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Climate change and environmental impacts on coastal communities

CHAIR —I welcome Mr Piers Verstegen from the Conservation Council of WA to our public hearing. As you would be aware the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts and the Minister for Climate Change and Water have asked our committee to examine the environmental impacts of coastal population growth, as well as the impact of climate change on coastal areas, and strategies to deal with climate change adaptation, particularly in response to projected sea level rise. Our committee has also been asked to look at existing policies and programs related to coastal zone management, mechanisms to promote sustainable coastal communities and governance arrangements for the coastal zone.

Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that the hearings are legal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House itself. In that regard the giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. We would now like to invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to questions and discussion.

Mr Verstegen —Thank you. Can I first acknowledge the committee and the critical nature of this particular examination that you are undertaking. I think it is an extremely important issue and an issue that has not been looked into particularly well in relation to the responses of our coastal communities that are characterised as ‘adaptation’. In saying that, I caution against categorising something as purely adaptation. One of the things I would like to highlight is the critical nexus between adaptation work, and adaptation policies, and mitigation or pollution reduction activities that we need to undertake.

The Conservation Council of Western Australia is the state’s peak environmental advocacy group. We represent 95 community based affiliated groups. One of those is Environs Kimberley, whom you have just heard from. Thank you for taking the opportunity to have some input from the Conservation Council. Our focus is solutions based advocacy. We work in partnership with governments and industries to come up with solutions to environmental issues. That is very much the spirit in which we make this presentation.

I also have some comments, I suppose in addition to the core nature of your work, about the strategic assessment process that has been undertaken under the EPBC Act and the experience that we have gone through so far in Western Australia with what is actually the first use of the strategic assessment powers under the EPBC Act. So I would like to address that separately.

On the specific terms of reference of your inquiry, I have identified five key areas for Western Australia that I would draw your attention to in terms of critically important areas for coastal communities and for the adaptation of coastal communities in relation to climate change impacts.

Before going into that I will briefly build on what you heard from Environs Kimberley from a state-wide perspective and acknowledge that our ecological systems in Western Australia and Australia wide are highly vulnerable to climate change. One of the reasons for that is the enormous degree of biological endemism and speciation. What that means is that a lot of our ecological communities, both marine and terrestrial, inhabit unique and very small ecological niches and have had circumstances very specific to their evolution over a very long period of history in specific locations. What that means is that they are vulnerable to climatic impacts. They are very well adapted to very specific climatic conditions and other conditions in their environment, and that makes them vulnerable to climatic impacts such as the shifting of climatic zones.

I have just come from the mid-west of the state, where there is a unique phenomenon that illustrates this point. There is a range of banded ironstone formation hills in that area, which is now subject to a lot of interest from the iron ore mining industry. Those hills are separated in the landscape by only a number of kilometres, but sitting on top of each of them is a plant community that is unique because it has been separated for so long in geological time. You can imagine the impact of climate change on some of those plant communities. On some of those hills exist plants that exist nowhere else on earth. You can imagine the impact of a shifting climatic regime on those sorts of ecological communities. They are highly vulnerable to climate change, and I think it is important to recognise that.

There are five key areas that we have identified in terms of the role of the Commonwealth government in helping communities to respond and adapt to climate change. The first priority from our perspective is for Australia to take an ambitious international leadership role in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Because we are highly vulnerable to climate change and because the impact of climate change on our economy, our coastal infrastructure and our ecosystems is going to be so great, it is in Australia’s national interest to take a leadership role. Unfortunately the targets are being put forward at the moment in relation to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme will not line up with the massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere that we already need. Just yesterday the head of the International Panel on Climate Change scientific advisory committee articulated that it was his view that we would need to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere at 350 parts per million or less. At this point, even stabilising at 450 parts per million is going to be a very difficult task in terms of the political environment that we are working in. That just shows that there is an opportunity for Australia to play a significant leadership role in relation to that. It is disappointing to see that our current greenhouse gas targets do not even line up with the 450 parts per million scenario in terms of stabilising our climate.

At the lower end, our target range would contribute to the types of impacts that we are starting to see coming through from some of the science. We are talking about a 1.5 metre rise in sea level by 2050 if the rest of the developed world takes on the same level of ambition that Australia is talking about. That is the first priority. I do not want to dwell on that, but I do want to talk about the areas of adaptation.

