Those of us anxiously reading the runes for signs of what the Trump administration means for human health and the environment needn’t spend too long ruminating on gloomy hypotheticals.
Here in Western Australia we can offer you a real, live and kicking example of what happens when a supposedly independent government watchdog develops an in-built disregard for what ought to be its very raison d’être.
WA’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to “provide Government with advice on the environmental acceptability of development proposals”. Let’s be clear – a big part of that mandate is to prevent irresponsible development from harming our health, poisoning our water sources, and damaging sustainable industries like farming, tourism and viticulture.
Yet the EPA’s new Statement of Environmental Principles, Factors and Objectives, published last week, completely omits to mention even one instance of the words ‘carbon’ or ‘climate’.
So whilst the EPA’s sister organisation in the US recently described climate change as the “Biggest Issue of Our Time”, WA’s official environment watchdog has decided it’s not even worth a mention.
It’s worth noting why the EPA decided to revise its guidance. Late last year communities south of Perth mounted a successful legal challenge to the EPA’s approval of the Roe 8 road extension, temporarily saving vast tracts of pristine bush and wetland from government bulldozers.
The road extension has proved hugely controversial on account of the immense noise and air pollution it would cause for locals, the destruction of rare and fragile natural communities in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, and the fact that numerous less problematic alternatives exist.
So what was the EPA’s response to the court case? It should have acknowledged its failure to apply its own guidance properly, in the interests of West Australians and their environment.
Instead it rewrote said guidance, weakening it to allow corporations and governments an even freer ticket to pollute and destroy. And in the process, out came any requirement for developers to consider the impact of their project on WA and the world’s critically changing climate.
No doubt energetic lobbying by fossil fuel companies has played a part in that too. WA holds one of the world’s largest onshore reserves of oil and gas, mostly locked up in unconventional shale and tight sands reservoirs.
The gas companies and WA Government are hell-bent on fracking that gas out of the ground, despite the escalating evidence that fracking is ruinous for health, water and air quality, and despite growing evidence that fracked gas is worse for the climate than coal.
Meanwhile the EPA has stood blithely by, refusing - despite thousands of requests - to get involved in any of the fracking projects already under way in WA.
If the EPA bent over any further to accommodate the wishes of the gas industry it’d be choking on natural gas of its own making. Well, perhaps that’s why it’s performing so deliriously badly.
Now more than ever we need an effective and independent body with the resources and expertise to hold government and big business to account, before they wreck the place.
The US EPA has just done a great job of showing what that can mean, publishing last week a damning litany of fracking companies’ impacts on American water supplies.
The incoming Trump administration is showing every sign it’ll try to stifle such courageous reporting in future. In WA it seems that’s already happened.
But our response, on both sides of the planet, must be to recognise and evangelise on the critical role that independent environmental watchdogs must play in protecting our wellbeing - now and in the future.
The EPA should work for the people, to protect the environment from unthinking governments and corporations. Right now it’s working to protect government and corporations from the people. The State Election in March might be just the opportunity to turn that around.