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ACF launches bid to have off-shore gas project reassessed

28 June 2022 at 8:37 am
Danielle Kutchel
The Scarborough gas project would release more than a billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, potentially endangering one of Australia’s most beloved environmental havens.

Danielle Kutchel | 28 June 2022 at 8:37 am


ACF launches bid to have off-shore gas project reassessed
28 June 2022 at 8:37 am

The Scarborough gas project would release more than a billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, potentially endangering one of Australia’s most beloved environmental havens.

A massive gas project planned for off the north-west coast of Western Australia is facing a court challenge from the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF).

ACF filed documents in the Federal Court in Melbourne on Tuesday 21 June, asking for the project to be halted until its impact on the Great Barrier Reef can be assessed.

The Scarborough gas project has been proposed by Woodside Energy Group, which plans to drill 13 wells into the Scarborough gas field. Most of the gas piped up from the field will be exported to Asia.

But the project is expected to cause 1.37 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2055, according to a 2021 Climate Analytics report, which would fuel climate change and lead to detrimental impacts on the reef.

Reef impacts too important to ignore

ACF’s exports campaigner Elizabeth Sullivan told Pro Bono News that the impacts on the Great Barrier Reef were central to ACF’s court challenge.

“The reality is that it doesn’t matter where these emissions are burned… they will still have a huge impact on the Great Barrier Reef and places that we love that are being impacted by climate change,” she explained.

She said ACF’s legal action could be considered groundbreaking because it would look at scope one, two and three emissions. Scope three emissions include emissions caused by overseas customers burning Australian gas.

The Scarborough gas project was assessed by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) and was therefore exempt from Australia’s environmental protection laws – but Sullivan said the project should have had to receive approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).

According to ACF, the project’s exemption does not apply due to its expected significant impact on the Great Barrier Reef.

“If those projects have a significant impact on the heritage values of a matter of national significance like the Great Barrier Reef, actually NOPSEMA states that the project does need to get EPBC approval,” Sullivan said. 

“So in our view, it’s a little bit tricky that Woodside has tried to exploit a loophole. We’re saying, ‘hey, look, NOPSEMA clearly says that if it’s going to have an impact on the reef, it needs to be assessed by the EPA’. That hasn’t been done, therefore it needs to be assessed.”

In response to the injunction, Woodside published a statement on its website stating that “the Scarborough Project has been the subject of rigorous environmental assessments”.

In the statement, Woodside CEO Meg O’Neill said the project was underway and on schedule, having received “all primary environmental approvals”.

“Woodside will vigorously defend its position in these proceedings,” she said. 

Politicians called on to act

The case isn’t expected to be heard immediately, with a potential wait of six to 12 months before it has its day – or days – in court.

ACF will argue that the project should not be allowed to proceed unless it and its impact on the reef are approved under the national environment law.

After hearing evidence the court will make a recommendation to the environment minister, who will then make a decision on the project.

“Labor has said that it’s not willing to support projects that don’t stack up environmentally. We’re pretty confident that with all of this evidence put forward, the project won’t stack up environmentally,” Sullivan said.

“But this really gives the minister an opportunity to make the right decision and to hear all the science and all the real evidence behind it.”

ACF hopes its challenge to the Scarborough project will set a precedent for any new coal or gas project to be assessed on its environmental impacts.

“I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do think that if we’re successful, it will set a precedent whereby the overall impact of emissions on the cultural and heritage values of a place like the Great Barrier Reef will need to be assessed,” Sullivan said.

“I think it’s about time that these things were looked at in a more balanced way and looked at in a way that considers the real science of the matter of climate change.”

“An over-dependence on fossil fuels”

Gas has been widely touted by politicians as a transition fuel to help tide Australia over as it makes the switch to greener energy sources.

But with Australia’s energy crisis having dominated headlines for several weeks, Sullivan said the public was beginning to understand that “the reason we’re here is because of an overdependence on fossil fuels, because we didn’t start transitioning early enough”.

“The fragility to the global energy system of being overly reliant on these outdated fuels is really becoming clear, it’s really hurting people’s wallets and it’s becoming problematic,” she said.

Sullivan is working on a new program with ACF around climate and exports, supporting the transition of Australia’s export economy away from fossil fuels and onto renewable manufacturing and exports.

“We’re talking about things like green hydrogen, green steel, green aluminium, batteries, battery manufacturing, all of the services and education that comes with growing sectors like that and the expertise that we have,” she said.

But she said investment “isn’t coming in”, thanks to years of inaction on renewables by the federal government. She hopes that the change of government will see federal politicians finally listening to industry and the global investment community about the value of investing in renewable energy.

“There’s very few other countries who have become prosperous off the back of fossil fuels. Let’s be realistic: we have. But it’s time to move on now,” Sullivan said. 

“We really do have this fantastic opportunity, and it’s such a shame to so far be seeing our power holders and decision makers not really grab that by the horns. I’m really hoping that the new government is willing and prepared to do that.”


Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting.

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