Transparency Net Zero: new fossil fuel approvals by Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek on the up

by Callum Foote | Aug 16, 2023 | Energy & Environment, Latest Posts

Plibersek’s first year of being Minister for Environment and Water has seen three coal and gas-related projects approved, still less than the last year of the Coalition government. There are probably approvals to come, but transparency is sorely lacking. Callum Foote reports.

Have they got something to hide? Yes, there are not many votes to be had in approving new coal and gas projects at a time when public unrest over climate and global temperatures are on the rise. There was a flurry of fossil approvals in the final year of the Scott Morrison government. Labor tightened up the system in its first year in office but has since taken its foot off the brake.

Experts believe that public accountability and oversight over the approval of new fossil fuel projects leaves much to be desired. Such approvals are difficult to keep track of, with a complex web of state and federal approvals requiring expert understanding. There is no public database to simply click open on the web. This story by Michael West Media is apparently the first attempt to track approvals, and it has been a complex process.

According to Rod Campbell, research director at the Australia Institute “After coming to power at the ‘climate election’, the Australian Government is failing the public on climate policy in general, and on transparency in particular.

Despite government promises to overhaul environmental laws, fossil fuel approvals are difficult to keep track of and get made with very little fanfare.

Rod Campbell, TAI.

“There was the late afternoon approval of coal mines, the sly Woodside gas tax carve out ($) and now the ‘Favour for Santos’ Bill.

“It looks like the Labor Government is trying to put lipstick onto the Coalition’s climate policy pig.”

Plibersek’s Pitt-stop now over

Tanya Plibersek’s three fossil fuel approvals, two coal and one gas, ranks ahead of the six coal mines that Keith Pitt approved as environment minister in the last 12 months of the Morrison government.

Plibersek’s office has declined to comment on whether they expect their fossil fuel approvals will match or exceed their predecessors within the current term.

Approvals include the Ensham life of mine extension, approved in May. Ensham is a joint venture between Japanese conglomerate Idemitsu (partly through its subsidiary company, Bligh Coal Limited), and Bowen Investment operating out of Sydney.

Ensham currently produces approximately 5.3 million tonnes of thermal coal per annum, according to Idemitsu.

Plibersek agreed to extend the life of the coal mine under the existing provisions, which permits the mining of 12 million tonnes of coal each year by up to nine years out to 2045.

According to the Australia Institute, the Ensham coal mine has produced 106 million tonnes of emissions to date.

Three new coal mines and a coal extension get environmental approval. What’s the scam?

Plibersek recently refused to reconsider Ensham’s climate impacts on matters of national environmental significance. According to the Living Wonders team, she decided that

the climate harms identified in thousands of pages of evidence are not relevant to her risk assessment for this project.

The other new coal mine approved by the Environment Minister is the Isaac River Coal Mine Project, which received its go-ahead in May.

Isaac River is a relatively small mine, aiming to produce 3 million tonnes of coking coal, which would cause around 7 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per annum.

In March, the proponents of Isaac River, Bowen Coking Coal, began production from another new mine that already had federal approval, Ellensfield South. Isaac River already has state approvals in place and is aiming to be in production this year.

Santos’ wins fracking approval for Towrie gas development from Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek

In addition, Plibersek has given the go-ahead to an onshore gas project, the Towrie Gas Development in Queensland.

In February, Santos’s 116 well gas development near Towrie was given the green light by the environment minister. According to Rod Campbell, Towrie “isn’t that big, but it’s a discrete new approval that would feed into Santos’ LNG export terminal at Gladstone.”

The development of the 116 wells, each requiring up to 2.5 hectares of land cleared, will be in an 8,678-hectare area and have an operational life of approximately 30 years.

But wait there’s more – state approvals

These approvals provided by the Federal Environment Minister do not represent the total new fossil fuel projects which have been given approvals to commence in Australia lately.

The approval of fossil fuel projects usually rests with the States/Territories. The Federal Minister for Environment has approval powers over projects where the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) is triggered.

To trigger the Act, the project must be likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance. These are things like federally listed threatened species, migratory species, groundwater, world heritage sites, national heritage places, etc.

These projects are called controlled actions.

According to Jemilah Hallinan, Head of Legal Education at the Environmental Defenders Office, “the first question is, are there any matters of national environmental significance that could be impacted? The second question is, will the impact be significant? If both answers are yes, the project must be referred to the Federal Minister for the Environment.”

“All of which is to say, some fossil fuel projects on land will not trigger the EPBC Act – because they will not have a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance, particularly extensions to existing projects,” Hallinan says. “However, due to the nature of fossil fuel projects, I would expect the vast majority of them to be controlled actions and require Federal assessment/approval.”

One such project from proponents Jellinbah Group, who recently won approvals from the Queensland government for an extension of the already operational Lake Vermont open-cut mine, which will transition to underground mining with a small satellite open-cut mine. This will add 20 years to the life of the mine.

Offshore projects a different matter again

According to Hallinan, “These projects get approved by NOPSEMA – a Federal Independent Regulator – not the Environment Minister.”

NOPSEMA, or the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, is under the purview of the federal energy minister Madeline King and manages 40 offshore oil and gas projects across Australia.

Callum Foote was a reporter for Michael West Media for four years.

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