A tale of two wetlands – what a difference a minister makes

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Or is this about different approaches to political lobbying?

By Peter Burnett

This is the story of two ‘Ramsar’ wetlands, one on the west coast of Australia, and one on the east. And it’s also the tale of two large developments, one affecting each wetland.

Ramsar wetlands are listed under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, made at Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. Australia has 65 Ramsar sites and we tell the world we look after them.

Domestically, Australian Ramsar wetlands are listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) as ‘matters of national environmental significance’. This protects them from any developments that are likely to have a significant impact upon them, unless the environment minister approves the development, following an environmental impact assessment (EIA).

The two wetlands

The first wetland borders a part of Moreton Bay, near Brisbane in Southeast Queensland. This wetland is subject to a $1.3 billion residential and tourism development by Walker Corporation at Toondah harbour. Originally submitted to then federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg in 2015, this controversial development appears to be stalled, as a draft environmental impact statement forecast by Walker for release in ‘early 2021’ has yet to be submitted to the federal environment minister.

The other wetland is on Eighty Mile Beach between Broome and Port Hedland in Western Australia. This wetland lies near the proposed site for a large-scale wind and solar renewable energy project (known as the Asian Renewable Hub) being proposed by NW Interconnected Power Pty Ltd.

The Renewable Hub would occupy a huge area of 6,500 square kilometres in the East Pilbara and produce a staggering 26 Gigawatts from a combination of wind turbines and solar panels. This is equivalent to the output of 15 or more large coal-fired power stations.

Originally aiming to supply power by undersea cable, the now-enlarged hub project will use renewable energy to extract hydrogen from desalinised water. The hydrogen will be converted to ammonia and piped 20 km out to sea, for loading onto tankers. The project was given ‘major project’ status by the federal government in October 2020 and is said to cost around $22 billion.

Both these wetlands provide important habitat for a range of water birds and migratory birds in particular. Migratory birds are also ‘matters of national environmental significance’, being protected by the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species. This meant that the species most affected by the developments are, in theory at least, twice protected.

Two recommendations for rejection but only one accepted

In both these cases the federal environment department advised the minister that the projects should be rejected upfront as ‘clearly unacceptable’, without going through the full EIA process.

In the Toondah Harbour case, minister Josh Frydenberg rejected the advice and allowed the project to proceed to its current assessment.

But it’s not as simple as that. Using Freedom of Information, The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) discovered that the minister received two consecutive briefs on the same topic, on the same day (see the ACF Submission to the independent review of the EPBC Act April 2020, pages 28, 29). One conveyed the department’s advice that the development was clearly unacceptable — this was the advice that Frydenberg rejected.

The second brief advised that the impacts on the Ramsar wetland and migratory species were significant and, in the case of the wetland itself, difficult to mitigate and offset. Frydenberg accepted this advice and decided that because significant impacts were likely, the matter should proceed to environmental assessment.

In the Renewable Hub case, current environment minister Sussan Ley accepted the department’s advice and stopped the project from moving into full EIA, at least for the time being.

In her official statement of reasons, she accepted that the installation of a marine infrastructure corridor through the Ramsar area would disrupt tidal flows, ultimately affecting the foodwebs on which the migratory birds depend. She also found that the foodwebs would be affected by ammonia spillage, desalination brine and a chronic increase in pollutants from a new town and shipping route.

Unusually, though not unsurprisingly given the identified impacts and uniqueness of the area concerned, the Minister also found that these impacts could not be compensated for by biodiversity offsets. Overall, there would be permanent and irreversible impacts to Eighty-mile Beach and its migratory species if the project proceeded in its current form.

Why the different decisions?

Why did one minister reject the department’s advice while the other minister accepted it? The differences might be down to simple differences in ministerial values or style.

But I think the two cases show different to approaches by developers to regulation.

Walker Corporation’s approach might be described as old style politicking, involving significant political donations to both major parties and backroom influence — Walker lobbied extensively against a ‘clearly unacceptable’ decision.