The second area I want to focus on is our marine environment. I want to focus on this for two reasons. Firstly, our marine environments are particularly poorly represented in terms of the conservation reserve system. As you have heard, less than one per cent of Kimberley marine waters are fully protected. The figure is about the same wherever you go on the Western Australian coastline. So our marine environments are particularly poorly represented. Our marine environments are going to be subject to a number of impacts from carbon pollution other than just an increase in temperature. For example, ocean acidification is going to have a major impact on marine environments.

The best way we can control for those impacts at this point is by increasing the resilience of those marine environments and reducing the other threats to marine ecosystems. The scientific consensus around the world is that the best way to do that is by establishing marine sanctuary zones that prevent extractive industries from entering certain areas of high biological diversity. The international consensus from the scientific community is that we need to have at least 30 per cent of our marine environments represented in such sanctuary zones.

The other reason why I have focused on the marine environment is that there is a significant opportunity for the Commonwealth government. You would be aware that a marine planning exercise is underway for the south coast and the south-west marine bio-region in Commonwealth waters. Shortly following that, a marine planning exercise will be undertaken for the north-west waters. As a conservation group, we will be engaging directly in those marine planning exercises. It is a good process to go through. It provides for a rigorous scientific assessment of that eco-region and a consultative exercise that engages with the community and with all of the users of that particular resource to come up a way of protecting and allocating that resource in the most efficient and sustainable way for the future. That is a very important process that the Commonwealth government is currently engaged in.

I just wanted to bring that to your attention as a key area in which I think your committee could make some important recommendations in terms of the contribution of marine protected areas to climate resilience and, therefore, to the resilience of our communities to the impact of climate change. In many cases I am talking about communities that rely on fishing and other industries that revolve around our marine environment. The evidence we are seeing from other areas around the world is that, when you establish marine protected areas, it has direct benefit for the fisheries immediately and in the long term. In the face of climate change, that is going to be extremely important—

—Can I interrupt you there. In my state, marine protected areas are usually declared by the state government. Is that the case in Western Australia?

Mr Verstegen —I did want to draw your attention to the state government marine planning process, because we believe it is currently subject to some serious policy failure. The state government marine planning process is only looking at state waters. That is just a very narrow band around the coast but it is where a lot of our biological diversity is. We do not believe the Western Australian government is taking marine protection seriously at all. I say that in relation to the present government and also the previous government. I think there has been a legacy of poor planning in relation to our marine environment. We are advocating that the state government take on a similar exercise to what the Commonwealth government is doing at the moment, which is a broad scientifically based marine planning exercise to look at how state waters and Commonwealth waters can be protected. I acknowledge that the Commonwealth area is looking at a very large area by comparison.

CHAIR —But in this part of the country are there state protected marine areas?

Mr Verstegen —There is extremely little.

Mr DREYFUS —Are there presently any marine sanctuaries?

Mr Verstegen —I think there is one proposed, but certainly it is less than one per cent of state waters. Of course, there are no marine protected areas in Commonwealth waters. One per cent is critically inadequate, particularly when there are pressures coming on line with the oil and gas industry and with fishing. We know that global fish stocks are under serious pressure and, as Martin outlined, we have the migration of whales and other species. So these are critically important habitats and it is really important that we engage in a proper process to protect those areas. Climate change just makes that all the more important.

Dr WASHER —I think the federal surveys for the south-west area are almost complete.

Mr Verstegen —Yes.

Dr WASHER —Norman Moore and the Western Australian Premier, Colin Barnett, have not been too receptive to what the Commonwealth government has proposed in terms of marine parks. I know a little bit about that. A presentation will be made in Canberra, so the committee will find out about that later. We will have a chat about that and some of these issues.

Mr Verstegen —It is not surprising that there is a divergence of views along political lines in relation to this. The potential impact on the fishing industry is an area that needs to be looked at in terms of compensation packages and the like. There is important dialogue that needs to be had with the state government, and maybe that is an area we can focus more attention on.

