Last night, AGL told our representatives they have finally submitted their joint referral to Planning Minister Richard Wynne. The submission has had community groups and policy-makers on edge since AGL announced their plans to lodge a referral to the planning minister back in 2017. Since then residents, planners, and corporate stakeholders have battled to determine whether sufficient consideration has been given to the effects of the proposed AGL regasification terminal at Crib Point.

Now, it’s in the Minister’s hands, and solely the decision of his office. He can decide that no further study is required and simply green light AGL’s plan.  But should such an enormous project really come down to the decision of one Minister?  And is the entire environmental assessment process (which dates back to the Environment Effects Act of 1978) is flawed at a more basic level. Perhaps so…

Since 2000, two reviews and a parliamentary inquiry have found the legislation and associated EES processes to be costly and lacking clarity and transparency. In 2017, the Victorian Auditor General found that not only was there was a complete lack of statutory requirements to refer development projects, but that the minister’s ultimate assessment is merely a recommendation, and non-binding. What that means is that public works decision makers can proceed regardless of recommendations! It would seem such a system of advice, with no monitoring or need for compliance, makes the corporates our environmental watchdogs.

The flexibility of the legislation also leaves questionable grey areas where Minister Wynne may omit the EES requirement entirely while imposing other restrictions or requirements on AGL. In theory this seems to provide a compromise where safeguards can still be employed.  But the auditor general again found the department’s ability to monitor and document compliance completely lacking. If AGL can’t even expect to be called out for compliance, it puts them yet again in the driver’s seat.

It’s time we start questioning whether our government truly represents the interests of Australians who want to see corporate investment tempered by sensible, environmentally responsible regulation. If environmental studies are merely advisory, and decision-makers need not even comply, then what motivation do companies like AGL have to even attempt environmental responsibility? Like all corporations, shareholder value and profitability will guide them, leaving our coastal environment a very distant last place concern.

Considering AGL’s recent extraordinary profitability reports, it appears that the government is sitting on the sidelines, paying lip-service to the need for environmental responsibility. It’s time to think twice about who we’re entrusting our environmental future to, and put a bit more control into the hands of communities, residents and businesses who will be affected by these decisions.