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