The Morrison government has refused to release the details of a decision by federal energy and emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor to award $3.64 million in public funding towards a feasibility study into a proposed new coal fired power station in Queensland.
RenewEconomy had sought access to the approval brief for the grant awarded to a Queensland company, Shine Energy, to undertake a feasibility study into a proposed Collinsville coal fired power station, signed by Taylor, through a freedom of information request.
The Collinsville power station plan envisaged a 1,000MW “high-efficiency low-emissions” generator in Northern Queensland, but the company developing the plan, Shine Energy, has no prior experience in building or operating a power station in Australia.
A multi-million dollar grant was awarded to Shine Energy to undertake a “bankable” feasibility study into the coal plant with the intention that the company may then proceed to construct the plant.
RenewEconomy sought access to the brief signed by Taylor approving the grant of funding. However, the response issued by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources has virtually all of the information contained within the brief redacted.
The Freedom of Information Act provides an exemption from the release of documents that “contains information the disclosure of which would reveal a Cabinet deliberation or decision” – however, the exemption no longer applies once the “deliberation or decision has been officially disclosed.”
The department relied on this exemption – following consultation with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – despite a media release announcing the award of the grant being including amongst the documents identified as being covered by the scope of the freedom of information request.
It’s a puzzling decision, given the grant was announced through multiple government media releases and has been the subject of a significant level of public scrutiny.
Other portions of documents were also withheld on the basis that they included business information, with the department deciding that the release of those details were not in the public interest.
The approval brief, and the grant awarded to Shine Energy, were considered by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) as part of a scathing audit of the Morrison government’s decision to award the grant.
The ANAO found that the value of the grant awarded, around $3.6 million, was insufficient to ensure that Shine Energy could complete a bankable feasibility study into the proposed Collinsville coal fired power station.
The audit also found that department officials had not appropriately disclosed potential conflicts of interests and identified multiple instances of Taylor receiving confidential documents relating to his ministerial duties via his personal email accounts.
The ANAO criticised the decision to award the grant, saying that the department’s recommendation to provide funding to Shine Energy did not fully satisfy its own grant criteria and that the assessment had been conducted on an incomplete application submitted by Shine Energy.
“[The department’s] recommendation that the Shine Energy grant be made was not consistent with its assessment work which identified that some eligibility requirements and appraisal criteria had not been met,” the ANAO said.
Department officials subsequently told a Senate estimates hearing that they understood the funding would be inadequate and if Shine Energy failed to complete the feasibility study – by failing to secure other sources of funding – that it would be a “legitimate outcome” for the $3.6 million taxpayer-funded grant process.
Taylor signed off on the grant, noting in a hand written note on the brief that he noted “the department’s verbal and written briefings and I am comfortable that the department has an appropriate risk management plan.”
The contents of this risk management plan have also been redacted.
The Morrison government has previously refused to release the details of several related documents, including refusing public access to the preliminary results of the feasibility study undertaken by Shine Energy.
A review of the outcomes of freedom of information requests undertaken by the Australian Conservation Foundation found that federal environment, climate change and energy departments were refusing access to documents at an increasing rate.
The Collinsville power station proposal is likely to garner new attention from within the Morrison government, following the re-instalment of Barnaby Joyce as leader of the Nationals party. Former resources minister Matt Canavan is closely aligned with Joyce and was largely responsible for the feasibility study being awarded funding.
It is reported that Canavan confronted prime minister Scott Morrison in a heated meeting to demand the funding for the feasibility study be included amongst the government’s election promises ahead of the 2019 federal election.
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