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Big polluters need not go net zero, just ‘help’ others: New EPA guidelines

It supported public reporting against those targets, including interim targets, and would also consider its own public reporting on the companies’ progress.

Dr Hatton quashed hopeful speculation from the conservation sector about whether the guideline meant any new major emitting project would be a priori unacceptable, saying the guideline implicitly allowed for short-term emissions increases.

The guideline also did not compel companies to show their own proposal reaching net zero.

The state had said it was looking for other sectors to do more, Dr Hatton said, referencing last week’s announcement that pastoralists would be allowed to undertake carbon farming as one example.

The accounting of how to make room for new emitters now belonged to the state government, he said.

Dr Hatton said when the authority released its original guideline in March it had done so within a “policy vacuum”.

But the government had since released its net zero by 2050 ‘aspiration’ and some Australian business leaders in resources, aviation and other sectors had followed.

Debbie Dowden from Challa Station in the southern rangelands can now go ahead with carbon farming.

Debbie Dowden from Challa Station in the southern rangelands can now go ahead with carbon farming.Credit:Partnership for the Outback

Dr Hatton said he would like to think the EPA had played a role in stimulating vital debate, both in WA and nationally.

“It’s the authority’s role to hold everybody accountable to those commitments,” he said.

“It is my view that as a state we have moved forward significantly since March and these revised guidelines represent that.”

Dr Hatton was asked if resources companies could argue as part of their management plan that exporting LNG to Asian markets would decrease global emissions by displacing coal use.

He said while such an argument could be mounted and might hold sway with the minister of the day, the EPA’s advice would still be based on direct (scope 1) emissions generated in WA, not emissions from consumption of the energy (scope 2).

“The state government policy invites innovation and invites, implicitly, whatever narrative a proponent wants to make,” Dr Hatton said. “We will do the same.

“If the company wants to bring to attention to anticipated reductions in scope 2 or 3 emissions … they are free to make and justify that narrative … but they will obviously have to substantiate that to us.

“If the EPA and minister want to take that into account they can. But the EPA advice and the conditions we would advise on will be on the direct emissions.”

Protesters add their own imagery to the logos of the delegates at the recent Resources Technology Showcase in Perth.

Protesters add their own imagery to the logos of the delegates at the recent Resources Technology Showcase in Perth. Credit:Caitlin Watts

The EPA also had no jurisdiction to assess projects in Commonwealth waters off WA’s coast and therefore no ability to require or evaluate greenhouse gas emissions-reduction plans for those projects, he said.

Therefore, carbon dioxide in the gas that would be vented at the reservoir at Woodside’s proposed Browse gas field – a percentage of carbon substantially higher than the average for Australian projects – cannot be addressed by the guideline.

The EPA can only consider the emissions created from processing that gas onshore at Karratha, as Woodside has proposed.

This is despite the federal regulator counting emissions from Commonwealth waters off the WA coast when calculating total WA emissions.

Dr Hatton said the EPA could not call in existing projects for reconsideration. The only way the EPA could look retrospectively at approvals was if the company applied for a change in operations, such as in the above example, or if the minister sent an existing ministerial approval for reconsideration.

The EPA could also only recommend conditions to the minister, not impose conditions or ensure compliance.

Dr Hatton rejected suggestions the guideline was weaker than March’s, saying he believed them stronger as they were now backed and framed by a state commitment and gave more clarity about how that commitment would be achieved in practice.

He conceded the government had phrased this as an “aspiration”, not a legislated target, but said the EPA guideline still drove proponents towards that target.

“The state government policy explicitly anticipates EPA advice; that is actually in the policy,” he said.

The new connections forging the Burrup Hub are shown in red, but the Browse basin itself is in Commonwealth waters.

The new connections forging the Burrup Hub are shown in red, but the Browse basin itself is in Commonwealth waters. Credit:Woodside

“Part of the great value of the EPA is the public transparency on what the impacts might be, the conditions under which the proponent is allowed to make those impacts, and the reporting of that.

“As ministerial statements will [reflect the EPA guideline] it will make very clear what individual projects are achieving, or are not.”

But on the topic of Australia meeting its international obligations, Dr Hatton said he had not seen analyses “that would give me confidence that Australia is on target”.

A spokeswoman from Woodside said the company supported and shared the state’s aspiration of net zero emissions by 2050.

“We are acting to limit emissions, including setting a new target to offset global portfolio equity reservoir CO2 from 2021 and set a 5 per cent energy efficiency target for 2021-25,” she said.

“As the signatory to the Paris Agreement, it is the federal government’s job to set Australia’s targets, and to decide how and where to allocate the emissions reduction task across the economy.

“Woodside meets all its obligations to state and federal regulators. We will engage with the EPA on the detail of the new guidelines as we progress our proposed growth projects in northern Western Australia, which will deliver jobs and tax revenue for many years to come.”

Conservation Council of WA director Piers Verstegen said regardless of political pressure or policy wording, the EPA had a clear legal obligation to provide science-based advice to protect WA’s environment.

“We are concerned that there is too much discretion in this policy; however, the fundamental principles remain – pollution must go down not up, and new projects must avoid adding to the problem,” he said.

The EPA will consider feedback before releasing a final guideline in March 2020. It will review the guideline within one year and then three years.

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