HRL money fate unclear

The fate of $30 million in Victorian taxpayer money, awarded to HRL’s embattled dual gas project, remains unclear, more than 10 months after Commonwealth funding for the project was withdrawn.

The delay has been slammed as “unacceptable” by State Greens leader Greg Barber, who has made numerous unsuccessful attempts to force government transparency over the payment.

The proposed $1 billion project, which sought to establish a 600 megawatt brown coal gasification generator in Morwell, lost a $100 million Commonwealth grant in July 2012 after failing to meet required project milestones.

However the remainder of a $50 million State Government grant, the granting of which was tied to the Federal funding remaining in place, remains unclear – $20 million is believed to have already been drawn down by the company.

In a question put to the then Energy and Resources minister Michael O’Brien in October 2011, Mr Barber asked how much of the $50 million had already been provided to Dual Gas Pty Ltd under the amended funding deed.

A response from current Energy and Resources Minister Nicholas Kotsiras dated 9 May 2012 – 19 months after the question was first tabled – stated funding information, including the release of said funds, was commercial in confidence.

“If government money is commercial in confidence, you outsource the accountability for the spending of public funds, of which there now seems to be none,” Mr Barber said.

“Anyone who handles public money has an accountability as to what we get back in return – here we are long after the whole project has fallen into a heap, and a simple figure on how much spent on the project before it collapsed is the bare minimum taxpayers deserve.”

In response to initial questions from The Express last week, Minister Kotsiras said the department was “discussing” the implications of the Commonwealth’s 10 month-old decision to withdraw funds.

Subsequent questions put to the minister were not answered.

In a February 2012 visit to the Latrobe Valley, Mr O’Brien told The Express the funding was subject to ongoing legal discussions with HRL, adding the government was “very keen” to exit the arrangement “in a way that best protects the interests of taxpayers”, which was a “priority over arbitrary time frames”.

A HRL spokesperson did not comment on government funding questions, adding the project was “not dead” but remained frozen, as per the company’s announcement in April 2012.