Coal Rocks On, Features

Coal baron pushes for public money: questions raised about influence

Picture: Trevor St Baker

Fossil Fool Bulletin 2.17 • 5 April 2019

The Morrison Government must explain why it intervened on behalf of political donor and coal baron Trevor St Baker to commission a review of how coal power plants can receive funding under the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) says.

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) show Environment Minister Melissa Price requested a review “the ways coal-fired power stations can earn credits under the [ERF facilities] method.”

The documents show that in December last year, Environment Minister Melissa Price requested a key oversight committee to review “the ways coal-fired power stations can earn credits under the [ERF facilities] method and seek advice on any changes that could be made to the method to improve its clarity and intent.”

This followed a decision by the independent Clean Energy Regulator (CER) ruling the Vales Point coal power station should not qualify for carbon credits and cash under the ERF for a project it had registered to upgrade parts at the plant.

Aggro lobbying, legal threats

This decision led to a flurry of aggressive lobbying, and even legal threats, from representatives for Mr St Baker’s Delta Electricity across the CER, Department of Environment, and the offices of Energy Minister Angus Taylor and Minister Price. The release of the FOI documents comes as a project to upgrade generating units at Vales Point was included on a shortlist of power projects the Morrison Government is considering “underwriting”.

St Baker told the ABC his company was seeking $15 million to $16 million from the fund to replace turbine blades at the Vales Point Power Station, which he said would make the plant more efficient and reduce its carbon emissions.

According to The Australian, he and Brian Flannery’s Sunset Power paid a token $1 million to the NSW government for the ageing Vales Point coal-fired power station in 2015. Last year the asset recorded a bumper $113 million profit from $505 million revenue.

ACF has been researching the outcomes and operation of the ERF. In February ACF wrote to the Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee (ERAC) requesting a separate review of several methods, including facilities, due to concerns about adverse outcomes. The ERAC has confirmed a review of the facilities method will commence soon and ACF’s concerns will be considered as part of that.

ACF Chief Executive Officer, Kelly O’Shanassy, said: “On one hand we have an independent regulator that has made a clear decision. On the other we have a well-connected donor and coal baron throwing his weight around.

“Minister Price was well within her rights to call for a review. But the timing and focus on coal in the intervention raises significant questions about the influence of Mr St Baker and the government’s support for fossil fuels.

“I commend the Clean Energy Regulator, which these documents suggest has stood firm against intense lobbying. The Morrison Government could have similarly stood firm against Mr St Baker’s push and let matter sit with the Regulator’s ruling.

“This issue reinforces the importance of strong, independent regulators making decisions free from political interference. It again bolsters the case for the establishment of a national Environment Protection Authority to oversee stronger environmental laws.

Push for public money to support coal

“The Morrison Government needs to explain its relationship with Trevor St Baker, a major party donor who is seemingly pushing hard to get public money and institutional backing for his coal business.

“Australians are sick of big money and lobbyists trumping the public good.

“ACF has consistently called for new funding allocations to the Emissions Reduction Fund, now known as the Climate Solutions Fund, not to occur until the scheme is overhauled. Methods that allow payments to big companies to burn more fossil fuels should be immediately scrapped.

“ACF believes programs like the Emissions Reduction Fund or Carbon Farming Initiative have a role in a comprehensive climate change strategy to encourage farmers and other landowners to cut emissions, protect forests and restore landscapes.

“However, the Emissions Reduction Fund is not a substitute for more substantial climate policies like regulations, caps and trading schemes. Five years of rising emissions are testament to that.”

CoalWire editor, Bob Burton, says that Trevor St Baker has a decades-long history in Australia’s coal power sector and has emerged as one of the most prominent opponents in the ranks of the power industry of a rapid transition to greater renewables generation.

A darling of the Libs & Nats

“His criticisms of wind and solar power and support for coal power have made him a darling of Liberal and National Party politicians seeking power industry validation for their opposition to renewables.

“Aside from his successful business career and inclusion on the 2018 and 2019 Rich Lists, he has been a director of lobby groups including the Queensland Resources Council, the peak mining industry lobby group, the Energy Policy Institute of Australia and Chairman of the National Generators Forum,” Burton said.

St Baker founded ERM Power, a private power company known for its political donations and the use of well-connected lobbyists.

Today he is listed in The Australian as the 184th richest Australian and is worth $556 million.

ERM Power has donated around $200,000 to political parties over the last decade, mostly to Federal and Queensland conservatives, but also smaller amounts to Labor.

“Helping to guide ERM Power’s political strategy was SAS Consulting Group, a lobbying firm which boasts Larry Anthony, the former National Party member in the House of Representatives for the northern NSW seat of Richmond as its director,” Burton said. (Larry Anthony is the son of former National Party politician, Doug Anthony, who was Deputy Prime Minister under Malcolm Fraser.)

St Baker is also the director of SMR Nuclear Techology, which promotes the use of small modular reactors, and chair of Sunset Power, trading as Delta Electricity, which owns Vales Point power station.

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