Another area relates to the actual management of those marine protected areas when they are established. There could be a role for state government there. I think that the sooner a dialogue with the state government can be opened up on those issues it would potentially lead to a much better outcome. It could prevent that political reaction, with the state government seeing this as a Commonwealth ‘sea grab’, as some headlines have shown. We have tried to downplay that. I think there is a need for some collaboration between the state and Commonwealth governments. If you are going to go through this exercise in Commonwealth waters there is opportunity for a flow-on effect in state waters. You really want to look at the opportunities to build on those marine sanctuary zones in Commonwealth waters and add further value to them by doing a proper planning exercise in relation to state waters.

The third area I want to highlight as a priority relates to coastal industrial infrastructure, as opposed to housing developments and those sorts of things. Certainly the north-west, as was recognised previously, is an area that will be subject to increasing cyclones, storm activity and storm surges. The types of developments proposed for this area include very large increases in shipping movements and the sort of high-risk infrastructure that has led to the oil spill that we now have off the coast. There is a critical need to reconsider the viability of this sort of coastal infrastructure in this sort of environment. We have been saying for a long time now that, particularly for gas reserves, there are alternative areas where that can be developed and processed. There are existing industrial infrastructure areas further south in the Pilbara that could potentially be utilised, if they were examined rigorously.

In relation to the types of impacts we will see from cyclones et cetera, there is a critical need for contingency planning. The more we can locate these facilities in areas where that contingency planning can be done in such a way as to allow critical mass if there is a pollution response required, or whatever the response to a particular incident or impact is, the better. The more that can be consolidated and the impact minimised, the better. So putting industrial facilities up and down the coast of the Kimberley just is not a viable exercise in a future where these impacts are likely to cause these sorts of accidents much more frequently. We simply will not be able to respond to them, given both the remoteness of the area and the extreme nature of the environmental impacts they are likely to have.

The fourth area relates primarily to housing development but also to infrastructure development in coastal areas. It goes to the interrelationship between the state, local and Commonwealth governments and to a question that was raised earlier with Environs Kimberley in relation to the state government’s planning policies. At the moment the state government has in place a coastal zone planning policy that is extremely outdated from the perspective that it deals with the types of planning issues that you would need to respond to in the face of sea level rise and climate change impacts on coastlines. The type of things that policy prescribes is the setback from the coastline for building and infrastructure.

Unfortunately, this planning policy is very outdated. It needs to be updated to recognise the latest science on sea level rise. This is supposed to be a planning policy that provides guidance for local governments when making their planning decisions, but the impact is that local governments are becoming exposed in the planning decisions they are making because they do not have any proper guidance statement. So there are coastal developments going in all over the place where local governments are endorsing these things. They are potentially exposing themselves both in legal terms and in the actual impacts on infrastructure that they have allowed and endorsed as part of their planning processes, because there is no broader policy providing a decent level of guidance in relation to that. I do not know if that is a similar scenario occurring in other states.

CHAIR —Absolutely.

Mr Verstegan —Certainly in Western Australia it is a critical area that we need to pay some attention to. In the metropolitan area, for example, canal estates are being developed that simply will be unviable in the face of rises in sea level.

CHAIR —We saw some classic examples in Dr Washer’s territory down in the south-west of the state.

Mr Verstegen —I will not labour that point other than to simply say—

CHAIR —It is an important point.

Mr Verstegen —that there is certainly a role for updated state government planning policies.

Mr DREYFUS —While it is fresh in our minds, the state government of Victoria has introduced planning schemes, relevantly for the 12 municipalities that have coasts in Victoria because, unlike Western Australia, there has been a serious amalgamation process at the local government level. Victoria moved from 211 councils to 70 in the late nineties, which has produced the outcome that, in an organisational sense, the coast is a little bit more coherent. There are fewer councils. The state government has provided guidance for all of them in the form of, effectively, a direction that, for planning purposes, they are to work on the basis that there will be a sea-level rise of 0.8 of a metre by 2100. Is there anything similar in Western Australian planning schemes or development plans?

Mr Verstegen —The opportunity to provide that guidance and the planning policy that should provide that guidance is the so-called ‘State planning policy 2.6.’ That is a planning policy statement that should provide that guidance. Unfortunately, as I say, it is completely out of date. So our local governments are scrambling to undertake vulnerability assessments at their own cost of their local areas to understand how they can properly plan for this. That is definitely a failing on behalf of state government to provide some guidance.

Mr DREYFUS —So there is no state-led vulnerability assessment?

