February 18, 2021

MARK RORKE, HOST: Talking about energy and one of the sources from it if some sort of have their way will be a lot more gas in and around the Hunter, particularly with the idea of drilling for gas off the coast of Newcastle and the Central Coast. Joining us to talk about an opposing view on that is Member for Shortland Pat Conroy who says that it’s deeply distressing that it looks like we may go ahead with that.

Good morning Pat, thank you so much for your time. What are some of the reasons that have been expressed to you on why this is a bad thing because I guess more energy into the system, more jobs, some would say that’s a good thing?

PAT CONROY, MEMBER FOR SHORTLAND: Well PEP 11 or Petroleum Exploration Permit 11 goes to offshore oil and gas drilling within five kilometres of our coast, and I think it’s bad for the environment and it’s also bad for jobs. The reason I say that is because we’ve got thousands of jobs locally that depend upon tourism, hospitality, commercial fishing, and recreational fishing, and those jobs are endangered if we have oil and gas rigs five kilometres off our coast. And that’s why I think this is a very silly idea. 

It’s also going to produce very expensive gas. We need more gas in New South Wales and that’s why we support the opening up of the Narrabri gas basin in the northwest of New South Wales which will produce gas at around $8 a gigajoule. This gas, if it’s ever extracted, will be very expensive that will put power prices up not down.

RORKE: Yeah and I guess the last thing anyone wants to see when the whole energy debate comes - whether it’s renewables way off down the road, coal, nuclear or whatever it happens to be – the last thing anyone wants to see is power prices go up because at the end of the day, the monthly bill comes in and we look at that and go ‘gee it’s a lot more expensive to heat the home or have the air conditioning on’. I guess they’re saying that they’ll be looking to drill around 22 kilometres off the coastline and there’s the other side of things that they’re saying ‘well you’re not going to be able to see it’. So for those who think they’re ugly or they’ll just mess up the look of the coastline, they’re saying from that point of view they might be far enough away, but others again disagree.

CONROY: Well that’s the test rig. So the next test rig if they get approved by the Federal Government is 22 kilometres off the coast near Lake Munmorah, but the actual exploration goes as close as five kilometres to the coastline, especially in places around Redhead obviously. So you can imagine if there’s an oil and gas rig five kilometres from Redhead Bluff you would definitely be able to see it.

And it’s not just the visual amenity. What happens if something goes wrong? What happens if, heaven forbid, we have an accident? Our coastline would be massively polluted, we would see thousands of jobs go that depend on that coastline, and the quality of life for so many people who grew up here or moved here because of the beach lifestyle will be destroyed. And the number of jobs they are talking about is very small compared to the number of jobs that are at risk. And that’s why I’m opposing this.

RORKE: So what’s the next step Pat for those who don’t want to see it come about? I know there’s been some protesting a week or two weeks ago, but obviously the plans are still – they are what they are, still plans. So where do you feel the next phase of this discussion is going to take place?

CONROY: Well Federal Labor announced that we are opposed to it, so the pure decision maker at this point is the Federal Minister for Resources Keith Pitt who has been making lots of noises about approving it. Even the NSW Liberal Government is opposed to it, but the sole decision maker is Keith Pitt. So we’re trying to place pressure on him to make the right decision, but I must say when Labor announced we were opposed to it, he put out a media release basically attacking us which gives every impression that he will approve it.

But this is a project that I’ve never seen such broad community opposition to. When I’ve held market stalls in places like Speers Point or Pelican, I’ve had people ranging from 80 year old grandmothers, to young mums with kids, I was talking to an engineer who was opposed to this as well, and the people opposed to PEP 11 at Save Our Coast have got a petition with over 75,000 signatures which is massive. This is a project that’s opposed by almost everyone in the community from both an environmental and economic point of view. I just think it’s profoundly disrespectful to our region and very, very wrong for the Federal Government to be looking at approving this.

RORKE: Just to circle back to something very quickly before I let you go Pat. You mentioned there was another potential gas project on the table in the Narrabri region and you and others were supportive of that in principal. What has the thought been of that community there to gas potentially being a part of their community?

CONROY: Well it’s around the Pilliga scrub in northwest New South Wales. It’s going to affect a lot fewer people, and a lot greater percentage of the population in that area supports it. I’d say about half support it and half oppose it, but it’s going to have an impact that’s not particularly different from the coal mining we see up the valley. So it’s a project that’s been approved, they’ve started doing the work on it, it will release gas that we need in the short term. In the long term, the way of lowering power prices is more renewable energy backed up by pumped hydro and batteries. That is the cheapest form of new energy. 

So we need gas right now and we need that gas to be as cheap as possible, but long term it will be renewable energy with batteries and pumped hydro to make it 100 percent reliable. So anyone who is arguing that PEP 11 gas will lower power prices is just lying. There’s no other word for it. They are lying. It will put up power prices while endangering out coast and the thousands of jobs that rely on it.

RORKE: Just as a casual thought at the end there Pat too is – I know there are a bunch of Liberal backbenchers federally that are raising the idea of nuclear again and wanting to have that as part of the conversation. Any thoughts on that, if you’d like to see that as part of the rollout or at least discussed because that’s certainly going to be looked at in the next little while you would think?

CONROY: Yeah look I get asked about nuclear quite often when I talk about energy policy. I am opposed to it for a few reasons. Even if we park the safety concerns – and that’s a big if because we’ve seen the Fukushima meltdown and earlier ones like Chernobyl. So even if we park the safety concerns, even if we find a community that will accept a nuclear power station near them - and I will point out that our area will be one of the logical places for it, in fact a study done under the Howard Government identified multiple spots in Lake Macquarie that would be ideal locations for a nuclear power station, so we are under the gun if these Liberal backbenchers’ proposal gets up - it’s very expensive power. We are talking about producing electricity well above $200 per megawatt hour. We produce electricity at the moment for about $90 per megawatt hour. Nuclear would be north of $200 per megawatt hour. Renewable energy coming into the market backed up with pumped hydro or batteries right now is around $60-75 per megawatt hour, and that’s not hypothetical figures. That’s what contracts are being written with right now. 

Anyone who argues for nuclear like these Liberal backbenchers is arguing for compromise of community safety, and quite frankly much higher power prices, a doubling of the power price. So I’m opposed to that as well because it’s bad for households and it’s bad for the environment. 

RORKE: Alright Pat I’m sure at a federal level we will see that chat play out over the next little while, but in the meanwhile certainly all eyes are off the coast of Newcastle and the Central Coast to see what happens with all of the gas stuff as well. MP for Shortland Pat Conroy thanks for your time, I appreciate it.

CONROY: Not a problem, have a great morning.