Frydenberg seemed so keen to allow the project to proceed that he wrote to a Queensland (Labor) minister floating the ‘option’ of the two governments working together to amend the boundary of the Moreton Bay wetland under the ‘urgent national interest’ clause of the Ramsar Convention. Frydenberg went on to note that ‘any proposed boundary change would need to have a ‘clear benefit to the ecological character of the wetlands a whole’, something that seems to me like clutching at straws to me (and also a bad look politically).

Walker Corporation sent executives to Geneva, to discuss a boundary change with the Ramsar Convention Secretariat, a most unusual move. The move was even more strange given that a file note subsequently released under FoI disclosed that Walker Corporation told the Secretariat that it could potentially reconfigure its development, including by restricting construction to an area outside the wetlands, or by looking ‘for other suitable development areas nearby’.

This was news to the department. ‘I wonder whether that is an error of what was discussed, given that it is at odds with Walker’s discussion with us to date, and the referral (which states that there are no alternatives to the proposal)’ wrote a senior department official to colleagues.

The hub consortium on the other hand appears to be playing with a straight bat. Despite the enormous size of the project, and its significance to Australia’s future as a ‘hydrogen superpower’, as Professor Ross Garnaut has termed it, apparently the consortium was not consulted about this unusual decision.

Yet the consortium issued a flat media release accepting the minister’s decision and committing to revising their proposal. ‘We will take [the Minister’s] concerns on board as we continue to work on the detailed design and engineering aspects of the project,’ they said. ‘[We] will address fully any concerns in preparing future project referrals.’

A tale of two approaches to political lobbying?

Both of these developer reactions are unusual. The chutzpah of Walker Corporation, to the point of taking its lobbying to Geneva, presumably to convince the Ramsar Secretariat that yet another Australian foreshore development represented an ‘urgent national interest’ is breathtaking.

And the environment department’s sending two briefs to minister Frydenberg, containing either conflicting or ‘alternative’ advice, is very suspicious. At a minimum, it represents an attempt by officials to avoid disclosure under FoI of a minister’s rejection of their advice by ‘splitting’ their brief. It should be investigated by the Public Service Commission as a possible breach of the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct.

On the other hand, the apparently mild (to say the least) reaction of the Asian hub consortium is also breathtaking. I would have expected the proponents of something this big to have been throwing their weight around with vim and vigour.

Perhaps these developers are cool customers playing a very long high stakes game and figuring that the best strategy is to hold the tongues and get on with the job.

Perhaps they are expressing outrage privately and we just don’t know about it. If so, there is no sign of it in a recent FoI release.

In any case, these two wetland decisions leave some significant unanswered questions, the most important of which concerns the power of lobbying. These cases provide another illustration of why the EPBC Act is badly in need of reform.

Banner image: Australia has signed international conventions committing it to protect migratory bird species and wetlands used by migratory birds. Proposals to develop on or near Ramsar listed wetlands deserve close scrutiny, and shouldn’t be allowed if they threaten these wetlands. (Image by David Salt)

Blind faith in the future – the booming billionaire’s club

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The new space race is as unsustainable as it is unfair

By David Salt

Anthropologists in the 23rd Century struggled to make sense of the The Big Fall that had occurred some two hundred years earlier. So much of the human record had been lost. Clearly, as written in the physical record (tree rings, sediments, ice cores), there had been some form of climate catastrophe but the humans back then would have been aware of this, and their technology was strong, more powerful in many ways than the technology available to people after The Fall. Why then, didn’t they do something about it before it was too late?

Most peculiar, the anthropologists had found a series of massive rockets sitting silently on launch pads across a country once known as the United States. These weren’t weapons. They were launch vehicles but with minimal payloads. All they could do was carry a handful of people up into space for a short time before dropping back to Earth. In doing so, they emitted vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate crisis, but to what end? Was it simply to give a few people a higher view of what was already obvious – that the planet was at breaking point? It really was a mystery.

Coming back down to Earth

Who could blame future generations from wondering what the hell we were thinking in allowing a small group of the super rich to spend billions of dollars on the quest to get into space at a time that our planet was slipping towards serious and irreversible environmental decline.

Our coral reefs are bleaching, the forest biome is burning, the sea is rising, and biodiversity is crashing. Human suffering is growing and the young are starting to give up hope.

