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

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)

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