Blog | 28th Apr, 2021

How we stopped AGL's dirty gas plan in Westernport Bay

Key moments from the community-powered campaign to save our Bay!

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Beautiful Westernport Bay is a diverse ecosystem of pristine Ramsar-listed wetlands, seagrasses, beaches and the southernmost mangroves in the world.

It’s home to more than 1,300 unique marine species and migratory birds, like the Weedy Sea Dragon and critically endangered Eastern Curlew. Hundreds of thousands of Victorians live, work and holiday along its coast, located 75km south-east of Melbourne.

Weedy Sea Dragon: Credit Sascha Schultz. Humpback Whale: Credit Lisa Schonberg

Despite all this, Australia’s biggest corporate polluter AGL, wanted to build a giant gas import terminal right in the heart of Westernport Bay.

AGL’s dirty gas plan involved dumping millions of litres of toxic chlorinated water back into the sea each day. Dozens of 300 metre-long ships would pass through the narrow entry to the Bay every year. And AGL wanted to plough through some of Victoria’s most fertile farmland for a pipeline to transport the gas to Melbourne.

All this damage for polluting gas we don’t need! Burning the gas AGL wanted to import would have caused over 8 million tonnes of climate pollution every year – locking us into decades of gas instead of helping accelerate Victoria’s clean energy transition.

For more than three years, we worked together with local groups like Save Westernport, Philip Island Conservation Society and Westernport and Peninsula Protection Council, as well as Victorian National Parks Association, Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) and many others, to protect Westernport Bay from AGL’s disastrous plan. In March 2021 we won! The Victorian government rejected AGL’s proposal due to its “unacceptable” environmental impacts.

This is a historic win for our community! Here’s how we did it

1. We demonstrated fierce opposition

People power was the driving force behind this campaign. Working together with diverse community leaders, we showed how local people can organise, fight back and win against big corporate polluters!

Thousands of people took action: hitting the streets to collect signatures; putting up signs in their community; joining rallies; contacting key decision makers; writing submissions and giving testimonials at the Environment Effects Statement (EES) process; using art and music to convey their love for the Bay; and, powering the campaign with generous donations.

And we converted this all into important political power. In 2019, more than 400 local residents packed out the Balnarring Community Hall to hear what their federal candidates were doing to stop AGL’s plan. This became a key election issue, with all major candidates making  commitments to oppose the project.

We hosted huge, vibrant actions to make sure  the community’s concerns were heard loud and clear. In 2019, the local community turned out in their thousands to paddle out to protect Westernport Bay  – making headlines across the state.

When COVID-19 restrictions prevented us from physically gathering together, we got creative. In early 2021, people from all over Victoria joined the #WetsuitsForWesternport day of action, flooding Planning Minister Richard Wynne with their messages on social media. Volunteers helped collect 5,000 hand-written postcards and digital messages for the Minister, which we delivered straight to the steps of Parliament.

 

2. We exposed the damage of AGL's polluting plan

When AGL tried to sneak their polluting proposal under the radar, the community spoke up! We demanded it go through a full EES process, the strictest environmental assessment in Victoria, to comprehensively and transparently assess the project’s risks. 

Following huge community pressure, Minister Wynne announced in 2018 that AGL would be required to undergo this process. As a result AGL delayed their project twice!  

AGL took two years to prepare their 11,000page report on the project’s environmental impacts, but the community had just 40 days to make submissions – and under lockdown. 

We created an online tool to help people draft their own submission. Demonstrating unprecedented levels of opposition, the community smashed previous records by sending more than 10,000 submissions against AGL’s proposal! The tool went viral, shared on social media to a total of 1.9 followers. 

Together with Save Westernport and Victorian National Parks Association, we mustered a powerful team for the EES process public hearings, with our lawyers from EJA, four barristers and seven expert witnesses. Over 10 weeks, we presented evidence on the disastrous impacts of AGL’s proposaluncovering a number of disturbing detailsYou can read more about our findings from the EES here >> 

These included that the gas import terminal would discharge chlorine at levels five times higher than those of other similar facilities – a key factor in Minister Wynne’s final decision to reject the project. 

From the beginning, AGL knew this was a problem. In 2019, they lobbied the Victorian Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to weaken the laws that protect internationally-recognised wetlands like Westernport Bay! But we exposed AGL’s brazen attempt to try and sneak their damaging project through without proper regulatory oversight. 

 

3. We showed why AGL’s project was not needed

Victoria can avoid damaging projects like AGL’s altogether – simply by reducing gas demand.  

We commissioned a report by energy efficiency experts Northmore Gordon to show how Victoria could start getting off gas. Their analysis found Victoria could cut gas consumption by more than half in a decade, through energy efficiency and energy upgrades. This would make AGL’s damaging gas plans unnecessary – as well cut climate pollution and help Victoria’s clean energy transitionRead more here >> 

In the lead up to the 2020 state budget, thousands of Victorians spoke up for the need to “build back better” from the pandemic with clean energy and climate solutions. And in November, the government announced a whopping $1.6 billion investment in clean energy and energy efficiency – the largest investment of any state to date. 

This included a $335 million program to support 250,000 households to switch their old heaters (mostly gas) to efficient electric heaters. Our analysis in early 2021 showed this alone would reduce gas consumption enough to avoid projected shortfalls. Read more here >>  

 

4. We demonstrated agl had no social licence

We made sure AGL executives, shareholders and customers knew that AGL had no social licence to build their polluting project.  

In 2018, we rallied out the front of AGL’s annual AGM, with banners and powerful speeches from local residents concerned about the project’s impacts. Watch the Facebook live video here >>  

We continued to ramp up the pressure at their AGMs in both 2019 and 2020 – even rallying online when lockdown hit.  

We collected more than 17,000 signatures, calling on AGL CEO Brett Redman to stop this damaging  project and develop a plan to transition AGL away from dirty coal and gas. In 2019, the Westernport Bay community travelled to Melbourne to attend the Australian Energy Week conference and deliver this petition to Mr. Redman. Watch the Facebook live video here >>  

Over 5,000 Victorians pledged to dump AGL as their energy provider or to commit to never becoming a customer if they did not stop their plans for Crib Point. On ‘Dump Day’ in 2020, wmade noise on social media, wrote complaints and left negative reviews to expose just how out of step AGL’s project was with the local community. 

 

What's next?

As of April 2021, there are still some loose ends to tie up, like the federal government’s response to Minister Wynne’s decision. But now that AGL have withdrawn their application for approvals from the EPA, it’s safe to say there’s no chance they’ll import gas through Westernport Bay. 

Now, we need to make sure that proper protections are put in place so that future generations can enjoy our precious wetlands, rivers and forests. 

And we need to keep up the momentum to get Victoria off gas once and for all! Instead of building new gas projects that threaten our environment and climate, the Victorian government should be picking up the pace on our clean energy transition.  

Let’s keep fighting for a cleaner, more sustainable and inclusive Victoria. 

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