Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Green shoe brigade: Red carpet for renewable koala killers

Mount Morgan, less than 40 kilometres from Rockhampton, was once the largest gold mine in the world. It closed in 1990 but there’s still gold in them thar hills. These days however it comes from Renewable Energy Certificates or RECs, pronounced wrecks, which is what renewable projects are doing to grid security and the environment.

The RECs have been so lucrative that companies from all over the world have poured into Queensland lured not just by the generous REC subsidies but by a lax regulatory environment in which ministers have the discretion to override, for ‘relevant infrastructure activities’, environmental regulations regarding tree clearing, ground cover, and the amount of run-off allowed to flow into the Great Barrier Reef.

When Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen was premier in the 1980s, deals were done for the ‘white shoe brigade’ that ignored regulations and delivered rapid rezoning, government loans, and subsidies for controversial developments on the basis of a nod and a wink and sometimes a rumoured brown paper bag of cash.

Under Premier Palaszczuk, Queensland is rolling out the red carpet for the Green Shoe Brigade, not so much carpetbaggers as sun and windbaggers. There’s no need for a brown paper bag. The ‘climate crisis’ justifies the immediate rezoning of pastoral and forested land to allow for industrial-scale renewable utilities.

There is an ‘anything goes’ atmosphere of the Wild West or the Wild North making Queensland’s Renewable Energy Rush every bit as feverish as the gold rush that preceded it.

The scale of what Palaszczuk is planning is Bowen-esque. The Queensland Energy and Jobs Plan launched this month has set a 50-per-cent Renewable Energy Target by 2030 and a 2032 target of up to 2,000 turbines generating 8GW of electricity, 14 million solar panels generating 4GW of electricity, and 5GW of pumped hydro and battery storage.

Yet of 54 wind plants listed, only five are operational, four are under construction, and 42 proposed. Of 129 solar plants, 40 are operational, three are under construction, and eight proposed. And of four pumped hydro storage plants, one is operational, one is committed, and two proposed.

What makes any of this credible is the speed with which projects have gone ahead in the last year and the ruthless indifference to bulldozing the last remnants of old-growth forests. Too rugged for agriculture or mining, these are the last refuges for dozens of Queensland’s most rare and threatened creatures including koalas and greater gliders.

Conservationist Steven Nowakowski calculates that 14,100 hectares of remnant forest will be cleared for 17 renewable projects in North Queensland, and 4,625 kilometres of new haulage roads will have to be bulldozed through forests to service 88 renewable energy projects in the pipeline throughout Queensland.

If a mining or oil and gas company was committing environmental destruction on this scale and it was being rubber-stamped by a Coalition government every green group and parliamentarian in the country would be up in arms. But state-funded conservation groups have said off the record that they don’t dare criticise the state government for fear of losing their funding.

Almost every renewable energy project in Queensland has triggered the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act passed by the federal government in 1999 to protect our unique plants, animals, habitats, and places.

To date, Minister for the Environment Tanya Plibersek has not covered herself in glory. Her Liberal predecessor Sussan Ley put a stop to a project at Lotus Creek to build 81 wind turbines 230 metres high spread over 48,000 hectares including 632 hectares of koala habitat and 340 hectares of greater glider habitat because it posed a ‘clearly unacceptable’ threat to koalas. The Australian Conservation Foundation welcomed the decision saying, ‘renewable energy projects should not leave biodiversity and threatened species worse off’, but said nothing when Plibersek reinstated the project with increased power generation.

Lotus Creek has a thriving koala community including females with young on their backs in pristine old-growth forests with nesting hollows supporting a flourishing ecosystem of wildlife.

A former Greens candidate, Nowakowski is a voice in the wilderness calling for the state government to turn the area into a national koala park. Horrified by the destruction wreaked by renewable energy’s massive footprint he now supports the Liberals’ nuclear energy policy and the Nationals call for a moratorium on renewables.

‘No one wants to imagine an Australia without the koalas,’ said Plibersek last month, but when it comes to a choice between protecting endangered koalas in native forests and building a wind farm, she opted for the latter.

Bulldozers will arrive any day now at Lotus Creek and if a koala is injured it must, by law, be clubbed to death. Yet unlike Ley, Plibersek hasn’t had to face accusations of being a koala killer.

Glen and Nikki Kelly are the sixth generation to run the family farm near Rockhampton – the essence of sustainable land management. They are horrified that their flourishing property will be ringed with 120 wind turbines 275 metre high which will destroy the habitat of rare and threatened species, create landslides feeding into the Great Barrier Reef, and in summer, firefighters will no longer be assisted by aircraft because the smoke-obscured turbines will make it too dangerous.

Nearby, Cedric and Therese Creed are battling a 36km2 solar plant, bigger than Norfolk Island, to be built on prime agricultural land on the Don river. In extreme weather, toxic leakage from damaged panels and batteries will poison the land and the reef. In a bushfire firefighters can’t even approach it because of toxic fumes and the risk of explosions.