Mr Verstegen —That is right. There is no state-led vulnerability assessment that is currently being undertaken from any sort of strategic point of view, and the existing planning policy, as I say, is out of date. So that planning policy still stands today, but it allows development under that planning policy in areas where local governments themselves are saying, ‘Well, if we were to endorse this, we would be exposed in the future to legal liability because it is simply not taking into account the types of impacts that we are going to see.’

Dr WASHER —You are right. They have not made any decisions on that but they are about to complete their LIDAR surveys that run from Two Rocks in the north, as you know, right around Cape Leeuwin. I think they are about completed. So you would hope that they would make some decisions after they are finished.

Mr Verstegen —I sincerely hope that that flows through very quickly in terms of informing an update of that planning policy. I think the LIDAR assessment is important, but has the science of sea-level rise impacts been taken into account? The fifth area I want to raise—and I think, to some extent, this has also been raised by Environs Kimberley—is the need for much better and more comprehensive science on the impacts of climate change, particularly on our ecological communities. The Conservation Council has some expertise in this area and we have done a global analysis of where there is good science and good datasets that go back in time. I think 30 years is about the least amount of time in terms of a snapshot that you need for scientific monitoring to properly understand what the impacts of climate change are likely to be for a particular species.

We found there is an extraordinary correlation between where that type of science has been done and the willingness of governments to undertake significant greenhouse mitigation efforts. In areas like Europe there are hundreds of years worth of data in very comprehensive datasets. Often it is data that has been gathered not by government but by citizens who have themselves been engaged in scientific research, in a voluntary capacity, and recording things over time. Just having that data has provided governments with the political capital, if you like, and the depth of understanding in the broader community about the impacts of climate change on some of those species and ecosystems. What we are seeing in Australia, particularly in Western Australia, and also throughout the whole Australasia region is that there is an extreme paucity of datasets that go back in time that we can actually refer to to say that we know what the impact over time has been in terms of climate change and then to provide some predictive interpretation of what it is likely to be in the future.

Only 0.7 per cent of all long-term datasets in the world of any environmental factors come from the Australasia region. That gives you an illustration of the paucity of these long-term datasets. In Western Australia we only have two long-term datasets. One of them is in relation to the rock lobster fishery that has been monitored for a long period. We are seeing that is starting to go into a major collapse and that has been linked to climate change. The other one relates to seabirds off our near shore islands that have been monitored for a long period. That is only two datasets. You are hearing some things about these species in the Kimberley. Certainly, there is a lot of traditional knowledge and community based knowledge about how these things are changing over time, but we do not have any rigorous scientific research. That is a real priority both for state and Commonwealth government if we are going to both better understand our ecological communities. As I say, it is critical in building the political support base that government needs if it will take the action that is required to slow down this type of impact.

CHAIR —It appears we are not getting that information through the State of the environment reports over a period?

Mr Verstegen —The State of the environment reports in Western Australia I can only describe as being extremely ad hoc. We have only had a handful of State of the environment reports.

CHAIR —At the national level?

Mr Verstegen —At the national level it is better, but I think the types of datasets that are required are data that tracks a particular species or ecosystem over a long period with in-depth analysis. I think the sort of metadata that contributes to the State of the environment reporting process is useful but it does not provide the particular snapshot in relation to particular communities that we need. As I was saying before, I think the degree of speciation and biological endomism of our biology in Western Australia and Australia wide means that some of those metadata sets are not particularly relevant from a management and adaptation perspective. So we need to be drilling down into the detail on some of these things. The State of the environment reporting process is definitely a start but certainly, in terms of the Commonwealth and state governments science investment priorities, there is a real need to acknowledge that long-term datasets are absolutely critical in our understanding of the impacts of climate change.

Those were the five key areas I wanted to address in relation to your particular term of reference and not only focus on adaptation but address that nexus between adaptation and mitigation. I will give you an example of how that nexus can potentially play out in an adverse way. In Western Australia—and people from Western Australia would be well aware of this—in the south-west we have had a 30 per cent reduction of rainfall and so there has been a need to engage in an exercise in relation to planning how our water future and the water needs of metropolitan Perth will be met.

Mr DREYFUS —Over what period?

Mr Verstegen —The 30 per cent reduction?


