Is the end near for Hazelwood?

Related: The community responds

Media speculation the Hazelwood Power Station would likely close as early as April has sent government, community, union and political leaders scurrying for answers.

Energy, Environment and Climate Change Minister Lily D’Ambrosio visited Morwell on Saturday following a Fairfax Media report.

At the weekend, the State Government vowed to support the Latrobe Valley community, but stopped short of announcing a specific structural adjustment commitment above and beyond its recent investment in the Valley.

Ms D’Ambrosio said a discussion with Hazelwood owner Engie had yielded no new information.

“I called senior management of the company to seek some clarification and further information from them and what they confirmed with me is that they had made no decision about the future of the plant and they did not want to elaborate any further on that,” Ms D’Ambrosio told The Express.

“What is frustrating is that almost every week for many, many months now, the local community hears of another rumour and yet another rumour and I can understand the community feeling quite anxious, very anxious about their future.”

Fairfax Media’s report on Saturday said Engie was expected to hold a board meeting in October to finalise a decision to close the station.

The report suggested the company had already told the State Government it intended to close the plant, potentially on 1 April next year.

Yesterday afternoon an Engie spokeperson told The Express no final decision had been made.

In this year’s budget, the State Government announced a $40 million transition package for the Valley, $10 million of which will be used to help existing businesses grow and to attract new employment opportunities to the area.

However, the detail is yet to be revealed on how the remainder will be spent.

“We are walking the walk and we will not leave the community behind and they will have us walking alongside them through thick and thin,” Ms D’Ambrosio said.

When asked whether the $40 million would be enough, Ms D’Ambrosio said it was “a start”. 

“We’ve worked, we’ve invested money and we will continue to invest money and grow that in the future.”

She said the community needed real, tangible outcomes and when asked whether this could be achieved in time, she said the government was “not sitting back and waiting”.

“We’re getting on with it and we’ll continue to do that and if that requires a further uplift in effort, we’re going to be doing that too. 

“We’ll do whatever it takes to ensure there is a strong and vibrant and resilient future for the people in the Valley.”

Hazelwood directly employs more than 500 people and about 300 contract workers, supplying up to 25 per cent of Victoria’s energy.

“The big concern is if Hazelwood shuts down, and given the estimation of what people get paid is pretty much $80 million in wages over a yearly period not going into the Latrobe Valley community, it will have major implications on the economy of our region,” Gippsland Trades and Labour Council secretary Steve Dodd said.

Mr Dodd and other local union representatives met with Ms D’Ambrosio on Saturday, calling on the government to fund a transition centre so workers and families had the best possible chance for re-employment.

He called upon the energy companies to support a transition that enabled workers to move between power generation sites as units were retired.

Latrobe City chief executive Gary Van Driel said the mood within council and the broader community had been one of frustration and need for an actual timeframe for any potential closure.

“Every time there’s a report like this, the anxiety and frustration, concern in the community is just raised to that next level,” Mr Van Driel said.

“This community has been through some fairly significant changes with the downsizing of the SEC and further downsizing through privatisation.

“What we don’t want to see this time is that the community is just left to fend for themselves.”

Mr Van Driel also met with Ms D’Ambrosio on Saturday and said she reinforced the government’s commitment to work with the community.

He said council had not been party to any discussion regarding the form or staging of a potential closure of Hazelwood, describing the media report as speculative.

However he said council was taking a proactive approach in progressing strategies to support the community, business and industry.

Mr Van Driel said in the short term, any closure would require support for displaced employees.

In the medium term, he said there needed to be opportunities to grow existing businesses and in the longer term a look at local education outcomes and the Valley’s role in the decentralisation of Melbourne, with a push to attract government agencies here.

He said these plans needed support from state and federal governments.

Federal Member for Gippsland Darren Chester has met with Cabinet colleagues to discuss the speculation surrounding Hazelwood’s future.

Mr Chester said he had raised the potential impact on energy security, the household cost of living increases, and the assistance that would need to be provided to support families and the regional economy.

Although Mr Chester highlighted there had been no formal announcement from Hazelwood’s owners, he said he felt “deeply concerned about the ongoing speculation”.

“The social and economic impacts of a premature closure would be devastating for the Latrobe Valley at a time when we are already experiencing high unemployment levels,” Mr Chester said.

Data from the Department of Employment show Latrobe’s unemployment rate sat at 10.7 per cent for the June quarter 2016, up from 6.9 per cent the year before.

“If Hazelwood does close in the near future, there will be a need for all levels of government to work together to provide funding for infrastructure upgrades, skills training and other initiatives to secure jobs in our region,” Mr Chester said.

He said the nation would depend on the Valley’s baseload energy for decades to come, and suggested there were alternate uses for brown coal that could provide long-term jobs in the region.

“But industry needs the confidence to invest in new technology,” he said.

Mr Chester vowed to work with other politicians, industry, business and community members, with his primary focus looking after the interests of families “who have been unfairly vilified in recent years”.