THE Port of Newcastle says the growing global push against coal-fired power makes it all the more important the NSW government drop its opposition to a Newcastle container terminal.
In comments apparently designed to up the ante on the debate, Port of Newcastle chief executive Craig Carmody lashed out at the restrictions on the port, saying Australia was "an island nation that knows bugger-all about ships and ports".
Accusing the NSW government of "faffing around", Mr Carmody said every year of delay added more uncertainty to the Hunter economy and to people's jobs at a time when private investment should be welcomed.
Mr Carmody said coal made up 96 per cent of the port's trade, and that an increasingly gloomy global outlook for thermal coal meant the region had to prepare itself "before it's too late".
Mr Carmody said last week's announcement by the Indian government that it wanted to end coal imports by 2024 showed how fast governments were moving on the issue.
"We don't know the future of coal," Mr Carmody said.
"Certainly over the next 15 years thermal coal volumes are predicted to be consistent, assuming governments don't change their regulatory settings.
"But what if tomorrow Japan and China said: 'We're moving away from coal-fired power stations in the next five years, that's the end of it'.
"That would a huge blow to the Hunter's economy and the port's future. Given the Indian Coal Ministry announcement last week, we can't be complacent."
The privately run port has been battling the government for two years over restrictions on Newcastle containers that were built into the privatisation of Port Botany and Port Kembla in 2013, and enforced as pre-conditions on Newcastle's privatisation a year later.
Their legality is due to be tested in October in a Federal Court case brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, with mediation between the parties scheduled for April.
The NSW government will not comment on the port's diversification push, citing the court case.
But the port, apparently concerned at its relations with the Coalition, recently hired former National Party director Ross Cadell as a lobbyist for the container terminal as part of its push to turn the original 20-year-old post-BHP dream into a reality.
Port of Newcastle is owned 50/50 by an Australian organisation, The Infrastructure Fund, and the Chinese-backed China Merchants Port Holdings, which is one of the world's biggest port operators and is expanding out of its Chinese and Hong Kong base.
Port of Newcastle has repeatedly told the government it has investors lined up to build a container terminal if the restrictions on a Newcastle container trade were lifted.
As things stand, a Newcastle container terminal would have to subsidise Botany in a way that would effectively double its operating costs, making it virtually impossible to run such a business profitably.
But Mr Carmody says the port has investors ready and waiting to build a shipping terminal on the former BHP steelworks site, with the $1.8-billion project now going by the name Multipurpose Deepwater Terminal.
"Even if we started tomorrow, it would be 12 to 15 years before the container terminal could start generating the type of economic activity that people would expect to see," Mr Carmody said.
"Every single year that we are delayed, every single year people faff around, is just further uncertainty and more risk to the regional economy and people's jobs. We are an island nation that knows absolutely bugger all about ships and ports.
"You would think any private investment in the regions would be seen as good."
Mr Carmody said a Newcastle multipurpose terminal would take three years to build and would be not show a profit in its first seven years.
He said the terminal would hit it straps once it hit one million TEU (twenty-foot equivalent units, a measure of container size) a year, with an ultimate plan to shift two million TEU.
"At one million TEU, the conventional wisdom is that the terminal would generate about 6 per cent of economic growth and become self-sustaining," Mr Carmody said.
For comparison, Port Botany handled about 2.6 million TEU last year, according to its operator, NSW Ports.
Mr Carmody said a Newcastle container terminal would "turbo-charge" the region's economy.
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