Mr Verstegen —It is actually since the seventies, but what we are now seeing is that there has been another step change. The recent data that is coming through is suggesting that the current step change is more likely to be down to 50 per cent reduction of rainfall through that south-west region. The Western Australian government and the Commonwealth government together invested in a scientific research process called the Indian Ocean science initiative—before some of the other state governments did—and did some in-depth climate modelling. They were able to take the decision to build a desalination plant because they knew that at that time we were not in a one-off drought scenario; this was actually a step change in terms of our rainfall pattern. That enabled them to take a decision to build a desalination plant because they were convinced at the time that there needed to be a climate-independent water source. That tells you that the building of a desalination plant is, in effect, an adaptive response to climate change. But what we do not want to see are adaptive responses to climate change, such as the building of a desalination plant, actually contribute to the problem by escalating greenhouse emissions, not just from the actual power consumption of a desalination plant but from the infrastructure required to build it and for the whole of its life cycle.

CHAIR —Isn’t it to be powered by renewable energy, at least, in theory?

Mr Verstegen —I could talk to you about that for some time, but certainly the first desalination plant that was commissioned in Western Australia was promised to be powered by renewable energy. That turned out not to be the case and that promise was not met. The second desalination plant which is now planned is, again, promised to be powered by renewable energy and after reports by the Auditor-General and other organisations actually acknowledging that the first desalination plant was not powered by renewable energy, I think there is now a stronger element of rigour and transparency in relation to these types of commitments. So we are pleased to see that there is that firm commitment for the second desalination plant.

Yes, you can power these things with renewable energy, but the point that I am making is that all sorts of adaptive responses to climate change have the opportunity to be done in such a way as not to contribute more to the problem. That is a critically important issue for adaptation planning that goes to this nexus. For example, if you are talking about locating housing developments away from the coastline so that they will not be subject to sea level rises, you also need to be considering the power consumption of those housing developments and how we can also locate them in areas that minimise both transport fuel energy required and energy for heating and cooling for the buildings. So things like building standards are a critically important area that we need to be considering from an adaptive perspective in terms of how building standards can take on board the principles of adaptation to climate change and at the same time take on board the principles of emissions reduction and climate change mitigation. So you can see that nexus bearing out in all sorts of ways. Would you like me to continue on and talk about the strategic assessment?

CHAIR —We might stop there and ask questions on those five priorities.

Mr Verstegen —If I could just make one further point, which is perhaps a bridge across to the EPBC conversation. In relation to the protection of ecological communities and threatened ecological systems—and this issue came up when you were talking to Environs Kimberley—unfortunately the system that is set up at the moment under the EPBC Act is not working. That system is one of waiting until a species is under a critical degree of threat and then listing it. There are even major problems with the listing process, so there are a lot of species that are subject to critical degrees of threat that are not being listed. The listing process has become a driving factor for a number of government decision-making processes around priorities—for example, for NRM spending through Caring for our Country—how decisions are taken in relation to EPBC Act assessment processes by the minister and how those critical threatened species flow through in terms of becoming matters of national significance.

The Kimberley is a really good example of why that process cannot and does not work. The Kimberley at the moment is relatively intact. We have a situation in the Kimberley where it is a remaining island for many species that are extinct or under critical degrees of threat elsewhere in the country. They exist in the Kimberley because of the lack of industrial and other impacts. What we are starting to see is that those industrial and other impacts are starting to bear heavily on those types of species and they are starting to get to a threatened stage. But as Louise says, because the Kimberley is relatively intact it is not listed and the species in the Kimberley are not listed under the EPBC Act as being threatened in the Kimberley—but they might be threatened in other areas. Government spending priorities and decisions made under the EPBC Act cannot take into account those factors. What we need to see is a situation where there is an analysis from a bioregional perspective of where those areas are intact and then maintaining that intact nature rather than trying to take this just-in-time approach to listing something and then, after it becomes seriously threatened, trying to do something about it. We have seen that on the Swan coastal plain with Carnaby’s cockatoo and the western ringtail possums, which are the two federally listed species there. They are in an absolutely critical situation in terms of habitat loss, which has impacted on their viability. The Commonwealth government is now in a very difficult position in terms of being able to intervene in any way to create some sort of viable future for those species, because the opportunities to protect those species for the future have been lost or closed out because those areas have been cleared.

