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Environment and Climate Change – EPA and Robbins Island

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 8 June 2022

Tags: Environment Protection Authority

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you, Chair. Minister, some RTI documents into the Robbins Island Wind Farm proposals - correspondence between the EPA, UPC Development Company and the federal Department of Environment - show that the EPA has effectively verballed the proponent by helping them to jump through hurdles to get their projects up. The federal Department of Environment was critical of the way that UPC Renewables planned to respond to fatal orange-bellied parrot collisions. They had concerns about the level of risk for the orange-bellied parrot collisions. Minister, how can you say that the EPA is an independent assessment body when it is, in fact, guiding a company to a commercial project that will damage the environment and further endanger a critically endangered species?

Mr JAENSCH - As you know, there is a robust framework in place to assess and mitigate impacts of developments, including the Robbins Island proposed development and the impacts on threatened species and other natural values. I can advise that as part of this comprehensive process, the EPA has sought expert advice from threatened species scientists in the Department of Natural Resources and Environment. It includes scientists who work in a day-to-day basis in the Save the Tasmanian Devil program, and the orange-bellied parrot program, who have intimate knowledge of these species. I am confident in the rigorous advice provided by these scientists in my department.

I'm not familiar with the particular documents you are referring to, but I could understand that if a proponent was asked to provide information and it was inadequate for the purposes of the EPA's processes, then they might reasonably ask them to provide more information for their needs. I will ask Mr Ford if he would care to add any further comment.

Mr FORD - The Robbins Island assessment is a complex assessment that has been underway for a number of years. At this point in time there are some 1500 pages, at least, of documentation and a number of reports that have been prepared in order to address those guidelines. Inevitably through that process there is engagement between the EPA and the proponent to ensure that the EPA can be satisfied that the proponent is addressing the guidelines.

This is further compounded because the EPA is undertaking an environmental assessment on behalf of the Commonwealth, through the environment protection biodiversity assessment process under the bilateral. That necessitates engagement with the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth's officials and the Commonwealth's experts as well. As part of that process there is inevitably an engagement. What you are referring to is part of an extensive part of documentation that reflects that engagement.

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you. That's interesting rewriting of the evidence that we have before us, which shows that the EPA has been proposing tweaks that the developer can make to their application to the Department of Environment to jump through the federal Department of Environment's more stringent hoops than we have in Tasmania.

What the RTI reveals is that the wind farm project could devastate the population of the orange-bellied parrot. Minister, you said earlier that the orange-bellied program is paying off, with a record number of birds returning each year. You said we hope to see positive increases year on year. There were, according to the OPB, 51 individuals in the wild. Are you happy with UPC Developers' proposal that just a handful of orange-bellied parrots there would be sacrificed to the project? A handful of those birds could be a tenth or 20 per cent of the global population.

We spent decades bringing that bird back from the brink of being critically endangered. Do you think it's appropriate that we give any space for a wind farm development that would decimate that population?

Mr JAENSCH - It's appropriate that we create space for a proponent to show us how they will respond to the advice and the science that has been presented regarding what is required to safeguard that species in their development. I don't want to presume that I know all the answers about that. That's why we have the process we do and legislation to protect threatened species and processes that developers need to go through to show they have understood the risks that they could prevent and show how they might seek to mitigate them.

I don't think it's impossible but it's up to them to show how their proposal is going to be able to satisfy the requirements of the legislation and help to protect that bird. For example, I am aware broadly that there are some areas of the island that are deemed to be potentially suitable habitat on what could be the migratory path for the orange-bellied parrot. I understand there haven't been orange-bellied parrots observed in that area for quite some time. The flight path is only in use by the parrot for certain periods of the year. Within and around that, if the development can propose a way of operating that doesn't interact or interfere and can satisfy people who know a whole lot more about it than me that the risk to the parrot is mitigated, this process is about producing those sorts of outcomes. I am confident that we have good science; our department's teams have been involved, we have legislation at state and Commonwealth level and the proponent has a process to work through to satisfy a whole range of matters, one of them being what threat they present to threatened species like the orange-bellied parrot.

Dr WOODRUFF - We have a federal department that is on the record for being critical of the way that UPC Renewables plans to respond to fatal parrot collisions. They've called on the proponents to prove that the collision risks were remote. The Orange-Bellied Parrot Tasmanian Program has identified that the UPC project has the potential to create barriers to migration that could result in direct mortality through collisions and the potential to remove non-breeding foraging habitat that would reduce the use or accessibility of foraging of the orange-bellied parrot and of roosting habitat. Their conclusion is that with a very small wild population size many historic breeding and non-breeding locations are no longer occupied, therefore we need to protect that ones we still have. Do you agree that what the EPA has been doing is trying to facilitate the interests of the developer instead of facilitating the interests of protecting our critically endangered species?

Mr JAENSCH - No, I don't agree with your premise and I think what you're describing with the backwards and forwards, the information and the evidence that's been provided through the process, shows that there is a rigorous process underway and it needs to run its course. Part of that is the advice provided by experts from our department and that happens at arm's length from us in elected government, but any developer whose proposal interacts with threatened species or Aboriginal heritage we have protections in place for those things and they need to be able to show how they're going to deal with them before they can get a permit to proceed.

Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, the massive windfarm proposed for Robbins Island also will have an impact on another endangered species, the Tasmanian devil. The federal department of environment in the Right to Information letter chain between the department and the Environment Protection Authority and UPC Robbins Island Pty Ltd showed that the department was critical of the significant impacts from the windfarms on Tasmanian devils.

