Victoria’s last oil refinery and one of two remaining in Australia has recorded a multi-million dollar loss for the last financial year.

Geelong’s Viva Energy released its 2020 financial year results on Wednesday, reporting a $95.1 million loss to its oil refining arm and announcing a business recovery plan to boost the company’s earnings going forward.

The company employs about 700 people and supplies fuel to more than 1,250 Coles Express petrol stations.

The coronavirus pandemic struck a lasting blow to refineries in Australia as fuel demand sharply declined due to border closures and local restrictions on movement.

The major financial loss comes a week after ExxonMobil announced the closure of its Altona oil refinery in Melbourne due to it no longer being economically viable, and months after BP announced the closure of its 65-year-old Kwinana Refinery, which was also no longer economically viable.

The closures mean Australia has just two remaining oil refineries — Viva in Geelong and Ampol’s Lytton refinery in Brisbane — increasing Australia’s reliance on overseas markets for fuel.

On Monday, Ampol announced it was “reviewing” the future of its oil refinery after it recorded a $145 million loss.

Shifts to gas and renewables could save jobs

The federal government offered refineries a $2.5 billion fuel security package last year, offering a 1 cent per litre subsidy for petrol, diesel and aviation fuel.

Viva took up an interim government subsidy until a long-term package begins in July and has announced a series of strategies to diversify the company away from oil.

In its business recovery plan for the next two years, released on Wednesday, Viva said it would continue to explore developing hydrogen, solar, gas-to-power and waste-to-energy capabilities.

The report said the company hoped the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine would boost sales at the pump and improve aviation and cruise ship fuel sales.

Viva announced last year its intention to build Australia’s first liquified natural gas (LNG) import terminal to supply and store natural gas, which would likely involve a floating gas terminal in Corio Bay, an extension of the existing Refinery Pier and dredging of the bay to accommodate the new berth and ship turning.

Viva chief executive Scott Wyatt said the gas terminal project was in an “engineering design stage”.

Last week, the company announced a partnership with hydrogen vehicle company Hyzon Motors to potentially develop a solar-powered green hydrogen energy hub.

It is hoped the gas terminal and energy hub will help underpin the future viability of the refinery.

Researcher says Viva is well placed to pivot to renewables

Adrian Panow, director of Deakin Energy at Deakin University said Viva was a good player to transition to renewable energy and gas.

“The type of input an emerging industry really needs it needs traditional players knowledge and a solid balance sheet,” Dr Panow said.

“Companies like Viva understand what it takes to run logistics for transport, how do you run 1,200 petrol stations, how do you operate 24/7, who are your customers, these are practical decisions that require that larger company behind them.”

Dr Panow also said the transition of skills from refining oil to gas production would be relatively easy, meaning jobs would be saved.

“There’s a different training component, but most of that industry knowledge is retained, which makes refinery skills even more valuable” he said.

Federal member for Corio and deputy Labor leader Richard Marles said the federal government needed to do more to help Australia’s domestic production of fuel remain viable.

“The sector is so important to Australia’s national security, and with 700 workers at Viva Energy, the company is incredibly important to Geelong,” Mr Marles said.

“After the announcement from the refinery in Altona, we are still hearing crickets from Scott Morrison and Angus Taylor about what their plan is, it’s not good enough.”

Labor intends to announce its own plan for the sector before the next election.

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