The one message I can give to you is that that structural process in the EPBC Act is not working. I realise that that is the subject of a separate process so I do not want to labour that point. But certainly there is a role for this committee to recognise that point, particularly in the face of climate change, where you are going to see these threats exacerbated and come online faster than the process of listing can cope with. You have got a point at which, in terms of the climate change impacts, it is important for your committee to acknowledge that the EPBC Act process is not set up to appropriately respond to those types of impacts.

Dr WASHER —Carnaby’s black-cockatoos I know well because I live in the centre of the area where they are and it is a real problem. People have cleared 100 hectares illegally, for example, and are about to go to court. But the penalties are very poor. I guess what you are saying though is that the act is really a crisis management act. In other words, when things are almost over the hill and irretrievable it is enacted. But when it is transparently obvious that things are going to become threatened if we do not something the act cannot be enacted. Is that what you are putting to us?

Mr Verstegen —That is exactly right. For example, in regard to the recent decision made by Minister Garrett in relation to the Gorgon project, he could only consider those matters of national environmental significance. Unfortunately those matters of national environmental significance are informed by those species that are listed under the EPBC Act. So you have a situation where that type of industrial development is likely to have a major impact on all sorts of species on Barrow Island that may not be matters of national environmental significance at this point in time. With climate change we are likely to see that they will be, but that way of responding to environmental impact is quite unsustainable from a policy perspective. It is a structural barrier to being able to consider these types of broader cumulative impacts that we are talking about. This gets to the issue of strategic assessment. You have got a good principle of strategic assessment embedded in the act but unfortunately it is embedded in an act that has a number of structural barriers to doing strategic assessment in a way that actually enables it to be strategic.

Mr MURPHY —I will take it as read that the first priority you listed in relation to the federal government taking a leadership role would be your No. 1 priority key area—correct me if I am wrong. But against that background I notice that you said in your opening statement that the council engages in solutions based advocacy. Therefore, what advice do you have for the Rudd government as we approach Copenhagen, because much of what you deal with here has a bearing on that?

Mr Verstegen —That is an important question and I could go on for a very long time trying to answer it.

Mr MURPHY —We do not have a lot of time.

Mr Verstegen —As you are aware, it has also been the subject of other inquiries and policy development processes. From a Western Australian perspective, Western Australia has enormous potential for renewable and clean energy technologies—solar energy, wave power, wind power, geothermal—that we could be harnessing here. Because we are not connected to the national electricity grid, we have got a unique situation here where it is in Western Australia’s particular advantage to be developing base load renewable energy solutions. It is critical that we have base load renewable energy solutions for the stability of our grid. So I think there is a need for some fronting investment in R&D in relation to those renewable energy solutions that could be contributed by the federal government, acknowledging that Western Australia is in a different situation from the other states. But there is huge potential for renewable energy and the creation of jobs and infrastructure and new industries and investment in Western Australia. There is the issue of seeing some policies that drive through those types of investments. Unfortunately we are seeing a carbon pollution reduction scheme at the moment that to my assessment introduces more market failures than it actually solves. It tries to introduce a carbon price, which at the start is capped very low for the first year, but then rises. But it does not resolve the market failure of addressing the social price of carbon, because it has got a low target associated with it, whether it is five per cent or even 25 per cent. Certainly we hope that it will be 25 per cent. Even that we believe is absolutely at the lower end of the range of what we need. So that sort of market based instrument is extremely important, but it is important that we get that right.

Our analysis of both the renewable energy target and the CPRS is that, even in combination, because of the way that they have been—and I use this term loosely—bastardised by various different add-ons and compensation measures and those sorts of things, are really not going to drive the sorts of investment that we need to be seeing in Western Australia particularly in relation to renewable energy. There is a fundamental failure of state government policy as well, and even with the 20 per cent renewable energy target we may very well be in a situation where we do not achieve any increase in renewable energy in Western Australia because there is no state based policies to actually be supporting that. So there is a need again to be working with the state governments.

To get back to your question I think the critical need is for Australia to be playing a leadership role in the international negotiations and to not go into those negotiations with an extremely conservative approach by saying that, notwithstanding that it is in our national interest and global interest to solve this climate change, we are still going to take an extremely conservative approach of only five per cent emissions reduction. That is simply not going to work. We know that the economic modelling shows that even the more ambitious reductions that the science is telling us are required are not going to have significantly more impact on the economy than those less ambitious reductions. So we need to be creating that step change. Unfortunately we continue to pursue industries like the oil and gas industry—and there is a debate to what extent they have a role in a global solution—but that tends to be the driving force and has been the driving force in Western Australia in terms of industrial development. The CPRS is unfortunately not going to put us on a substantially different track.

