Esso’s plans for Gas Fired Power Station: government rejects EES call
(This article first appeared in the October-November edition of The Bridge)
In the last edition of The Bridge, Save Westernport alerted our community to a potential
new threat on Western Port’s shores; Esso’s plans for an ethane gas-fired power station at
Long Island Point in Esso’s Hastings complex.
Along with a number of concerned individuals and organisations, we called for an
Environment Effects Statement (EES) – the same process that assessed the AGL project in
2019-20, and we submitted requests for more information to the EPA.
Our concerns about Esso’s proposal are multiple including: the lack of effective and
transparent community consultation about the proposal; the lack of detail about the
project; the operation of a new gas plant in our community at a time of climate emergency;
and the various environmental impacts, including noise, Co2 and other emissions, the
release of toxic Volatile Organic Compounds, and local impacts on air quality and amenity.
In calling for an EES, Save Westernport, with the support of many other groups, wrote to
the Minister for Environment to use her powers to support this request for an EES, given
the project’s environs in a Ramsar Wetland, and the need for far more detailed and
objective reports on the operations of an ethane power plant and its environmental and
climate change impacts.
We also made specific objections to DELWP, to outline how this project met the criteria for
an EES. Sadly, the government has decided against this path; instead, the Minister for Planning, the
Hon Lizzie Blandthorn, MP, has referred the Esso proposal to another process, one set up to
streamline building project approvals through Covid -19 lockdowns and restrictions.
This process is known as the Priority Projects Standing Advisory Committee (PPSAC) – 24
projects have been referred to this body since it was set up in mid 2020. Despite requesting
this information, we’ve been unable to determine how many were granted approval.
Needless to say, the Esso project stands out as being quite different in scope from all the
other referrals, which have mainly involved building developments across the metropolitan
area. It is notable that this is called a ‘priority projects’ process. We do not believe the Esso
proposal meets the criteria of a priority project, or one that reflects the intent of the PPSAC
when it was set up.
What happens next? The next steps involve public hearings, where Esso and objectors wishing to be heard can
appear before a three-person panel from Planning Panels Victoria.
The process is very restricted and will only allow the involvement of groups and individuals
who made initial objections. In total there were 95 such objections, a remarkable number,
given the limited knowledge of this project until members of our community were
encouraged to start asking questions.
It’s disappointing that beyond initial objectors to the project, the Planning Panels process
offers no opportunity for further community participation, particularly as meaningful public
engagement is prioritised in the EES assessment process. Could this be seen as a deliberate
action by the government to minimise public attention just before the state election?
The timelines are also very tight. By the time this issue of The Bridge comes out, hearings
before this Panel will soon be due to start, with hearings scheduled to commence 2
November. A decision about the project will be made after the State election.
This timeline gives Save Westernport and those taking part in the hearings very little time
to consider how best to participate and make the most of the process – but we will be there
asking key questions and raising matters of concern on behalf of Westernport communities.
One of the objectors calling for an EES was our Mornington Peninsula Shire Council (MPSC),
after Councillors voted to overturn a recommendation from Council planning staff not to
object to Esso’s application. The Council’s decision came after Save Westernport and others
attended a council meeting to make submissions on the significance of this matter.
MPSC subsequently voted not to participate in these upcoming hearings, based on a secret
report from planning officers. We hope they will reconsider this decision, using all their
planning powers to support the community’s concerns about this proposal, particularly
given the strong position the Council has taken on the Climate Emergency.
Before we received notice of the Minister’s decision to refer this to the PPSAC, EPA advised
us that Esso’s Development Licence Application had been approved in a separate process.
This decision disregarded significant concerns put before the EPA by Save Westernport and others.
It is deeply disturbing that that this Authority, whose remit is ‘Environmental Protection’,
made a decision on this matter before waiting to see whether an EES (or any other process)
would be held.
We were given very little time to consider an appeal on the EPA approval. In the end we
decided to wait and see the outcome of our representations to the Ministers in calling for
the EES, a call that has since been denied. Now the only channel open is this so-called
‘priority projects’ process.
We will keep you posted.
Jane Carnegie for Save Westernport