February 14, 2013

Cutting green tape

I suppose it's fairly inevitable that Rick Wilkinson, Chief Operating Officer of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) Eastern Region, and Drew Hutton, President of the Lock the Gate Alliance, would not see eye to eye about how well the Queensland government performs when it comes to following public policy processes with respect to environmental protection.

On ABC Brisbane a couple of days ago both were asked to comment on allegations in Monday's Courier Mail that the Bligh (Labor) government rushed through major coal seam gas projects in Queensland, thus pressurising overworked public servants so that they were forced to compromise environmental regulatory procedures. The newspaper alleges, based on documents viewed following a right-to-information request, that in May 2010, as the approval process for the Santos GLNG project – an $18.5 billion coal seam gas processing plant* on Curtis Island near Gladstone – neared its conclusion, they were asked to process a similar proposal from QGC (Queensland Gas Company), worth $16 billion and also on Curtis Island. Then along came APLNG (Australian Pacific LNG, a joint venture between Origin and ConocoPhillips), which was approved by November.

The Mail reports that, just days before QGC got the go-ahead, the assessment team reported they still didn't have details of pipelines or the locations of wells, and that many environment issues had not been analysed. Since the CSG industry will be worth $45 billion at its peak this year and employ 21,000 Queenslanders, it's not surprising that Campbell Newman's state government is keen to underline its confidence in the approval process and deny environmental damage. Have any of them been to Gladstone recently? In addition to sick fish and dead turtles and dugongs, there are now mutant cane toads**. Researchers are still puzzling over the cause of the extra-legged amphibians, but they might be wise to start with the contaminants dredged up during the deepening of channels in Gladstone Harbour in readiness for the liquefied gas tankers.

The projects were approved with many conditions for environmental protection attached, but the Courier Mail prints extracts from emails sent by senior public servants with serious concerns about procedures. One in the Queensland Co-ordinator General's office complains that their response to GLNG's Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was 'rushed, insufficiently transparent, altered and lacking key impact assessment'. Many more worrying concerns were expressed: read the article at http://www.couriermail.com.au/ipad/public-servants-tasked-with-approving-to-massive-csg-projects-were-blindsided-by-demands-to-approve-two-in-two-weeks/story-fn6ck45n-1226574981202.

Meanwhile, on the ABC on Monday, Mr Wilkinson was at pains to describe how long the environmental approval process took, likening it to the time it took to put his daughter through high school. Surely not? He denied that there had been any environmental damage, while Mr Hutton described the 'spa bath' Condamine River, bubbling with escaping coal seam gas, and the blighted lives of people living in the coal seam gas fields of the Western Darling Downs.

Since the LNP government came to power in Queensland nearly a year ago, they have been working towards streamlining approval processes and doing away with duplication between state and federal environment departments. Many activists, Greens and nature lovers, of course, believe scrutiny should be even greater, with bureaucrats relieved of any pressure to pursue a 'bankable outcome' rather than one that conserves Australian biodiversity.

* coal seam gas is processed in a gas-liquefaction plant ready for export

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