Govt 'asleep at wheel' on Solid Energy

Mechanical fitter Ross Vernon says Huntly mining workers were "sold a dream" which never eventuated. Photo / Christine Cornege
Mechanical fitter Ross Vernon says Huntly mining workers were "sold a dream" which never eventuated. Photo / Christine Cornege

The Government and Treasury missed the chance to step in and force change at troubled state-owned coal company Solid Energy when problems became apparent to officials and ministers about 18 months ago, the Opposition says.

Solid Energy is currently in crisis talks with Treasury and its bankers over ballooning debts now totalling $389 million.

It blames its woes on low international coal prices, weak demand and the poor performance of its investment in alternative energy assets.

Just a few months after 450 job cuts last year, the company's remaining 1,200-strong workforce are staring down the barrel of further redundancies once a restructuring package is agreed.

Finance Minister Bill English has not ruled out a taxpayer-funded bailout.

Huntly East miners yesterday said they felt betrayed by former Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder, whom they hold responsible for the crisis.

Third generation miner and Huntly East mechanical fitter Ross Vernon said only last year 70 workers were employed on the promise of a 25-year future with the state-owned enterprise.

Mr Vernon said it was heartbreaking that most of those workers were then made redundant in a recent restructure after being "sold a dream" which never eventuated.

"I firmly believe Don Elder has a lot to answer for. He should be ashamed and I wouldn't employ him."

He said Solid Energy should never have spent money on "peripheral" businesses that failed such as converting coal to bio-diesel.

Labour's state-owned enterprises spokesman Clayton Cosgrove savaged SOE Minister Tony Ryall and Mr English for being "asleep at the wheel" as Solid Energy deteriorated over the past 18 months.

Problems at the company first came to light in mid-2011 through a "scoping study" conducted to assess the company's readiness to be partly privatised under the Government's "mixed ownership model".

A few months later, in late 2011, the first public indications of the company's troubles emerged when the Herald highlighted a $1 billion gap between its board's $2.8 billion view of the company's value and a $1.7 billion estimate prepared by a private sector analyst.

Treasury explained that discrepancy as being the result of differing views on the outlook for international coal prices.

Mr Cosgrove said he was "getting very tired of Mr Ryall saying there's nothing he could have done as these were all operational matters".

"He can't tell the board what to do but he can ask questions and demand answers and he can say 'you're sacked'."

Mr Cosgrove said one of those questions in the face of falling coal prices was whether the company had developed adequate contingency plans to cope with them.

Clearly it hadn't, he said, but former chairman John Palmer and former chief executive Don Elder continued in their jobs until recently.

Greens co-leader Russel Norman said the situation at Solid Energy appeared to have "gone to custard without the Government realising what's going on".

"The people who should have had all the information at their fingertips were Treasury's Crown Ownership Monitoring Unit, they're the ones who presumably have had full access to everything inside Solid Energy all the way through.

"The question is why didn't they raise alarm bells about what was going on?"

A Treasury spokeswoman yesterday refused to comment on what action it took after learning of Solid Energy's problems other than to say it had been "very involved".

Dr Elder, who resigned two and a half weeks ago yesterday, told the Weekend Herald he had been "out of contact" since then and was "not up to speed" with the latest developments at the company.

He refused to answer questions about the company or "performance-based payments" or bonuses he had received in recent years.

"I still have commitments to Solid Energy and I'm unable to say anything whatsoever."

Chairman Mark Ford, who took over from Mr Palmer after a board cleanout in November, yesterday said he believed Solid Energy was "a very viable business but only based on our core business - coal production".

Mr Ford said a number of investments made under the previous board and management were done when the New Zealand dollar was lower and prices higher.

They were no longer paying sufficient return, and would all be sold or otherwise "exited".

- Additional reporting, Natalie Akoorie

- NZ Herald

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