By Joe Heffernan, CCWA Executive Director and Maggie Wood, CCWA Programs Director
In Thursday’s The AFR View (Australian Financial Review, 9 February 2022), it was suggested that Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek’s use of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) to block Clive Palmer’s controversial new coal mine on the edge of the Coral Sea could ‘leave up to 18 fossil fuel projects stranded’ in challenges from ‘climate lawfare warriors’.
Putting the AFR’s mischaracterisation of raising climate concerns through a legal framework as ‘lawfare’ to one side, the primary objection raised in the piece appeared to be that, for the first time, new fossil fuel proposals would be objectively measured against their climate and conservation impacts to the full extent of the current EPBC Act.
Surely, this is an example of legislation – designed with the aim of protecting the Australian environment, its biodiversity and significant places from harm – working as it should?
The EPBC Act is not a new measure at the disposal of the environment minister. It has not been magicked into being by Labor in the past eight months of the Albanese government. It was not recently devised as a big stick with which to beat the fossil fuel industry. This legislation dates back to 1999 and was enacted by the Liberal Howard government.
Neither has the act been considered a ‘silver bullet’ by those campaigning against new fossil fuel projects. In fact, it has been widely derided by many conservationists as ineffective, toothless and inadequate to protect Australia’s natural landscapes and to tackle rising emissions.
‘Is it really so outrageous that these proposals are to be judged on the merits of their environmental impact?’
If, as Thursday’s piece seems to suggest, the AFR views the use of the EPBC Act to block new and highly damaging fossil projects as a gross overreach of the Minister’s powers, it is perhaps because – until now – the act has barely registered a scratch on the ambitions of the fossil industry.
To be quite clear, there is nothing that the Minister has done which steps outside the spirit or mechanics of the act, nor of her ministerial powers. The Palmer coal mine proposal simply did not meet the clear bar set by the EPBC Act and – rightly – was prevented from proceeding any further.
Is it really so outrageous that these sorts of proposals are to be judged on the merits of their environmental impact?
The AFR seems to suggest that the failure of this project is the canary in the mine for the fossil fuel industry. ‘Some of the threatened projects include those of Woodside, ConocoPhillips, Whitehaven and Glencore’, it writes.
If it has taken until 2023 for these companies to realise that developing new fossil fuel projects will become increasingly difficult and that environmental concerns would only become a greater barrier to new coal, oil and gas, then it is through wilful ignorance of repeated warnings, requests and - more recently – demands, for mitigation of emissions at the highest levels, nationally and internationally.
The stances of the United National Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) have been consistent - insisting there can be no new fossil fuel developments if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The Albanese government itself was voted into power on a wave of demand for greater action on climate. The public outrage in response to high profile new fossil fuel projects - as we have seen here in WA with Woodside’s Scarborough and Browse gas proposals – has been unprecedented in its scale.
In short, there has been plenty of notice given, but with the fossil fuel industry either unable or unwilling to act on its own initiative, or deviate from business as usual, it is now facing action through legislation. Australia has made its international commitments – in the form of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – and nothing, not coal, nor oil and gas, can be allowed to derail those commitments.
“The idea that we can move away from fossil fuels by building more fossil fuels is laughable.”
Perhaps most alarming of the claims set out in Thursday’s AFR is that ‘regulatory pressure on fossil fuels’ would ‘unbalance the energy transition’.
The idea that we can move away from fossil fuels by building more fossil fuel supply is laughable. Regulatory pressure is part of the energy transition and failure to put pressure on the fossil fuel lobby would mean stagnation at a time when we can ill afford it.
It is incumbent on government – all governments – to tackle what The United Nations secretary general called ‘the defining issue of our age’. That means dramatically reducing the world’s use of fossil fuels and dramatically increasing our use of renewable energy.
There is no real argument to be had about new fossil fuels and energy security, even around gas which has been touted as a ‘transition fuel’ by the industry and even some prominent Australian politicians. More gas does not directly translate to more energy for Australian consumers.
Australia’s gas producers have access to copious amounts of gas, but the vast majority is sent overseas. Any domestic supply shortage is the result of an ‘export first’ business model, not because the government is not permitting new gas fields to be opened up. By way of example, if the gas exported by Woodside each year was sold exclusively in the domestic market, there would be a dramatic over supply.
The system that fossil fuel giants have put in place has proven to be unreliable and unfit to meet the needs of both a changing climate and a growing demand for energy. Why then would we allow ourselves to become even more indebted when the primary focus for many of these companies is to make their polluting products indispensable to Australia’s future energy system?
Extending Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels will not resolve energy supply issues, but it will push our climate ever closer to the tipping point. The Labor government’s reform of the EPBC Act will likely put poorly planned, environmentally damaging fossil fuel proposals under even greater scrutiny.
In this unprecedented crisis in which we find ourselves, legislation which actually prioritises nature and climate concerns cannot be a bad thing.
Joe Heffernan is the Executive Director of the Conservation Council of WA, Western Australia’s peak conservation and environmental body.
Maggie Wood is the CCWA Programs Director and campaign lead across the organisations fossil fuels, nuclear-free, nature, citizen science and Clean State initiatives.
MEDIA INFORMATION: The Conservation Council of WA (CCWA) is the state’s foremost non-profit, non-government conservation organisation representing nearly 100 environmental organisations across Western Australia.
For more information, visit: ccwa.org.au.
CONTACT: For any enquiries relating to this release, please contact Robert Davies
08 9420 7291 / 0412 272 570 or by email, [email protected]