So, in these dire times, what do the planet’s richest men think is the most important thing to do with their amassed wealth – fire up a race for space, and develop their own private rocket companies.

The shameless super rich

And, maybe to underline the sheer perversity of their priorities, they are going about this contest in a completely shameless manner.

Richard Branson (billionaire no. 1) turns up to the launch pad on the day of lift off (of the his Virgin Galactic) on a push bike, underscoring the enormity of the feat he is about to undertake, and shining a nice light on his dependence on a mode of transport that doesn’t use fossil fuel. Except it was all a marketing exercise to promote a bike company doing a cross promotional deal with Virgin, something they confessed to several days later.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (billionaire no. 2), returns to Earth on his spacecraft the Blue Origin and immediately expressed his gratitude: “I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this,” he said. At first it was taken as a joke but everyone quickly realised he meant it; and he was then roundly criticised for the unsafe work conditions and low pay his Amazon employees have to endure.

Elon Musk (billionaire no. 3) set up a company SpaceX to develop his commercial space program. He purchased a large tract of land just off the Gulf of Mexico, close to the Texas border with Mexico, to build a launch pad and declared: “We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool.” That proved fortunate as several test rockets blew themselves to smithereens. But it wasn’t ‘cool’ because that land ‘with nobody around’ was a mosaic of nature reserves and home to a plethora of vulnerable species. Many conservationists are appalled that these ‘protected’ areas are now being showered in broken rocket bits.

Are they just toying with us

Or, if you want to be completely cynical, you might see these acts of lying, worker exploitation and environmental destruction as deliberate acts of misdirection – be my guest, get angry at these lesser crimes of self-centred narcissism; just don’t start examining the bigger issues behind this private space race. Those bigger issues include the misuse of precious resources, resource use that exacerbates dangerous global change, and the appropriate governance of the mega rich.

According to Eloise Marais, a physical geographer at University College London, each rocket launch releases 200-300 tonnes of carbon dioxide (split between 4 or so passengers). For one long-haul plane flight it’s one to three tons of carbon dioxide per passenger.

Of course, there are many more plane flights than rocket launches but these early investments by the billionaire club are predicated on the belief that space tourism (and space industry in general) are about to take off big time so this mass release of carbon is only set to dramatically increase.

And it’s not just carbon that’s the problem. Space scientists in Australia recently identified stratospheric ozone depletion as a key environmental concern for space launches.

Of course, the billionaires claim this all about saving Earth, not burning it. Bezos, for example, said he hoped the flight would be the first step in a process that would eventually see environmentally-damaging industries relocated to other planets in order to protect Earth. He acknowledged it might take decades but you gotta start somewhere! I’m not sure we have decades, Jeff, so maybe we need another strategy to deal with those environmentally-damaging industries.

Maybe the biggest moral issue with billionaire’s space club is the sheer unfairness of it. The rich get richer on the benefits of ‘unbounded’ economic growth, and the poor get hit with the impacts generated by that growth. According to the UN, the world’s wealthiest 1% produce double the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50%! The wealthiest 5% alone – the so-called ‘polluter elite’ – contributed 37% of emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.

Well, the billionaire’s space club is the latest manifestation of the disconnection between the wealthy elite and the planet that supports them. Do they really think their wealth will insulate them from mass ecosystem collapse?

Back to the future

Our 23rd Century anthropologists have made an important discovery in their quest to understand the mystery of the ‘rockets of the billionaire club’. The answer, they say, lies in an earlier anthropological work by a scientist of that time named Jared Diamond. A book of his called Collapse has been recovered. This book examined the fall of earlier civilisations, and detailed the end days of the civilisation that once existed on remote Easter Island.

According to Diamond, the people of Easter Island built great stone god heads to ensure their ongoing prosperity. The construction of these god heads consumed enormous resources but their faith in them was strong, and they kept producing them.

As the Easter Islander civilisation grew they chopped down all the trees and, in so doing, lost the capacity to build canoes to fish for food. Society was at risk so what did they do, they started carving more stone god heads, even bigger ones. Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t work. Society collapsed, people starved, and their biggest stone god heads can still be found half carved from the cliffs from where they originated.