What might save regions from reckless renewable development is the massive uptake of rooftop solar. Queensland’s grid is approaching what energy economist Stephen Wilson calls ‘peak renewables’. When the operator can’t buy any more renewable electricity, companies can’t earn RECs and profits are curtailed. Investment in renewable generation is at its lowest level in five years because of diminishing returns, yet electricity bills are soaring because of renewable subsidies, capital costs and weather-driven shortages.

It was National Threatened Species Day on 7 September but the threat that most concerns Plibersek and Prime Minister Albanese is the vote for the Greens in their adjacent inner-city electorates. So far, it seems their voters care more about closing down coal-fired power plants than whether Big Wind is killing koalas.


Labor's latest job-destroying bill

The title of the new Bill is "Closing Loopholes" but it does no such thing

It’s worth going through the legislation in some detail to establish just how bad it is. But the foundational premise on which it is based is that the only legitimate form of employment is permanent employee, preferably full-time, with a host firm. Everything else – casual, independent contractor, gig worker, labour hire worker – is illegitimate and should be either prohibited or purposefully discouraged.

Of course, one reason for this presumption is that it is only permanent employees who show any inclination to join unions and, even then, not in very high proportions. Take the comparison between permanent employees and casual workers: around 20 per cent of permanent employees are union members (and bear in mind many of them work in the public sector) while only 6 per cent of casuals join up.

From the unions’ perspective, casual employment is bad even though the data confirms that casual workers exhibit the same overall job satisfaction as permanent workers. We know also that only between five and ten per cent of casuals take advantage of the right to convert to permanent employment after 12 months in the job.

Let’s look at the changes to the casual provisions. There is now a ten-point test before employers even think about offering casual employment. After six months, casual employees will be able to apply for permanency and at any time after that. Offering regular shifts to casuals – even something that looks regular – will be a dangerous activity for employers even though many casual workers, including working mothers, prefer regular shifts (and enjoy the 25-per-cent casual loading).

Another section of the Bill deals with labour hire firms which provide workers to large firms with existing enterprise agreements – think here mining operations and aviation, in particular. It has irked the unions for some time that these labour hire workers are not paid exactly the same as the permanent workers with whom they work. Note these labour hire workers are generously remunerated, but not as generously as the enterprise agreement-covered permanent workers.

The reality is that some firms have been locked into extremely inflexible and outdated agreements which are impossible to escape. Their use of labour hire workers has been a means of working around the system.

But as with all these sorts of changes, there are unintended consequences. BHP, for instance, has its own internal labour hire arrangement and it’s unclear whether the legislation will cover this situation – it probably will. Labour hire is also used for specialised workers undertaking bespoke projects and maintenance. Again, it’s unclear whether they will be covered by the new legislation.

But if that doesn’t sound messy enough, get this. Even though the legislation hasn’t even passed the parliament – it has gone to a Senate inquiry which will report in February next year – the labour hire provisions are expected to apply from the day B2 made the second reading speech.

That’s right, the provisions are retrospective but B2 doesn’t have a problem with that, likening it to the anti-avoidance provisions governing some tax changes. The fact that there are no parallels doesn’t bother him. He’s keen to deliver and the sooner the better. In fact, the Bill contains 13 different start dates, which is unbelievably confusing.

Then we get to the gig worker provisions and the introduction of a new classification of worker – employee-like. These employee-like workers will have their wages and some terms of employment set by the Fair Work Commission. Again, it’s not entirely clear who’s in and who’s out. The Ubers of this world are in as are most food delivery services.

Airtasker was told it wasn’t in and was assured by B2 of this until he changed his mind. It shows that sucking up to the likes of B2 is not a sure bet. The platforms linking care workers with those who need the services – Mable is the best example – were thought to be out because the workers are paid much more than the award rates of pay. But it now seems Mable is in.

The reality is that the unions don’t like the gig economy and they are happy for it to shrink. They want the work that gig workers do to be in the form of permanent jobs, which isn’t going to happen to any great extent. The next best thing is for the work to go away. The fact that most gig workers have traditional jobs and use platform-based engagements as a means of making extra money doesn’t really bother union officials. Or B2, for that matter.

Then there is the section of the Bill that boosts the rights of union delegates even if there is only one union member at a workplace. There is a presumption that the one unionist represents the interests of all other workers and must be given special, paid privileges to do so. This includes time off from work to undertake union activities as well as attend union training sessions. This is truly excessive by anyone’s standards.

This Bill is a gift of enormous proportions to lawyers and industrial relations advisers. It’s a major headache for most employers, one way or another, and a major drag on productivity and investment. It will provide a degree of uplift for the rapidly disappearing union movement, although many sensible workers will still resist the entreaties to join up.

