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Can Plibersek's veto on offshore gas projects be restored due to Labor's disagreement on energy?
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Can Plibersek’s veto on offshore gas projects be restored due to Labor’s disagreement on energy?


The Albanian government has successfully suppressed opposition regarding alterations to the procedure for approving offshore gas projects. However, a recent internal effort by environment minister Tanya Plibersek has resulted in her regaining the ability to prevent the weakening of consultation regulations.

Although the resources minister, Madeleine King, dismissed allegations that she was assuming control of environmental approvals as a “conspiracy theory”, strong dissent from the Greens, crossbench members, First Nations activists, and environmental organizations prompted an informal pro-climate group within the Labor party to take action.

On February 13, the Labour caucus easily passed the seemingly harmless offshore petroleum and greenhouse gas storage amendment (safety and other measures) bill.

However, hidden within a bill supposedly addressing worker safety were revisions stating that authorized offshore gas projects would be considered to adhere to environmental regulations, even if they normally would not – essentially overriding them.

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According to the bill’s explanatory memorandum, this is necessary in order to reassure stakeholders that current approvals will continue to be valid even if there are modifications to environmental legislation.

The Greens were the initial ones to sound the alarm, with their worries supported by Indigenous activists and environmental groups. These parties assert that the bill is a response to pressure from the industry to minimize the need for consultations, following two prominent legal cases.

Mardudhunera woman Raelene Cooper won her challenge against Woodside’s seismic blasting for the controversial $16.5bn Scarborough gas development due to inadequate consultation, and a Tiwi Islander challenge against Santos’s $5.8bn Barossa offshore gas project succeeded in 2022, slowing down the approval process.

The concerns about the bill may be valid, as it was recently reported by a West Australian newspaper that Santos had informed King about the troubling state of offshore gas approvals just a week after a court ruling overturned Woodside’s approval.

The king asserts that the bill does not modify the assessment process or weaken environmental standards.

However, if her ability to alter the consultation criteria is combined with the fact that approvals for offshore gas are not under the jurisdiction of the environment minister, it becomes apparent how it could potentially achieve this.

The legislation was predicted to be approved by parliament with the support of both major political parties, following the Coalition’s request for clearer guidelines on consultation for resuming offshore gas investments. This was one of four conditions put forth in order for the petroleum resource rent tax to be passed.

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Jim Chalmers, the treasurer, maintains that the clarification of consultation requirements and changes to environmental approvals are being made for legitimate reasons and not as a negotiation tactic.

The bill was sent to a sudden parliamentary inquiry on February 29, and the inquiry only had one hearing lasting five hours. This added to concerns from the crossbench that the outcome was predetermined.

During the investigation, the department responsible for resources clarified that starting in 2014, projects only required approval from the environment or resources department.

According to Robert Jeremenko, the director of the oil and gas division for the industry and resources department, this legislation provides flexibility for making improvements to the law without adding onerous, bureaucratic processes such as requiring approval from multiple parties.

The Senate’s economic committee released their findings on Friday, with a majority of both Labor and Coalition members recommending the bill be passed. However, the Greens, David Pocock, and Lidia Thorpe disagreed.

Earlier this week, the government withdrew its own bill from the schedule, indicating that there may have been more complexity involved behind the scenes.

The health minister’s assistant, Ged Kearney, along with Josh Burns from Macnamara, Josh Wilson from Fremantle, and other MPs from the Northern Territory and Victoria, advocated for internal modifications.

On Friday, the Labor Environment Action Network expressed their deep concern to the government about the bill, stating that it could lead to separate and conflicting processes for assessing and approving offshore resource projects.

King indicated she was willing to consider changes, while Plibersek pushed to ensure that the override would not create a loophole that would exclude offshore gas from being subject to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).

This week, there will be changes made that give Plibersek the power to veto decisions. Both the resources minister and environment minister must agree that any revisions to consultation regulations align with the ecologically sustainable development principles in the EPBC Act.

The EPBC override will include a 12-month expiration period set by the government. This will coincide with the completion of Plibersek’s EPBC reforms and aim to prevent a potential future Coalition government from making the consultation process for offshore gas approval more efficient.

The legislation was introduced in the House at the beginning of the week and in the Senate on Wednesday, making it possible for it to be approved by Easter.

Although there is a slight improvement that would require the involvement of two ministers to change the consultation requirements, this remains a bill created by the Labor party to simplify the process of approving offshore gas. It is expected to have a higher chance of passing with the help of votes from the Coalition rather than from the crossbench.

On Thursday, Pocock expressed his concern about climate action. He stated that instead of collaborating with the crossbench that the Australian people elected, Labor is seeking to make a deal with the Coalition, who lost the election due to their lack of action on climate change.

“The crossbench stands ready to act in the best interests of Australians, not the best interests of the fossil fuel industry.

“We are aware that [fossil fuels] have played a significant role in our economy, but it is time to shift away from them. Unfortunately, we have not seen this transition happening, which is a major concern.”

The Albanese administration appears committed to governing from the middle ground. Recently, on topics such as political contributions, religious bias, and offshore gas discussions, the approach has shifted to seeking backing from opposing parties rather than relying on cross-party agreements or changes.

Labor Members of Parliament will need to be attentive to the tasks assigned to them in order to approve legislation in parliament.

Source: theguardian.com