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Wetlands become focal point of environment-renewables balance

Opinion Piece – by Geoff Brooks, Biosphere Foundation Director

Awareness of Western Port’s internationally renowned Ramsar wetlands is about to receive a significant boost thanks to the recent decision by the Federal Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, to veto of the Victorian Government’s plans for a renewable energy terminal in Hastings.  

Ms Plibersek’s reasons for blocking the Victorian Renewable Energy Terminal (VRET) proposal made protection of the Ramsar wetlands the centrepiece of what will be an inevitable political and potentially legal stoush between the federal and state Labor governments.  

The Victorian Government, industry stakeholders and environment groups were caught off guard at the speed of the federal decision, which did not await the results of the state’s Environmental Effects Statement (EES) process.  

The first political salvo from Victoria came the day after the federal announcement, with Victorian Premier, Jacinta Allan, declaring the energy transition which underpins her government’s aim to achieve 95% renewable energy generation by 2035 ‘must take precedence over protecting internationally renowned wetlands’.

This statement confronts the rationale for Ms Plibersek’s decision, which is not subject to appeal and may now only be challenged through the courts. It is an attack on the core tenets of her decision, which was informed by sections of the Environment and Biodiversity Conservation Protection (EPBC) Act 1999 

Specifically, and correctly, Ms Plibersek noted that the Western Port Ramsar wetlands, located 60km south-east of Melbourne to the north of Phillip Island, meet seven of the nine Ramsar listing criteria. In a nutshell, these identify listed wetlands as a ‘representative, rare or unique’ example of a natural or near-natural wetland that supports ‘vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered species or threatened ecological communities’. There are also references to the preservation of biodiversity within these special regions and their role in sustenance and breeding of flora and fauna. 

The task now is to ensure the Western Port wetlands do not become the Western Front and a winner-take-all model for negotiating an appropriate balance between environmental protection and the necessary transition to renewable energy. The Western Port wetlands are just one point of engagement for this debate, with real flashpoints developing around the nation as environmentalists, farmers, NIMBY lobbyists and others attempt to direct wind and solar infrastructure development to other ‘more suitable’ locales. 

Add this to the emerging Federal Opposition push for an alternative transition to ‘clean’ nuclear power and we risk being sucked into a vortex of an irrational and compromised mishmash of solutions.  

In fairness to the Victorian Government, the federal minister’s pre-emptive strike on the VRET proposal derailed its EES process, so its aggravation may be justified. But the risk is a rapid and perhaps angry reaction may also undermine the intent of an EES, which is to identify and define actions to protect valuable ecosystems, species and biodiversity. It is not so long ago that this same process contributed to the non-approval of AGL’s liquid petroleum gas terminal proposal for Crib Point. 

With the political fuse lit, it is impossible to predict where the VRET proposal will land. Certainly, the Victorian Government will challenge the federal decision and major stakeholders like the Port of Hastings which submitted the proposal to the federal Environment Minister, are considering their options. 

For the Victorian Government, a first step must be to define more fully what it means when it says the energy transition must take precedence over the protection of internationally renowned wetlands, because the term ‘renowned’ understates the level of Australia’s legal obligation to preserve them.  

As a signatory to the international Ramsar Convention, the Australian Government has legal obligations to protect these and other listed wetlands. By delegation, state governments also inherit responsibilities for these areas. 

Was Premier Allan suggesting that the Western Port Ramsar wetlands can be sacrificed, if necessary, in pursuit of renewable energy transition and the achievement of its 2035 renewable energy target?  

There is no doubt that the reclamation of areas of Western Port’s seabed for wharf construction and related infrastructure, as well as dredging to deepen sea channels will impact its wetlands. Other issues identified include the risk of importing detrimental flora and fauna and disease with fill for reclamation, changed shoreline and hydrodynamics and pollution from construction and on-going operations. 

It is encouraging to see reports that the Victorian Government has been in discussions with the federal government since the Plibersek announcement and that the Premier is talking about seeking alternative solutions with appropriate mitigation strategies. It will be interesting to see the alternatives presented, including evaluation of alternative locations for the proposed terminal. 

Ms Plibersek’s explanatory document acknowledges that the Victorian Government has commissioned an EES and that some details of the proposed development are still to be finalised. However, her rationale suggests she believes that the scale and scope of the VRET proposal are beyond the project’s capacity to mitigate risks to the Ramsar wetlands. 

The Western Port Biosphere Foundation’s position prior to Ms Plibersek’s statement was that the VRET development should be subject to a rigorous Environmental Effects Statement (EES) process and subsequent regulation to minimise any impact on the wetlands which lie at the heart of our UNESCO Biosphere. 

This would be made much easier if there was a Strategic Framework for Western Port to provide context for all planning and development for this marine environment and its surrounds. Without this, stakeholders are playing a game of ‘whack-a-mole’, each issue being dealt with on an ad hoc basis, with little overarching evaluation or understanding of the interrelationship between decisions and outcomes.  

These most recent developments suggest there is a real risk of Western Port’s Ramsar wetlands becoming swallowed in the faultline between the tectonic plates of environmental protection and the energy transition.  

We argue that both need to be accommodated in the interests of mitigating climate change and maintaining healthy biodiversity – the symbiotic twins that are crucial to ensuring a bright future for the Western Port Biosphere and the world beyond its boundaries.