I will just very quickly say that the gas plant proposed for the Kimberley coastline would increase Western Australia’s greenhouse emissions by 25 per cent on its own, and that is just one development. Then there is the Gorgon on top of that and there are other developments on top of that. Western Australia at the present development trajectory is really not in a situation where we are likely to be able to meet even the very less ambitious targets that have been set at a Commonwealth level.

CHAIR —I am just looking at the time and we probably have another five minutes before we have a five-minute break. Would you like to say a little bit about the strategic assessment process, in general terms, not specifically?

Mr Verstegen —Yes, and I can only talk in general terms. The conservation sector believes that strategic assessments are an important evolution of how to manage environmental issues and how to engage in environmental decision making. We believe that strategic assessments are one of the appropriate tools for managing the impacts of climate change on coastal communities and for planning for coastal communities in the future of rapid and unpredictable climate change. In principle the conservation sector is very strongly in support of strategic assessments. But the first principle of strategic assessments must be that they are actually strategic and unfortunately the first strategic assessment, or the first use of the strategic assessment powers under the EPBC Act, that we are seeing in Australia has been the Kimberley LNG hub process. It has not been strategic and there are a whole range of reasons for that. I cannot lay the blame completely at the feet of the Commonwealth government.

One of the fundamental issues with the way that the strategic assessment provisions in the EPBC Act are set up is that they require the state government to almost be the proponent or to refer the project to the Commonwealth for strategic assessment. It is difficult for the state government to come in and engage in a strategic assessment process without the support of the Commonwealth government. In fact it is impossible under the EPBC Act. You have a scenario where you did have the strong support of the previous state government, and there was a bilateral agreement entered into by the state government, which we believe had many good principles associated with it such as upholding the principle of prior and informed consent for traditional owners. Then you have a situation where that has unfortunately become politicised by an election and a new Premier who has taken a different approach to that particular development, a different approach to a number of those principles and a different approach to prior and informed consent for negotiation. The Premier at the time took it upon himself to name a particular site while there was still a process underway to look at the various options thereby constraining the process.

You can see how that strategic assessment process has been subject to this politicisation, and that has really eroded the value of that strategic assessment process or the opportunity to allow that strategic assessment process to engage in a strategic way. There needs to be some revision of the EPBC Act to prevent or mitigate against those sorts of things, certainly from the learnings that we have in Western Australian in relation to that particular process. I think that the EPBC Act strategic assessment provisions need to be looked at again. There is certainly a need to do them in partnership with state governments, local governments and local communities—we acknowledge that—but if the strategic assessment process is going to be a significant way in which the Commonwealth government is going to discharge its responsibilities under the EPBC Act then they cannot be subject to that sort of politicisation that we have seen which then erodes the potential of those assessment processes to actually work. Now you have a situation where the gas hub proposal here is basically in exactly the same scenario as a normal assessment process under the EPBC Act and the state EP Act, because we have a situation where the other options have been completely closed out.

The recent decision by the environment minister to approve the Barrow Island gas plant is an extreme example of where a strategic assessment process could have been employed to get a far better outcome but has not, so the minister has been constrained by the other parts of the act. As I said, it will require consideration of those matters of national and environmental significance only. I will briefly outline the situation that has arisen there. You would be aware that conservation groups have been advocating for a long time that that gas be processed on the mainland so that the impact on Barrow Island is avoided. Chevron have said for a long time that they could not do that—for economic reasons it was not going to be viable and that was the reason why they needed to go to Barrow Island and they pursued that development trajectory for that particular resource. The state government had made a decision before an environmental assessment was considered that they were going to allow that to happen. The EP Act process was constrained by that prior decision making process. But, since that decision has been made for that first gas processing plant, Chevron, the company, have proven up another gas field, which is only slightly north of the Gorgon gas field—it is called the Wheatstone gas field. The Wheatstone gas field is now the subject of an EPA assessment process and a Commonwealth assessment process to develop a processing facility for that gas field on the mainland.