The document shows says that devils are widespread and abundance on Robbins Island where the population has not been hit by a devil facial tumour disease. The department described the area as a likely stronghold for the survival of the species. However, our EPA did not share concerns that there would be a significant impact on the devil as long as planned management and mitigation measures were implemented by the proponents, UPC.

Minister, this strikes me as a perfect example of the failure of the EPA to be truly independent of government direction. I want to draw your attention to a letter from previous premier Peter Gutwein to Scott Morrison when he was the prime minister. It is dated 7 December last year and is about the Marinus Link project. He says to the prime minister:

It has been brought to my attention by UPC Renewables that it has been experiencing delay and rework in its environmental assessment process relating to Commonwealth approvals and I have attached a copy of that correspondence. Despite the purpose of the bilateral agreement, I understand the Commonwealth Environmental Regulator continues to make duplicative requests of the proponent and conflicting conditions of approval. In order to achieve our world-leading Tasmanian renewable energy target, it is imperative that projects in Tasmania are given every opportunity to succeed. In this respect, I seek your assistance to ensure the intent of the bilateral is delivered upon.

Minister, is this not evidence of the fact that your Government will always, and every time, put the interests of developments of any sort ahead of protecting the environment?

Mr JAENSCH - Who was the letter addressed to?

Dr WOODRUFF - The then prime minister - now not prime minister because of his views on climate action, integrity, women and a whole lot of other issues.

Mr JAENSCH - Thank you for the gratuitous commentary. Dr Woodruff, as I understand it, that letter is from the premier to the prime minister regarding the conduct of the bilateral agreement for assessment which is intended to prevent duplication of processes under respective state and federal legislation where they are basically asking the same questions.

Dr WOODRUFF - Delay was the issue that he raised.

Mr JAENSCH - As I understand it, the matter is relevant to what you're talking about, less about directing anybody to decide a matter one way or the other, more about to ensure that we are using our bilateral agreement to ensure a transparent process and to work as we've agreed to and to identify any problems with that if they'd been apparent. I don't think this goes to any interference in the rigour of an independent assessment process. It's rather about trying to ensure between governments that the assessment processes we've agree to are upheld.

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you minister, I think you misunderstand what the previous premier, Mr Gutwein was actually saying in the request that he made of the prime minister. What he said is, conflicting conditions of approval and he says:

The Commonwealth Environmental Regulator continues to make conflicting conditions of approval.

What he's pointing to is the fact that the federal environment department has more stringent environmental assessment requirements than our Tasmanian EPA -

Mr JAENSCH - I think that's your take.

Dr WOODRUFF - Well, thank you, I'll finish my take. That our environmental EPA is happy to provide developers with a possibility of making modifications to developments so that they can go ahead even if they will be threatening habitat, or the actual survival of critically endangered and endangered species. The federal department of environment wants to be stronger, so the problem he's pointing to is, will you get out of our turf and let us hurry on and facilitate these developments going ahead.

This is the problem with the bilateral agreements. When you have a state like Tasmania with such woeful environmental laws. Can you address that issue? When are you actually going to release the EPA from having statements of intent - expectations that direct them how to do their job, which they're currently still suffering under?

Mr JAENSCH - Thank you. Can I address your commentary. I think you've just given your version of how you choose to interpret all these events. We’re quite familiar with that narrative.

Dr WOODRUFF - The words of the premier.

Mr JAENSCH - I reject it. I don't agree with you. I think that there are very good reasons why we should have coordinated state and federal processes when we're investigating matters that are relevant under both of our legislation. It's important that the best knowledge and evidence about those matters is brought to bear and one of Tasmanian devils, surprisingly, we have that knowledge and evidence here. We have the expertise here to inform that process.

I do think it's important that development assessment and environmental approval processes don't provide confusing and contradictory assessments and approvals, particularly when we've got arrangements in place to ensure that there is the best available advice and rigour applied.

Dr WOODRUFF - Is it right that the bilateral agreement requires the Commonwealth to sort of check what the EPA does?

Mr JAENSCH - I reject your spin and I reject your premise there and I also reject the premise that the statement of expectations for the EPA is a statement of directions. It's not. It's a statement of expectations, that's why it's called that. In framing a statement of expectations for an independent body like the EPA it's quite reasonable for the minister, on behalf of the Government to state that it expects the independent assessor and regulators to uphold its responsibilities under its legislation -

Dr WOODRUFF - Where is the new legislation? You promised it last year.

CHAIR - Dr Woodruff, if you're not interested in the answer I'll go to Mr Wood.

Mr JAENSCH - Well I think we've just closed public comment on it, so I hope you made a great submission. I look forward to reading it.

Dr WOODRUFF - I'll make my submission in parliament.

Mr JAENSCH - The other sorts of things which it's quite reasonable to expect is that a statement of expectations frames, for example, our state government's priorities regarding climate change, the circular economy. protecting vulnerable species, our sustainability planning, those sorts of things. And our planning system, which we are reforming all of, in the interest of all Tasmanians. We would expect that our EPA is cognisant of the directions that those are heading in and what we are trying to achieve.

Dr WOODRUFF - You shouldn't have to tell the EPA to suck eggs. They should know how to protect the environment. They should not be told how to protect business productivity.

Mr JAENSCH - However, they are an unelected group of people established under the legislation. They need to be informed of what the public interest is through its elected parliament, and Government are. It is not a statement of direction, it is a statement of expectations. And I look forward to framing and tabling a new statement of expectations shortly.