How huge gas project would bring regional town back to life

Approving the long-­delayed Narrabri gas project is the "best answer" to driving down prices in the NSW market, according to federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

He also called for a decision "as soon as reasonably possible", amid concerns of a further blowout in power ­prices.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mr Taylor said Australia was "incredibly well positioned" to recover from the coronavirus crisis and that NSW had an extra advantage because of the deal struck in January ­between the Morrison and Berejiklian governments that will add 70 petajoules of gas to the current east coast market of 350PJ.

There are at least three options for delivering that - the Narrabri project (just over 70PJ) - as well as proposed import terminals at Port Kembla (100PJ) and Newcastle (110PJ).

A gas well in Narrabri. The NSW and federal governments say the gas project would boost jobs and reduce energy prices Picture: Nathan Edwards.
A gas well in Narrabri. The NSW and federal governments say the gas project would boost jobs and reduce energy prices Picture: Nathan Edwards.

"Could import terminals work? Absolutely," Mr Taylor said. "Would you rather the gas be here? Yep.

"The best answer is Narrabri … it's local so you can strike long-term deals that are good for both sides - the supplier and manufacturers.

"You are starting to see the pressures that were on manufacturing easing," Mr Taylor said. "Whereas we've had (price) headwinds until recently, we've now got tailwinds.

"We can start to really push this gas-fired recovery coming out of COVID-19.

"I don't think there are many countries that are as well positioned as Australia to do it. We are incredibly well positioned."

Twenty years after exploration began, Narrabri's proponent Santos is hopeful it will be approved in August.

Minister for Energy Angus Taylor. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Minister for Energy Angus Taylor. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Before the virus crisis, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said there would be a decision by the end of June.

The Independent Planning Commission is still to receive the NSW Department of Planning's final assessment report. Once the IPC does, it will take up to three months to make a ruling.

Santos CEO Kevin Gallagher said the "Narrabri project is more important than ever to create jobs, investment and cheaper gas to get the NSW economy moving again.

"Crucial in the economic recovery will be projects that are ready to go and will have significant flow-on benefits for other job-creating industries like manufacturing," Mr Gallagher said.

Federal Industry Minister Karen Andrews told The Daily Telegraph high power prices had been a ­factor in the decline of manufacturing.

"The cost of energy has been a factor in driving businesses out of manufacturing in Australia," Ms Andrews said, along with wages.

"We are a high-wage nation and we are not seeking to change that at all," she said.

"Which mean the other costs we need to look at is the energy supply costs."

Narrabri’s main street would get a healthy boost of patrons if the gas project brought jobs to the region. Picture: Nathan Edwards
Narrabri’s main street would get a healthy boost of patrons if the gas project brought jobs to the region. Picture: Nathan Edwards

Mr Gallagher said dry cleaners, food processors and other manufacturers would be better off by tens, and in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, if Santos got the nod.

The 95,000ha project had the potential to supply half the state's gas needs.

"Narrabri can be at the forefront of the economic ­recovery," he said.

The proposal involves at least $2 billion worth of ­investment in its own right.

Should it be approved it will likely underpin an ammonia plant, generating another $2 billion of investment.

But for one of the town's prodigal sons, Stuart Southwell, the project could be the key to turning around Narrabri's slow decline and keeping young workers in the area.

Mr Southwell describes himself as a "rare bird", in that he left Narrabri, got a university degree and lived elsewhere, before eventually returning to start a family and build a future.

"Most of my mates haven't," Mr Southwell said.

He believes the Santos gas project can help turn around the town's continuing exodus.

Stuart Southwell at his Narrabri home with his wife Brooke and children Georgia, 4, Jacqueline, 2, and Alexandra, 5 months. Picture: Josh Smith
Stuart Southwell at his Narrabri home with his wife Brooke and children Georgia, 4, Jacqueline, 2, and Alexandra, 5 months. Picture: Josh Smith

"If you aren't a Tamworth, Wagga Wagga or Dubbo, or within a bull's roar of Sydney like an Orange or Mudgee, then the writing is on the wall as you count the decades," he said.

Mr Southwell said he wasn't talking down the bush.

Much of the population slide was due to agriculture's adoption of technology, which meant modern farms were now less labour-­intensive.

However, he believes the gas project, along with the ­Inland Rail line, had the potential to be "massive boons".

"It could be an example of what can happen in the bush if key projects get the approvals they need, instead of dragging on for years and years," Mr Southwell said.

It was disappointing when outside media made it look like the community was split 50-50 on the Santos' plan, he said.

 

The truth was you could "fit all the detractors on a bus" against a shire population of 13,000.

Historically, the critics had been the most vocal, he said. But those in favour were no longer silent. "They are now the outspoken majority, ­because of the drought."

Mr Southwell, who with wife Brooke is raising three daughters - Georgia, 4, Jacqueline, 2, and Alexandra, 5 months - in the town, is a real estate agent.

"People will think, 'well he just wants to sell more ­houses'."

But he said he'd had enough of selling houses for people who were leaving the area because of limited job prospects, health services and schooling options.

Originally published as How huge gas project would bring regional town back to life


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