MARK COLVIN: Unions say they'll fight to save the Kurnell refinery. They argue that Caltex is a profitable company which shouldn't be closing down operations.
The Australian Workers Union has drawn Woolworths into the fray, because Caltex supplies its petrol stations.
The refinery's closure means most Woolworths stations in New South Wales will no longer be supplied with petrol refined in Australia.
AWU's national secretary Paul Howes spoke to Lexi Metherell.
PAUL HOWES: This is a decision that's going to take two years to implement and we think there is a valid argument that we need to fight back to preserve Australia's fuel refining capacity, to inform the Australian people that you know companies like Woolworths who market themselves as the Australian fresh food people will be, through this decision of Caltex, supplying only foreign fuel through their bowsers.
To make sure that we protect Australia's fuel security and it concerns me that this may be the beginning of the end of Australia's oil refining capability if we lose our oil refinery right across this country we'll have no ability to guarantee our fuel security.
LEXI METHERELL: As you say Caltex is the main supplier to Woolworths, but there will still be the Lytton plant open which will be supplying locally refined fuel to Woolworths won't there?
PAUL HOWES: In Brisbane. But in Sydney all the fuel sold through Woolworths petrol stations will be foreignly refined, it will come from Singapore. There will be no fuel coming down from Lytton, it will all be coming in from Singapore.
LEXI METHERELL: So will your campaign just be an awareness raising campaign or are you calling on consumers to take any action?
PAUL HOWES: We'll be calling on consumers to make it very clear to Woolworths that they expect, if they're going to market themselves as the Australian fresh food people, they should also be the Australian fuel people.
LEXI METHERELL: Isn't it just inevitable that the refining sector in Australia is going to shrink though given the far cheaper costs of refining fuel in Asia?
PAUL HOWES: Well yes, there are some people that have that view, but most developed countries believe in the need to keep their own oil refining capability. Because if you don't refine oil domestically and if there is a global uncertainty or disruption or heaven forbid war, and you can't get fuel supplies in from other nations then your economy grinds to a complete halt.
If we don't have the ability to refine oil here in Australia then we're going to be left in an incredibly precarious position.
LEXI METHERELL: Isn't the writing on the wall though for this refinery and wouldn't it be better to focus the efforts on making sure that workers there are retrained and can get jobs in other industries?
PAUL HOWES: Well we can walk and chew gum at the same time, you know, we'll do everything we can to look after the economic interests of our members but we will also make sure that we articulate the case that shutting down Australia's oil refining capability leaves Australia in a precarious and weaker position.
LEXI METHERELL: Do you agree with the Resources Minister Martin Ferguson when he says that these workers are highly skilled and should be attractive to other employers say LNG gas operations in Queensland as fly-in fly-out workers?
PAUL HOWES: Yeah well I remember when Martin you know, used to come and tell us that the moment that Gorgan started that there would be a huge upswing in Australian Manufacturing. I mean, look, you know, Martin Ferguson's macroeconomic and labour market analysis is something from the 80s when he used to operate in that area.
I don't believe him, I'm disappointed that the Resources Minister is taking no interest in protecting Australia's inters by keeping out resources capacity here domestically.
LEXI METHERELL: Do you want federal support for the Kurnell refinery?
PAUL HOWES: Well it doesn't need federal support, I mean this is not a company that needs a bailout. I mean Caltex is an incredibly profitable company. What they need is to be held to account. And what governments both state and federal need to do is to recognise the national interest is at stake here and to lose our oil refining capability would be a disaster for our nation.
LEXI METHERELL: The Government doesn't think that's on the cards though at this stage.
PAUL HOWES: Well, I mean, you know, I've seen the press release from you know the Resources Minister, I find it really disappointing. I mean it concerns me that we are heading down a very fast path of shutting down all of our oil refineries, we'll be one of the only nations in the OECD that doesn't have the ability to refine our own oil and that really concerns me.
MARK COLVIN: The national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Paul Howes, with Lexi Metherell.
Copyright 2012 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
(Originally published July 26, 2012, in ABC Transcripts.)