Of course, said the 23rd Century anthropologists. The rockets of the 21st Century are the same thing – acts of blind faith in the face of environmental collapse. My faith is strong, my God will protect me, and here is my technological monument to prove it.

In light of what they must have known about the planet at that time, what can we say from this, the anthropologists asked themselves? They were blinded by their mastery and their technology, they weren’t very reflective, and possibly they were idiots, they concluded.

Banner image: Stone god heads in the quarry on Easter Island. Some scholars believe these were being excavated at the time of societal collapse on the island. Are our billionaire’s rockets possible filling the same function? (Image by SoniaJane from Pixabay)

Unleashing the environmental watchdogs?

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Court tells NSW EPA to do its duty and make policies to protect the state environment from climate change

By Peter Burnett

Governments know that most of us would place more trust in a seller of used cars than in a politician.

One by-product of this lack of trust is that politicians like to tell us that they are solving a problem by setting up an independent authority. Or, better still, an ‘independent watchdog’. People you can trust.

The trouble is, governments also like to be in control; especially in this age of ‘gotcha’ political journalism. Governments don’t like to create legitimate opportunities for public officials, including those who staff independent authorities, to embarrass, or, worse, defy them.

So, when governments establish these bodies, often enshrining their independence in law, they do so in the knowledge that there are ‘back door’ ways to control them.

Watchdog on a leash

One obvious method of controlling the watchdog is to punish ‘bad’ behaviour by reducing rations. A recent example is the Morrison government’s decision to cut the Auditor General’s budget, just when the auditor is proving very successful at sniffing out corruption in government grant programs — think ‘Sports Rorts’ and ‘Car Porks’.

Another approach is to nobble the authority in plain sight. Federal environment minister Sussan Ley took this option in response to a recent recommendation to create an ‘independent cop on the beat’ to oversee the devolution of environmental approval powers under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

While the independent Environment Assurance Commissioner proposed by Minister Ley has superficial appeal, the bill establishing this ‘watchdog’ also puts him or her on a leash by requiring them to seek the minister’s input to their annual workplan, to report to the minister rather than Parliament, and not to investigate individual cases.

If the minister manages to get this bill through the Senate, which is currently looking unlikely, the minister may get to have her (watchdog) cake while eating (leashing) it too.

The case of Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action v the EPA

One recent case that does not fit so comfortably into this theory involves the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and its engagement with climate change.

A group of bushfire survivors sued the EPA in the Land and Environment Court to compel them to develop policies to protect the state environment from climate change.

Given that the EPA’s founding legislation makes no mention of climate change, I would have expected it to argue that climate change was not part of its brief. However, when the case came to court, the EPA conceded that it did have power to address climate change. Instead of arguing a lack of power, it raised two technical legal arguments as to why it shouldn’t be forced by the court to exercise its climate powers.

The first argument was based on the fact that the EPA’s powers to develop environmental policies and standards are expressed in broad general terms. Because the EPA had indeed been getting on with the job of developing policies and standards on various environmental issues, the EPA argued that the court could not and should not intervene to tell it to develop a policy on this specific topic at this particular time.

In other words, given the EPA’s broad and multi-faceted role, the Court should not hijack the EPA’s agenda, which was a matter for its own expert judgement over time.

The second argument was a back-up, in case it lost the first argument. The EPA said that it had in fact complied with any duty it might have to deal with climate change, by issuing policies and plans that dealt with climate change in various minor ways.

For example, the EPA’s Regulatory Strategy 2021-24 identified climate change as a ‘global challenge’ and set out various ways in which it would contribute to addressing it, including by ‘encouraging’ industry to respond to climate risks and by reporting on NSW government (ie not EPA) climate policies in the State of the Environment Report.

Chief Judge Preston rejected both these arguments and directed the EPA to ‘develop environmental quality objectives, guidelines and policies to ensure environment protection from climate change’.

In effect, the Court said that while the EPA’s duty to develop environmental policies was indeed cast in general terms, giving the EPA significant discretion as to how it should go about its business, this duty would require, at a minimum, that the EPA address threats of greater magnitude and impact, obviously including climate change.