The pipe that goes from the Wheatstone gas field to the mainland processing plant will cross the pipe that goes from Gorgon gas field to Barrow Island. There is no reason at all why, with some proper planning in the first place for these gas resources, there could not have been much better outcome from an environmental perspective. There is still the opportunity to combine those plants and process that gas on the mainland. There is plenty of opportunity to do geosequestration and other greenhouse gas abatement in other areas. They do not need to go to Barrow Island to do that. What that scenario illustrates is that you have this absolutely perverse outcome, where the same company is going to develop this resource and industrial estate on one of Australia’s most important nature reserves just because there is a total lack of any sort of strategic approach to planning for the future of that resource. We do not want to see that type of outcome in the Kimberley. This is why we need to do strategic planning properly—strategic planning in advance of industry coming forward with their ad hoc processes, because industry will always respond to the market demands of the day and they will always come forward with ad hoc approaches and proposals for industrial development. So there is an absolutely critical need for government intervention at all levels of government in a strategic way to plan for the future of these resources.

CHAIR —I think it is very important for your organisation, Environs Kimberley and other groups to feed in your experience, because it is the first major strategic assessment that the federal government has been involved with. Have you put submissions to the Hawke review that is looking—

Mr Verstegen —We have, but the nature of this process is that it is unfolding as it goes. We are learning more about how the strategic assessment can work, we are engaging our own legal advice and all those sorts of things. One of the other learnings that I think is pertinent to your inquiry is that at the present time we believe that the EPBC Act powers are being used in a very narrow way. You would be aware that the Commonwealth government has powers to intervene in resource projects or industrial developments under a range of powers that the Commonwealth has under the Constitution, but decisions that have been taken under the EPBC Act are ignoring those opportunities and powers for intervention. The way that the environment minister is taking his decisions simply in relation to matters of national environmental significance does not allow for a strategic approach. If you are going to have a strategic approach you have to rely on other powers of intervention, the corporations powers or the international trade powers, to be able to make those planning interventions which are going to be critically important for managing these impacts into the future.

That goes for all assessment processes under the EPBC Act, whether they use the strategic assessment provisions or not. If we are going to avoid the sorts of impacts of climate change that we need to avoid, we need to take a broader look at what powers of intervention the Commonwealth government has. This also needs to inform the relationship between the Commonwealth and state governments. I acknowledge that I am getting into potentially very difficult territory politically, when there are different political persuasions at the state and Commonwealth levels, but that is exactly the issue that we are seeing with the Kimberley LNG hub process. It is failing on a number of grounds because of that lack of leadership, in a way, by the Commonwealth government and its reluctance to use those broader powers to say, ‘Hang on—there’s a better way of doing this.’

CHAIR —Mr Dreyfus, would you like to respond? They are issues, Piers, that have exercised the minds of people on the committee, particularly Mr Dreyfus. Is there anything else that people would like to raise?


CHAIR —Thank you for your very informative presentation, Piers, and for coming up from Perth. We had hearings in Perth. I do not know how we missed you there.

Mr Verstegen —I was not aware of that, but it was good because I was going to be in Broome on other business anyway. I was pleased that that coincided.

CHAIR —It was fantastic. It has been very useful.

Mr Verstegen —I must apologise for not having had the resources to devote to providing a written submission to the committee.

CHAIR —ACF has provided that. I have read that you are also on the ACF board.

Mr Verstegen —I sit on the ACF council. The ACF’s policies and positions will not necessary coincide with those of the Conservation Council of Western Australia, and they have not been as directly involved, particularly in the strategic assessment, as we have, so there may be areas of difference and overlap, but I certainly implore you to take on board what the local environment groups are also saying—the Conservation Council of Western Australia and Environs Kimberley.

CHAIR —Absolutely. Thank you for attending our hearing today, for flying from Perth to be here in Broome and for sharing your views with the committee. We will send you a copy of the transcript for any corrections, and if there is any other material that you have undertaken to provide it would be good if you could do that as soon as possible. Time is rather short. We are now in the midst of writing the report for presentation to parliament. I am sure that all the groups that have presented while we have been in Broome will be interested to see the outcomes of the report. The information that we have gleaned in the last couple of days will certainly enrich that report, so there will be consideration of issues that you have raised with us at the hearing. Thank you very much.

We will have a short break while the Roebuck Bay Working Group prepare their overheads.

Proceedings suspended from 11.58 am to 12.12 pm