Blog | 22nd Dec, 2020

AGL’s dirty gas import terminal: What we learnt from the expert testimony

Over the last two months we remotely attended public hearings where local councils, community and environmental groups presented evidence on the impact of AGL’s proposed gas import terminal in Westernport Bay.

What we learned reaffirmed our conviction that this project cannot go ahead.

For more than two years we have been working closely with Save Westernport and the Westernport Bay community to stop AGL from building a gas import terminal in one of Victoria’s most precious corners. Building a new fossil fuel project in a climate crisis is reckless, doing so in the middle of a Ramsar wetland defies logic.

In October of 2018 we had our first victory. Thanks to the actions of thousands of Victorians, we convinced Planning Minister Richard Wynne to force AGL to undergo an Environmental Effects Statement (EES) Process. Up to that point AGL tried to avoid this level of public scrutiny by claiming the gas import terminal and required pipeline works were different projects.

As part of the EES process, AGL had to prepare several reports addressing potential impacts of their ‘Floating Storage Regasification Unit’ on the environment, the Westernport Bay community and our climate. The result was 11,000 pages long.

Faced with the massive challenge posed by the sheer volume of documents, we joined efforts with Save Westernport and Victorian National Parks Association and mustered a team which includes Environmental Justice Australia, four barristers and seven independent expert witnesses who analysed AGL’s reports and have supported us through the EES process.

Since October 12 we have been attending public hearings where parties to the EES process presented their evidence and their position on the project. So far only AGL, APA and a couple of submitters have defended the project; local councils, community and environmental groups have all spoken against AGL’s damaging plans. The consensus by opposition groups has been (1) there is a severe lack of evidence on the impact of the project: and (2) what evidence exists shows likely impacts which are unacceptable and should prevent this project from being approved.

Key things we learnt from our expert independent witnesses

1. Dr Matt Edmunds, marine ecologist, had harsh criticism of the overall quality of the EES and pointed out key parts of the analysed that were omitted by AGL. In his own words: “The prediction of biological impacts was mostly absent in the EES. There was no specific assessment of types of biological impacts, magnitudes and spatial extents of potential change for any of the wetland and marine priority features. Instead, the assessment was ‘dumbed-down’, to over-generalised groupings which were not meaningful or representative of important ecosystem components. There was modelling of some physical effects, such temperature plumes or initial chlorine dilution, but there was no matching effort applied for modelling of the biology. Moreover, the physical modelling was divorced from biological context, such as overlaying plume modelling on benthic community maps.” 

2. Prof Tom Baldock, expert in hydrodynamics looked at the impact of the FSRU sucking water from the bay to warm up the liquid gas. AGL prepared an entrainment model to see how this would impact small plant and animal life. According to Prof Tom Baldock the entrainment modelling done on behalf of AGL has underestimated the total intake of plankton, possibly very significantly. This is relevant as plankton is the cornerstone of marine environments. 

3. Prof Perran Cook, expert on environmental chemistry, has questioned AGL‘s choice on guideline values when assessing the potential impacts of chlorinated water on the bay. According to prof Perran, AGL’s approach could be underestimating the chronic impacts of water discharges in the bay, especially on benthic communities. This made the EPA’s evidence on the chlorine concentration of wastewater discharges even more relevant. According to the EPA, AGL’s gas terminal would discharge chlorine at levels 5 times higher than those of an alternative gas import terminal proposed for Port Kembla in NSW and AGL downplayed the potential impacts of chlorinated water on the Westernport Bay environment. 

4. According to Professor Vanesa Wong acid sulfate soils, present in the area, if disturbed can create irreversible damage to the environment, including contamination of waterways and declines in aquatic ecosystems health. Despite the risks posed by acid sulfate soils, AGL undertook inadequate soil testing. AGL acknowledged they did not follow the National Acid Sulfate Soils Guidance.  

5. Bruce Robertson, financial analyst at IEEFA, challenged AGL’s claims regarding gas being needed for the energy transition and explained how the plummeting costs of renewables make gas unnecessary. Further, he explained how AGL’s claims regarding price benefits of their gas import terminal were misleading. 

As a result of our experts’ testimony and community submissions, the Environment Protection Authority has finally decided to take Victoria’s State Environment Protection Policy (Waters) seriously. For a long time, we have been questioning AGL’s capability to operate an FSRU considering environmental regulations which forbid the EPA from granting wastewater discharges in high conservation surface waters (which include Ramsar Sites such as Westernport Bay).

Finally, AGL’s project is incompatible with Victoria doing its fair share to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Victoria needs to start phasing out and burning less gas, but instead AGL’s documents show that they plan to import more gas in 2040 than in 2030. It is enraging that even after last summer’s brutal bushfire season, companies like AGL are still planning to continue their destructive and unsustainable business-as-usual approach.

The public hearings concluded on December 17, and there is now overwhelming evidence that this project should be rejected. Several sections of the reports reflect lazy science, which is particularly worrisome considering AGL wants to build a fossil fuel project in a high conservation value area.

Next Steps

Now that the hearings are done, the Independent Panel which ran the hearings will have to submit a report by the end of February. This report will include a recommendation to Min. Richard Wynne to either approve or reject this project, who will ultimately make a decision on the EES process.

While we cannot anticipate what the Independent Panel will say, based on what we have seen in the public hearings believe this project should be rejected as it would impose unacceptable effects on the environment and on Victoria’s objective of doing our fair share to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by 2100.

The next year will be pivotal for this campaign, working closely with community and environmental groups we will keep fighting to maintain Westernport Bay free from gas import terminals and Victoria from new polluting fossil fuel projects.