By implication, it would be irrational to fix small problems while ignoring big ones. (Irrationality is one of the few grounds on which a court can intervene in the exercise of administrative discretion).

What’s going on here?

But back to the theory of governments exercising back door control. If the EPA had the power all along to address climate change, why hadn’t they done so in any substantive way?

The reasons might have been cultural. Given that the EPA’s founding legislation makes no mention of climate change, and that its regulatory heritage goes all the way back to the regulation of ‘smoke stack’ industries under the NSW Clean Air Act of 1961, it may have been that the EPA simply saw climate policy as falling outside its mandate.

Alternatively, under the theory of backdoor control, perhaps the NSW government had been whispering in the EPA’s ear, or rejecting climate-related budget bids, all along, without this being public knowledge.

In any event, the government’s response to the court case certainly doesn’t fit the theory.

I had expected them to announce that they would be appealing the decision. If nothing else, statements in the High Court about the ‘irrationality’ ground being one to invoke only in extreme cases certainly suggest an appeal would have some prospects.

But in a surprising and refreshing development NSW Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean announced on Friday that the government would not be appealing the decision, saying that “the Board and myself have decided … we’ll be putting in place the policies that are needed to give effect to the court ruling”.

Not only that, but “in fact, we’ll be doing everything necessary to give it full effect … [this] is significant because we want to use all our agencies, all the levers within government, to set the quality objectives, guidelines and policies to ensure that we protect the environment from climate change, as we should be doing”…

I suspect this unexpected embracing of a loss in court is mostly down to Kean himself, who certainly seems to be an ‘out-of-the-box’ politician. I reckon he would have had a hard time winning the NSW Cabinet over to this approach of leaning into the wind.

Here comes Matt Kean

But more power to his arm. When Kean first annoyed the Prime Minister last year by calling for stronger action on climate change, Morrison commented that most federal ministers ‘wouldn’t even know who Matt Kean was.’

I can’t think of a better way to raise one’s profile than by having the Prime Minister tell the media that one has no profile!

In any event, I have a feeling that if Kean doesn’t already have a national profile, he soon will.

Image by monicore from Pixabay

Passing the buck – the rights and responsibilities of fossil fuel divestment

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What happens when the ‘Big Australian’ sees the writing on the wall

By David Salt

Heard the news? BHP, one of our biggest miners (and biggest emitters), is going ‘green’! Indeed this big news from the company that once promoted itself as the ‘Big Australian’. It began selling off its coal assets a couple of years ago and now it it’s dumping its oil and gas assets. It looks like it’s getting out of fossil fuels (such a dirty business), focussing instead on its profitable iron ore and buying up potash mines (so you can grow healthier plants, potash being an essential potassium plant fertiliser).

With carbon emitting fossil fuels so on the nose, it’s great to see our big corporates finally pulling their weight…

…until you look at the detail and realise it’s just ‘business as usual’ – profits before people and smoke and mirrors with a little greenwashing to tick the corporate responsibility box.

Better do something

As everyone is now noting, our planet is suffering under climate change (this week it’s Louisiana’s turn) and our very future is increasingly uncertain. The science, now half a century strong, is being borne out and the underlying problem is the carbon emissions from how we do business.

Coal, being a dirty (carbon intense) source of energy, is particularly smelly. In recent years many sections of society (for example institutions in law, economics and science) have been trying hard to stop our use of coal and this has led to coal assets falling in value.

Companies everywhere are divesting themselves of fossil fuels but coal is particularly problematic, and even coal companies are now divesting from coal. Consider, for example, BHP’s Mt Arthur, in NSW’s Hunter Valley. Two years ago the mine was worth $2bn. Now it’s a $200m liability that BHP is struggling to off load!

Regarding its oil and gas assets, BHP is giving Woodside all of them in exchange for shares in Woodside meaning BHP shareholders will own 48% of Woodside. Which sounds like a sleight of hand to me in which BHP can claim it doesn’t own them because the assets are actually owned by BHP shareholders. This means, according to the Guardian, that shareholders will be able to sell their shares if they want to reduce their exposure to fossil fuel assets.

