STEPHEN CENATIEMPO, HOST: Time to catch up with our regular contributor on a Wednesday morning. He is the Labor member for Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon. Morning Joel.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Great to be with you, Stephen.
CENATIEMPO: Now, I never had the chance to meet your non-gestational parent, but he was a bit of a legend, the Member of Hunter before you.
FITZGIBBON: Can I just say I thought that it was a bit of a gee up that ANU stuff and, you know, if I become – if I'm lucky enough to become a grandparent, what will I be? The non-birthing grandparent? I don't know. And if, if a baby wants to be taught to say, dad, dad, dad, dad, what will the baby be taught to say now?
CENATIEMPO: Don't put too much thought into this Joel. Oh, goodness me, it does my head in. The ACCC has issued a report showing gas prices have fallen since the start of the pandemic which would lead us to believe that supply was – yeah – there was less demand and a higher supply. But that's not the case.
FITZGIBBON: No, that's not the case. And the ACCC has been very consistent on this issue over a number of reports now over the last year. They are making it clear that unless we get more gas into the east coast system, we're going to be short and prices will rise. And that means getting more gas out of the ground. We have Narrabri hopefully coming on stream in the not too distant future. But we also need more interconnection with Queensland where there is an abundance of gas, but where the gas pipeline is basically full to capacity. So we need what they call the Hunter Gas Pipeline, for example, coming down from Queensland, and we do need to get that Narrabri project up and running as quickly as possible, and we need to ensure again that we're not exporting so much gas in the meantime to international customers that we're leaving ourselves short here in Australia.
CENATIEMPO: I remember you and I talking about this how the pipeline at least five years ago, maybe more than that. Is there been any progress on it?
FITZGIBBON: Yes, I think so. These things are always very indeed too slow, but it is happening, and the approvals is pretty much there. The proponent still negotiating with landholders because you've got to come across so much land on the way down, but I think they're inching to some success. And what he will also do in New South Wales is bring competition in the market because we're dependent on the gas pipeline from Moomba. So, there's a monopoly there. But if we've got a second source of gas coming into the state from another pipeline, then there'll be competition in that network.
CENATIEMPO: You've written in the Australian this week – sorry, last week about the long-term outlook for the coal industry. Now, you say it might be uncertain, but I've been hearing the term structural decline of the coal industry for at least the past decade, but it seems to keep bucking the trend.
FITZGIBBON: That's right, Stephen, it's rubbish. Let's look at what's happening in China in particular, at the moment, they put new electricity – coal fired generation into the system last year, just in one year, the equivalent of 19 Liddell Power Stations – that’s the Liddell Power Station in the Hunter Valley, 2000 megawatt hours at capacity. They are growing and building their coal-fired power generation system and they'll be demanding quality thermal coal for a long, long time, but still other countries too. What's happening, Governments of Asia are putting stimulus into their economies in response to COVID and that's driving demand for both thermal and coking coal and, of course, our iron ore very happily. So, I believe things are very bright for the coal mining industry and will be for a long time to come.
CENATIEMPO: Well, I guess that's one of the ironies of our dilemmas with China at the moment is that BHP shareholders have received record dividends with the price of iron ore doubling over the past 12 months, and off the back of Chinese expert – Chinese imports, or Chinese exports, I should say.
FITZGIBBON: That's right. The other part of that equation is that they're still having difficulty in production of iron ore in Brazil. So, one of our main competitors is largely out of the out of the system at the moment. So, we're benefiting from that. And of course, it takes both iron ore and coking coal to make steel. People talk about the mythical green steel revolution where you'll replace coking coal with hydrogen but gee, that's a long, long way off.
CENATIEMPO: Now I was looking – I saw you appeared on one of the Sky News programs the other night with Matt Canavan, and you were talking about this – the government saying that if the private sector doesn't build gas-fired power station in the Hunter Valley it will step in and do it. At what point do they say, well, the private sector is not going to do it?
FITZGIBBON: Well, Scott Morrison is just playing a bit of a game here, Stephen. He has every intention of building that gas-fired generator. He doesn't – he doesn't want to say he's given up on the extension of the coal-fired Liddell Power Station, you know, because he made such a fuss of forcing AGL to extend its life. But we all knew that that was never going to happen. And she's almost 50 years of age, she never runs to capacity now, because if you turn her up to too high, the boilers will just blow. So, you know, he knows that's not going to happen. He just didn't want to say that he'd given up on the Liddell and coal-fired generation, and then he moved somewhere else. But it's very clear that we will need a new gas-peaking station in the Hunter Valley, and I hope we get two of them.
CENATIEMPO: Now you and I have discussed this recently that your position on uranium has changed and nuclear power in recent times. What do we need to do to actually put that on the agenda? I mean, what are the logical steps? Because I know at the moment, it's prohibited, but how do we go about changing that?
FITZGIBBON: Well, you remove the prohibition, and then you test the market. You see whether anyone comes forward with a proposition, and if they do, you start assessing community reactions and putting it through an approvals process. And if it doesn't make it through to the other end, if the community rejects it, well, they reject it like any other project. But at the moment, we can't even test the proposition because there's this silly prohibition, a prohibition John Howard put in place as a deal with the Democrats to get his GST through 22 or so years ago. It's just silly, and back then, of course, Howard never expected anyone would come forward with one because they were so expensive, and we had such an abundance of other cheap energy supplies. But things have changed, including the cost of nuclear generators. We've got these small nuclear reactors possibly coming to the market. They don't need water, like the old stations. So, you don't need to put them in heavily populated populations on the coast. You can actually bury them out in the desert. They're smaller and less expensive. So, remove the prohibition, see if someone comes forward and ask the community whether it's acceptable to them. If it's not, well so be it. But at the moment, we can't even test it.
CENATIEMPO: So, will we say a private member's bill coming from the Member of Hunter on that in that regard.
CENATIEMPO: Talk the next week, mate.
FITZGIBBON: Good on you, mate.