IT WAS a “mate of a mate of a mate” who told investment banker Richard Poole about a mothballed Hunter power station in 2016, not long after the High Court disrupted plans to challenge a corruption finding against him.
“I heard through the grapevine, from a mate of a mate of a mate. I looked at it and thought, why is this thing sitting here?” Mr Poole said of Redbank coal-fired power station near Singleton, which shut its doors in 2014 after owner Babcock and Brown’s spectacular global collapse six years earlier.
“It appealed to me to own a generator if we could,” he said, after co-developing and selling energy company Australian Power and Gas and helping establish a small American energy company.
Now Mr Poole is behind a push to re-start Redbank and put the “reputationally and career-cruelling event” of a corruption inquiry involving Eddie Obeid and Upper Hunter coal exploration licences behind him.
“I’m not hiding it. I can’t hide. But at some point you have to move on,” said Mr Poole on Tuesday of the Independent Commission Against Corruption Operation Jasper inquiry which found he and others acted corruptly by concealing the Obeid family’s interest in a Hunter coal area.
I’m not hiding it. I can’t hide. But at some point you have to move on.Investment banker Richard Poole of his negative ICAC finding.
“ICAC was one of the worst experiences of my life but I have mortgages and children and school fees to pay. It cost me five years of business and I’m going to wear it forever, but it’s behind me.”
A document to investors by Hunter Energy, which has the right to buy Redbank and lists Mr Poole as a key contact, seeks re-start funding of $120,000 per month and more than $30 million in further equity. It outlines a “transition” energy complex beside Yancoal’s Warkworth coal mine, with a 143 megawatt coal-fired power station, a gas turbine, solar and battery storage.
The pitch to investors offers “a model at the heart of the energy transition from coal, to a reduced emission environment while maintaining the system reliability needed”.
But “stranded asset” concerns about investing in coal are “definitely, 100 per cent” an issue for potential financiers and “some people don’t want to deal with it for that reason”, he said.
Mr Poole ruled out ideas of Redbank as a bitcoin or blockchain power source, after articles early this year, but confirmed there were talks.
“We were approached by a guy about bitcoin. We thought it might be interesting but it hasn’t come to pass. We were never sitting here thinking we were going to produce bitcoin,” he said.
Redbank power station was approved by Singleton Council in 1994 as a facility to divert coal washery tailing, a waste product from mining, from traditional tailing dams to be used as a fuel to produce power. The energy was to be sold under a 30-year contract with Shortland Electricity to supply power to 100,000 homes.
Greenpeace Australia appealed the approval because of concerns about sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides emissions and the need to “limit greenhouse gases”, but it was rejected because of uncertainty about the effect of carbon emissions.
Mr Poole said a re-commissioned Redbank would include an application to reduce the percentage of mine tailings required under the environmental licence to be used as fuel, but there were “opportunities” for the power station to “burn biomass and waste”.
“We understand where we’re headed in the future, but until there’s a resolution of how we deal with this transition period for energy, we still need baseload power. Closing your eyes to the need for secure energy doesn’t help,” he said.
“We think we’ve got an answer to what Australia needs as we work through this energy transition period. We think it’s a microcosm of what we’re going to see for awhile. In 2019 I would hope we can re-start work at Redbank and be well advanced in what we want to do with the other three projects.
“It’s not a massive plant but for guys like us it’s a great fit. We’d like to see it go well.”
It was “not the easiest proposal to work on”, he said.
“As I’m rapidly learning the approval process is quite complex.”
In August Mr Poole and others adversely named after the ICAC inquiry into Upper Hunter coal exploration licences had a win in the Federal Court against the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. The ACCC alleged Mr Poole, businessman John McGuigan, Eddie Obeid’s sons Moses and Paul and companies associated with them were engaged in cartel conduct over the coal licences. The competition regulator lost the case and was ordered to pay costs.
“It was a comprehensive victory on all matters,” he said.
Hunter Community Environment Centre spokesperson Johannah Lynch said the energy transition was underway, but “it’s going to involve less, not more, coal being burnt for electricity”.
“At a time when Australians are suffering the impacts of extreme weather and we’re hearing warnings of a third year in a row of bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, the idea of re-opening a coal fired power station is frankly madness,” Ms Lynch said.
“The Hunter Valley doesn’t need any more mates’ deals and coal cronies and it certainly doesn’t need more coal fired power stations.”