Meanwhile, Green groups are saying Woodside doesn’t have a good record on managing fossil fuel assets after it sold a floating oil rig, Northern Endeavour, for a nominal amount to a company that collapsed three years later without paying decommissioning costs estimated at between $200m and $1bn. Woodside claimed the sale was all above board.

Passing the buck

Which raises the big and complex issue of what is to become of all these ‘stranded’ fossil fuel assets. Will big companies simply off load them for whatever they can get and let some other hapless soul deal with the repercussions?

And does getting rid of these assets mean they’ll stop producing carbon emissions?

Political philosopher Jeremy Moss believes BHP (along with other companies) is banking the profits from their failing assets, while washing their hands of the responsibility to do something about their past and ongoing contribution to climate change. Instead of selling these assets, he says, companies should retire the assets and wear the costs.

In a recent Conversation editorial, Professor Moss reckons that if fossil fuel producers are truly serious about their climate responsibilities then two things need to happen: Fossil fuel producers should retire their mines or wells instead of selling them and they should pay for the cost of restoring mined land. Governments also need to step up to the plate and establish a national inventory of liabilities and an independent body to monitor safety of former mine and well sites.

Sounds reasonable and logical, just not doable. Based on past performance (eg, decades of climate denial and effective lobbying to prevent proactive climate policy), I think it’s safe to say the big fossil fuel miners think it’s cheaper to manipulate government than be true to their rhetoric on social responsibility.

Having said that, fossil fuel miners are now being hard hit by the divestment movement. Financial institutions around the world have adopted divestment policies aiming to end or reduce their involvement in the carbon economy and it does appear that new investments in oil, gas and coal are drying up. Which is likely why BHP is quarantining its fossil fuel assets in this joint venture with Woodside.

The non-fossil fuel BHP entity (which gave away its oil and gas assets) is no longer a target of the divestment movement and can once again access international capital. The exclusive fossil-fuel BHP/Woodside entity will carry on emitting because of the enormous injection of assets from BHP, possibly the only way it could develop given the divestment movement is depriving it of traditional forms of capital and insurance.

And then the music stops…

It’s a win-win for the corporates (and their shareholders), and a lose-lose for the planet (and its inhabitants).

Of course, one day the music will stop and the corporates betting their profits on stranded fossil fuel assets will find there’s no chair for them to sit on. The Bank for International Settlements has suggested that when this happens there could be a collapse in asset prices of fossil fuel industries that could lead to a wider economic collapse along the lines of the GFC.

What might a win-win look like? That’s a win for corporates and a win for society. Based on a realistic costing of the impacts of climate change in coming years* and being realistic about the tiny chance that the big corporates play fair (ie, be true to their social responsibility and not interfere with governmental policy), I think the best we could hope for might be governments stepping in and buying out the whole fossil fuel sector at some cut (heavily-discounted) rate based on their falling asset value.

Corporates will always pass the buck. But governments are elected to protect society. So why not accept the situation and get our governments to actually accept the buck on our behalf?

Haven’t we already spent trillions coping with the corona pandemic (and misbegotten adventures in Afghanistan). Why not draw down the debt a bit further and buy all the stranded fossil fuel assets? We can then restore the minesites (a few good jobs there, I reckon), repurpose the assets we’ve picked up to maximise their social utility (oil rigs make excellent platforms for hotels) and wear the cost?

Yes, I know this will have me labelled as a pixie in cloud cuckoo land (and a communist to boot) but do the maths yourselves. The cost to us of buying these stranded assets versus the cost of allowing them to continue functioning (ie, destroying the planet after taking out the economy) surely makes it a rational thing to do.

*There are many robust estimates of the cost of climate change in the coming years from many respected institutions. They are all scary and they have all been ignored by the Australian Government. Here’s one:
Lack of climate action over 50 years will cost Australian economy $3.4tn and 880,000 jobs

Banner image: Stranded assets? Maybe with a lick of paint they’d make nice floating hotels. (Image by Elise Aldram from Pixabay)