Valley still left waiting

THE Latrobe Valley will have to wait for news on a range of issues critical to its economic future while they remain bogged in bureaucracy.

State Energy and Resources Minister Michael O’Brien was in the Valley this week but was unable to reveal time frames for news on new coal allocation licences, when the State Government might be able to recoup millions from an embattled HRL gas plant project or the findings of a formal enquiry into last year’s Morwell River collapse into the Yallourn coal mine.

This week Mr O’Brien said the independent inquiry was still underway, and though he hoped to receive a final report within weeks, he could give no indication of any findings to date, having “deliberately taken an approach where I don’t want to get in the middle of this inquiry.”

“It should be independent of the minister’s office, and it has been done so… I will receive the report when departmental inspectors and independent officers are ready to give it to me,” he said.

Later, asked if the State Government was confident of recouping millions from HRL, previously allocated for a proposed dual-gas plant in the Valley which has since been shelved following the withdrawal of Federal Government support for the project, Mr O’Brien was also cautious in his response.

While it has been confirmed HRL had already spent about $20 million of a $50 million State Government allocation, decisions regarding the remaining $30 million have been subject to ongoing discussion between the company and the government.

Mr O’Brien, who would not confirm figures, said, however, the government was “very keen” to exit that arrangement “in a way that best protects the interests of taxpayers”, which was a “priority over arbitrary timeframes”.

“We are very keen to do this as soon as possible but once lawyers are involved sometimes things take longer than you would like,” he said.

This week the minister said there had been “significant interest from a number of applicants” who had since been short listed but any decisions would be made by an independent assessment panel.

“It has been oversubscribed in terms of interest”, Mr O’Brien said, but the process was “very much on track”.

Meanwhile the Valley will be waiting until at least mid-year for news on a potential tender process for further local coal allocations.

Though the State Government had been expected to make an announcement on the “next stage” of the process late last year, this week Mr O’Brien said it was reluctant to rush the process and wanted to avoid getting people’s “hopes us falsely”.

“We are not delaying decisions,” he said.

“It is a question of getting better information to make this process work.”

While insisting “market engagement activities” had so far been “very positive”, indicating numerous companies were interested in accessing the Valley’s coal, Mr O’Brien said “we want to do our homework and make a sensible decision that will lead to positive outcomes for the Gippsland community”.