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Interview with Michael Rowland on ABC News Breakfast

26 February 2020

Michael Rowland

Subject: Equinor ends exploration in the Great Australian Bight, emissions reduction


INTRODUCTION: The Federal Government has expressed its disappointment after a third major company abandoned plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: While it's a move broadly welcomed by environmentalists, others were hoping the jobs associated with the project would help boost South Australia's economy. The federal Resources Minister Keith Pitt joins us now from Canberra. Minister, good morning to you. How are you taking this news?

KEITH PITT: Well good morning to you, and good morning to your viewers. Well clearly it's disappointing. We do want further exploration in the Bight, it is a frontier exploration area. There are some challenging conditions, but Equinor has said that this is a purely commercial decision and I take them at their word.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: It's not just Equinor, BP and Chevron, two other big oil giants, say it's uneconomic from their perspective to drill in the Bight. Should their views be taken into account as well and this area declared simply too hard?

KEITH PITT: Well my understanding is there have been 13 exploration rigs in the area over recent years. They've been unsuccessful. But exploration companies make these decisions right around the world every single day based on the - on a commercial basis. The world oil price has been relatively suppressed for a period of time. It is expensive in the Bight because it's deep and there are challenging conditions. Our intention as a government is to push on. We are looking for further oil reserves and further opportunities for the resources sector because it drives jobs and drives our economy.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:  Equinor, just earlier this month, raised its targets for cutting its greenhouse gas emissions. It's a big thing, as you would well know as Resources Minister, for a lot of European oil companies to do this. You don't think that factored at all in their decision to pull out of this project?

KEITH PITT: Well my department's been working closely with them for a very long period of time. They flew into speak with me personally. I have looked at them in the eyeballs. That's what they've said. I take them at their word. It's a commercial decision only. I mean, when we look at activists, they'll promise the sun will come up in the morning if they think it suits their purposes. So as the Resources Minister, my job is to continue to expand opportunities for the resources sector. The jobs that come with it, the additional GDP for our nation. It is the Commonwealth for the common people and we want to ensure that they get that opportunity.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: But environmentalists do say this is an area of immense importance in terms of marine wilderness, should those views be taken into account?

KEITH PITT: Well the independent regulator NOPSEMA had already approved the environmental plan for Equinor's operations in the Bight. Things were moving forward. There were no challenges there. But it is purely a commercial decision based on the expected cost and the risk-reward profile. These challenges occur right around the world; international companies have a number of options. But we will continue to look for opportunities in the Bight because it's in the interests of the nation.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. Now this is the first appearance on the show since becoming Resources Minister and coming back to the ministry, Keith Pitt. So belated congratulations to you. You left the ministry back in 2018 because you didn't like the Paris target; the Government is pursuing of 26 per cent greenhouse gas emissions. What has changed in your view from quitting then to coming back now?

KEITH PITT:  Well that's not what I said at all. I was offered a position; I declined. The people I represent simply can't afford to pay higher power prices. As a Member of the House of Representatives, my priority will always be my constituents.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: You said you'd put power prices ahead of Paris. So you did talk about the Paris target.

KEITH PITT: Well very clearly, power prices for the people I represent are critical. Whether they are in business, whether it is agriculture, whether it is an individual or whether it's retiree. They simply can't pay more. The Queensland Government is solely responsible for setting the price of electricity in Queensland. They own 70 per cent of the generators, all the poles and the wires, they set the price. The Queensland Labor Government is taking $1.5 billion in profits out of the energy networks. To me that is just obscene. There is opportunities there to reduce the cost of power for people who can't pay and I'm incredibly supportive of making sure that happens.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Do you support the target of 26 to 28 per cent reduction on 2005 levels?

KEITH PITT: As I've said many times, we have made a commitment. Internationally we will meet our commitments. We took that proposal…

MICHAEL ROWLAND: And you support that commitment?

KEITH PITT: We took that proposal to the election. I'm a member of the Government; I support what we are doing. We took a balanced proposition. It was accepted by the Australian people at the election. They clearly rejected what was put forward by then Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten, although I see Mr Anthony Albanese has decided he wants to head down the same track, un-costed and unplanned targets. I don't think people will fall for it.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: These are targets you're talking about net zero emissions supported by the New South Wales Liberal Government, all states and territories in Australia, the Business Council of Australia. What is wrong with setting a net zero emissions target by 2050?

KEITH PITT: Well we are looking at a technology roadmap as you'd know. We're looking for opportunities into the future. And I'm sure that those shareholding ministers that have responsibility for that area will be making statements later in the year. But right now we're committed to 2030. We'll deliver on our commitments, we'll do what we said we would, we've taken a balanced proposition to the Australian people and it's been accepted.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. You, as Resources Minister, shortly after taking that portfolio commissioned the $4 billion feasibility study into the proposed Collinsville coal-fired power station. As a supporter of the fossil fuel industry, would you support a power station in that Queensland town?

KEITH PITT: Well it was $4 million, up to $4 million for the feasibility study. It was an election commitment. We deliver on our election commitments and feasibility studies determine feasibility, that's what they're for. As an engineer, I'll wait to see the results. But I want to say very clearly - if you are technology agnostic in terms of the fuel, if you look at HELE coal, so supercritical boilers combine with CCS, that is a 90 per cent reduction on emissions on some legacy brown coal power stations around the country. So if you want to take up every opportunity, you need to look at this with open eyes and a mind and I think there are opportunities for building further power stations right around the country and we need them.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. And power stations underwritten by the Federal Government, would you support that?

KEITH PITT: Well we already support that, that's our policy.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: But will you support further power stations underwritten by the Federal Government?

KEITH PITT: Yeah. But we are making those commitments now. That's what we took to the election. We've said that we'll underwrite generation capacity around the country, that's what we're doing. Angus Taylor is doing a fantastic job in his portfolio, he is the shareholding Minister. And some of those decisions have already been announced and I'm sure there'll be more in the future.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. We'll see how that all transpires. Keith Pitt, thank you so much for joining us on News Breakfast this morning.

KEITH PITT: It's great to be with you.