At its most fundamental level, the legislation is appalling public policy – complex, ambiguous and ill-directed. It is attacking problems in the labour market that simply don’t exist while creating a new set of real impediments that will have to be removed in due course


Seismic blasting in the hunt for a new Australian gas field said to threaten whales

Activists in Australia are trying to stop oil and gas company Woodside Energy from conducting seismic blasting off the country’s western coast, which they say could deafen and ultimately kill endangered migratory whales.

The court challenge is part of a long-running campaign by Indigenous and environmental activists to frustrate Woodside’s plans for “Scarborough,” a massive fossil fuel project set to pump out carbon emissions for decades even as Australia attempts to meet tougher climate targets.

Earlier this month, Marthudunera woman Raelene Cooper sought an injunction to delay the blasting, but that order is due to expire on Thursday, allowing Woodside to resume work it says is required to indicate the location of large gas reserves.

On Tuesday, Cooper argued her case in the Federal Court, saying she was not properly consulted by Woodside Energy before it announced the blasting, a precursor to exploratory drilling.

During the process, airguns fire compressed air toward the ocean floor and the soundwaves penetrate the seabed before bouncing back to receivers towed by a boat. The pattern of the soundwaves gives geologists an indication of oil and gas reserves trapped under the ocean bedrock.

According to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, the noise can reach 250 decibels, around a million times “more intense” than the loudest whale sounds.
“Now, that’s really problematic if you’re a whale because whales depend on their hearing for everything – to navigate, to find their mates and their food,” said Richard George, Greenpeace Australia Pacific senior campaigner.

“So, a deaf whale is a dead whale.”

Woodside Energy plans to extract millions of tons of gas from the Scarborough field, about 375 kilometers (233 miles) off the coast of Western Australia, mostly for export to Asia.

The project was signed off by the previous Australian government led by Scott Morrison, however it retains the support of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s administration, despite its pledge of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

Gas is generally less carbon-intensive than coal, but it’s still a planet-warming fossil fuel, and there is a growing understanding that its infrastructure leaks huge amounts of methane – a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the shorter term.

Australia’s offshore oil and gas regulator, NOPSEMA, approved the blasting in July, despite acknowledging that Woodside may not have identified all Indigenous people in need of consultation on the seismic blasting plans, or given them adequate time to be consulted.

In a statement to CNN, Woodside said it had “consulted extensively on our environment plans, dedicating time and effort so our approach to environmental management and [Environmental Plan] consultation meets our current understanding of regulatory requirements and standards.”

Woodside Energy provided CNN with its marine environmental plan for Scarborough dated June 2023.

The document lists dozens of threatened and migratory species of sharks, mammals, reptiles and birds that can be found in the vicinity of the blast zone, including loggerhead and leatherback turtles, great white sharks and pygmy blue whales.

Greenpeace said Woodside’s plans “skirt close” to a major migration route for pygmy blue whales, a smaller subspecies of blue whale that travels north each year from the Antarctic into waters off Australia’s northwest.

The population size of pygmy blue whales is unclear, but the Australian government considers the mammal to be endangered.

The government’s species profile warns about the dangers of “man-made noise” to the whales, saying it can “potentially result in injury or death, masking of vocalisations, displacement from essential resources (e.g. prey, breeding habitat), and behavioural responses.”

“Potential sources of man-made underwater noise interference in Australian waters include seismic surveys for oil, gas and geophysical exploration,” the profile adds.

However in its environmental report, Woodside said any impact on whales would be short term.

“There will be no lasting effect on whales, however there could be short term hearing impacts,” Woodside wrote in its report.

The company also said it “will have dedicated marine fauna observers and systems which can listen for whale song on some vessels” and that the “presence of whales can postpone activities.”


United Australia Party senator Ralph Babet and founder Clive Palmer fail in Voice referendum court bid

United Australia Party senator Ralph Babet and founder Clive Palmer have lost a court bid to count crosses on Voice referendum ballot papers as a "No" vote.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) maintains that on October 14, the word "Yes" or a tick will be counted as a "Yes" vote, but a cross, or "X" will not be counted as a "No" vote, because its meaning is ambiguous.

Mr Babet and Mr Palmer sought an urgent Federal Court ruling that any ballot papers with just an "X" alone in the voting space provided, would show that a voter does not approve of the proposed change to the constitution.

They also proposed an alternative ruling that ballot papers with just a tick symbol should be counted as informal votes, saying it would not prove a voter intended it to be affirmative of change.

According to the AEC, to correctly cast a vote in this referendum, people should write "Yes," in the designated box, or "No".

The AEC has strongly urged voters not to use ticks or crosses on their ballot forms.

In its advice, the commission says crosses are used on many forms in daily life, and could mean approval or rejection, and therefore will be counted as an informal vote.

A clearly defined tick can only be interpreted as showing approval for something, and so will be counted, but the AEC has asked that voters "please don't" use symbols.




No comments: