Thursday, July 11, 2024


Mackay and Whitsunday Life

Council Takes Neutral Stance On Pumped Hydro

Mackay Regional Council recently grappled with the contentious issue of pumped hydro during an ordinary meeting last month, when Councillor George Christensen proposed a motion to formally oppose Queensland Hydro’s Pioneer-Burdekin pumped hydroelectricity project.

Cr Christensen articulated his apprehensions in detail, explaining that the project would entail the creation of three large reservoirs, resulting in the displacement of the town of Netherdale and affecting numerous farms and properties.

"The loss of cane-farming land is of particular concern as it can impact the viability of local sugar mills and, thus, the local sugar industry overall," he said. He further emphasised the environmental degradation the project could cause, particularly to the sensitive ecosystems of Eungella and the Pioneer Valley.

"The project endangers the platypus population by destroying their breeding areas and disrupting their natural habitats," Christensen added. He also highlighted potential water quality issues, including high turbidity and cross-catchment pollution.

Cr Christensen also pointed out socio-economic challenges that could arise from the influx of a predominantly fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workforce.

"The influx of a 2,000-strong workforce, primarily FIFO workers, will exacerbate the already critical housing shortage in the Mackay region,” he said.

“This additional population pressure is expected to drive up rental costs further, making housing less affordable for local residents," he explained. Christensen also warned about the strain on the local labour market, predicting that the project would attract workers away from local businesses, worsening labour shortages and impacting the regional economy.

Kieran Cusack, CEO of Queensland Hydro, presented a contrasting viewpoint, emphasising the potential benefits of the project.

"Pumped hydro energy storage is unquestionably the right technology to enable Queensland’s clean energy transition,” he said.

“It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Mackay and Greater Whitsunday region," Cusack stated.

He highlighted that the project could support up to 3,500 jobs during peak construction, including opportunities for apprentices and graduates, thereby providing new opportunities for the region's workforce and businesses.

Cusack detailed the broader economic benefits, stating, "It will green the export and domestic energy supply chain for Queensland, including Bowen Basin miners, giving businesses green credentials that will undoubtedly help with exports to support their industry for years to come." He also noted the project's role in aiding the diversification of the sugar industry into biofuels and other products, supporting its long-term sustainability.

Addressing environmental concerns, Cusack assured, "We understand our project is in an area of ecological significance, and we can deliver a nature-positive project that creates benefits to the local environment over and above the long-term climate benefits of our pumped hydro projects." He assured Queensland Hydro's commitment to ensuring that the environment and local community benefit from the project.

“This region can continue to be an Australian and Queensland leader and drive the next economic boom powered by the renewable energy transition.”

Deputy Mayor Belinda Hassan expressed caution regarding the motion to formally oppose the Pioneer-Burdekin pumped hydroelectricity project. She highlighted the importance of waiting for comprehensive reports and assessments before making any decisions.

"Because it's not yet proven whether this project is viable, we need to see the detailed analytical report that will show whether it can meet all economical and environmental standards," Hassan stated. She emphasised that the report is not due out until later this year and cautioned against making premature decisions that could affect future councils.

"I am very hesitant as a current councillor to make decisions on behalf of future councils, especially when this project might not even be approved until 2027 or 2028," she added.

Hassan also pointed out the potential consequences of taking an official position against the project. "Taking an official position opposing this pumped hydro project could exclude council from having active involvement in managing the flow-on impacts, both positive and negative, should it go ahead," she warned. She reminded her fellow councillors that it is not their role to decide whether the project proceeds, stating, "That's up to the government of the day and the council of the day."

"We have spent a significant amount of council money and resources to attract investment into this region, encouraging people to come and live, work, and invest here.

“Rejecting the hydro project could also mean rejecting all the associated projects that could stem from it.”

Cr Alison Jones proposed a procedural motion to lay Cr Christensen's motion on the table, pending further information from ongoing investigations and studies by Queensland Hydro. This procedural motion, which passed with a majority, effectively delayed any decision on opposing the project until more detailed information is available.

Cr Christensen argued that immediate opposition was necessary to protect the region from potential harm, stating, "Given the significant negative impacts on the Netherdale and Eungella communities, local farming enterprises, and the natural environment, particularly the platypus population, it is imperative for Mackay Regional Council to take a stand against the Pioneer-Burdekin pumped hydroelectricity scheme."

Conversely, Cusack highlighted the future financial benefits of the project, noting, "In April 2024, Deloitte Economics released its analysis of a Net Zero Queensland.

“For North and Outback Queensland, which includes this region, it noted that by 2050, there would be $240 billion in economic opportunity and 84,000 additional jobs added to the region.

“Our Pioneer-Burdekin project is the great enabler of this economic opportunity."

Ultimately, the council determined that, as the project is only in the investigation stage, there is nothing substantive to oppose at this point. This decision allows for further studies and assessments to inform a more comprehensive understanding of the project's potential impacts and benefits before taking an official position. The debate highlights the balancing act between environmental protection, community concerns, and the pursuit of renewable energy opportunities that the council must navigate in its decision-making process.

Artist impression of how the Pioneer Valley will be changed by the Pioneer-Burdekin pumped hydro's lower reservoir. Image source: Queensland Hydro

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