommending circling a date just yet, but of course it's getting closer. Of course I've had a good opportunity over the Christmas break to read through all the submissions, and of course I'm getting closer to a final decision and announcement.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: I'm talking to Federal MP, Chris Bowen, your electorate in Western Sydney, Fairfield, Blacktown, some of the poorer suburbs in New South Wales, do you think the changes to the Stage 3 tax cuts, no doubt welcomed by a lot of people, will do enough for these people?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, every Australian under our plan gets a tax cut including the lowest income earners, and you're right, that's many of the people I represent, people who are desperately in need of cost-of-living support who weren't going to get any on July 1 under the previous Government's plan.

So of course I strongly support the change that's been made because it very much benefits people I represent, indeed people in this community, 60 per cent of people get a stronger, a better tax cut under our plan than under previous plans. That's a good thing.

Both areas are dealing with cost-of-living pressures and people doing it tough and this plan is very good for people in both areas.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: What about help with things like energy bills and, you know, they are sky rocketing, in your capacity as the Minister?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, of course we delivered that last year with our energy bill relief. We've always said we'll look at what more can be done but, you know, there's another report out today showing energy prices, wholesale prices down very substantially on last year.

Now wholesale prices is one of the things that feeds into retail prices, not the only thing 'cause people don't pay wholesale prices, but they do feed into the retail price. So that really shows the plan is working, that prices are getting relief, and we'll continue to look at what more we should do into the future.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: Do you reckon we'll get down $275 a year by 2025?

CHRIS BOWEN: I'm not walking away from our plan and our commitment to make energy prices as low as we possibly can.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: Chris Bowen, you've been in the Illawarra today, I know you spend a fair bit of time here as well. Thank you for spending some time with us.

I just want to talk a bit more broadly about, you know, governments across the world right now are funding millions and even billions into companies in their own countries to make the switch to sustainable and renewable energy.  Do you think our Government is doing enough to make sure, like you said at the start of our chat, that this will happen in Australia, and we will have local companies making our energy and infrastructure for our energy and keeping it in Australia?

CHRIS BOWEN: Absolutely, and it's a big part of what we're doing and, you know, these two announcements in the last two days I've made, yesterday in Townsville, today in Port Kembla, are big government investments, $70 million into green hydrogen in Townsville, $200 million into steel making today.

Also we've got - we've made big investments into green hydrogen separately to that. I announced a short list of companies that might get support under the Hydrogen Headstart, $2 billion, no small amount, just before Christmas, and we have said we'll have more to say about how we respond to what's called the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States, which is a manufacturing incentive to make more parts for the renewable supply chain there.  We've said we'll have more to say about that. So we've done a lot and there's more to do.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: And just finally, the green hydrogen, as we said, in Australia it's a very young industry. People have been trying to prove that carbon sequestration is possible for years, that has never happened, and I know the previous government was talking about this a lot. Do you think - are you sure that green hydrogen will be an actual technology that works and doesn't go the way of things like carbon sequestration?

CHRIS BOWEN: Oh, there's no question green hydrogen is going to play a big role. Now what is green hydrogen? It's a way of storing renewable energy. That's what it is. It's not an energy source in and of itself. It's how you store, one of the ways you can store renewable energy.

You know, the wind doesn't always blow, and the sun doesn't always shine, but sometimes it blows and shines a lot, and we can store the excess. And green hydrogen is effectively a way of doing that, which with longer duration storage than batteries, and you can transport it. You can't put a battery on a ship and take it to Germany. You can do that with green hydrogen, or you will be able to.

So there's absolutely no doubt it will also play a key role in decarbonising aviation, you know, jet fuel is very hard to decarbonise, it's a big emitter, but green hydrogen will play a big role. And shipping, which is very important again here in the Illawarra. You know, a lot of those cargo ships, if shipping was a country it would be the seventh biggest emitter in the world. Green hydrogen will play a big role in decarbonising those cargo ships.

In fact I go further and say no one's really suggested a better way or another way of decarbonising things like shipping than green hydrogen. So yes, it is going to work, it's going to play a big role.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: And it sounds like the Illawarra and Port Kembla is a big part of it as well.

CHRIS BOWEN: Absolutely. It's a very important region for our economy and will be a very important part of our renewable economy, absolutely.

LINDSAY McDOUGALL: Chris Bowen, thank you so much for being with us this afternoon.

CHRIS BOWEN: Pleasure, Lindsay, good on you.