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Interview with Leigh Sales, ABC Lateline
26 August 2009
SALES: The Environment Minister Peter Garrett today gave the tick to the $50 billion Gorgon gas project subject to 28 conditions designed to protect the environment.
To discuss that and other issues, Mr Garrett joined me in the studio a short time ago.
Minister, thank you for coming in.
GARRETT: Hi Leigh.
SALES: Given the billions of dollars and the thousands of jobs at stake in the Gorgon project, was there ever any realistic chance that you would have blocked it?
GARRETT: I had to make a decision in the way in which I always do under this legislation Leigh, and that's looking at the matters that come towards me from the department on advice, looking at the best science that's there and also considering the submissions that are made. And I have to consider it in the context of impacts on matters of national environment significance.
Now I did that in this case, as I do in every case and whilst I'm aware of circumstances, economic potential, statements that are made and the like, they're not germane to my decision-making and they weren't in this case either. I had to make the decision in a way that's appropriate under the legislation, as I've done with decisions I've made so far. And again, on top of a decision already made by a previous government - and I'll publish a statement of reasons that identify why I've said and decided what I have in terms of conditions.
And that also will be judged by the public and subject to legal challenge.
SALES: But before you went through this process, the Government had made a big public relations deal of this project. Martin Ferguson did the honours in China, others were out and about trumpeting it. Would you agree that that gives rise to the perception that your approval was a fate accompli?
GARRETT: Well what I can say is that for a long period of time it's been understood that the Gorgon proposal was afoot. The first two trains of this proposal were approved by the previous minister, and the West Australian Government had already been through quite an exhaustive assessment process and the Western Australian minister had provided conditions as well.
And my conditions on the third train, in other words the expansion, were known and understood to be confined to matters of national environment significance and clearly those issues had been identified prior to the decision-making process.
I still absolutely needed to and did go through the process that I'm required to. The contracts and final decisions that are made by a company are made subsequent to that. And the Prime Minister and other ministers said when they made those announcements there were still regulatory issues to be dealt with. I dealt with those regular industry issues properly and now the condition to approvals are in place.
SALES: So are we to believe that if you had said this week, I can't approve this $50 billion project, it's too risky for the golden bandicoot, that that would have been completely fine with Prime Minister and Cabinet?
GARRETT: There's no question at all that my regulatory role is something which is both understood by this Government and properly communicated by this Government as well. In this role as Environment Minister I am required to make specific decisions according to the advices that I receive. Had I received, hypothetically, an advice which said unequivocally to me there are no conditions that you can apply that would not see a significant and adverse impact to matters of national environment significance, then I wouldn't have been in a position of approving this proposal.
SALES: So you could've knocked it on the head if you had advice like that?
GARRETT: Of course.
SALES: So if that is the case, then what guarantees do the investors in this project have that at some point in this future along the lines of the 28 conditions you've given, that you might not say, oh dear, the spectacled hare-wallaby has run into trouble, we have got to close the whole thing down. What guarantees do they have?
GARRETT: Well, the way in which we've approached the decision making is very, very thorough, and frankly it's more thorough than our predecessors did. We're requiring specifically the establishment of management plans, monitoring and compliance regimes and a process of real-time evaluation of those management plans in relation to impacts on matters of environment significance. That is understood by the proponents and it's part of the terms of the conditions for the decision they've made today. I think that that's the appropriate way to deal with proposals of this kind.
SALES: Did the stakeholders in this project, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell, have a say in what those conditions would be?
GARRETT: Well, this is quite a complex decision-making process because we've done two things. One thing I've done is I've approved the proposal to expand Gorgon and that's the third train and applied specific conditions to that expansion approval.
At the same time, at the request of the proponents and considering in my own mind what was the best way to do it, we've provided for the original conditions that minister Turnbull placed on the project for the first two of the trains, both to be strengthened and to be integrated with the decision that I've made today. By doing that, in relation to the first two trains, we are required to under the legislation, negotiate with the proponents on those matters that we want to have as part of the conditions and we've done that.
SALES: The carbon sequestration project on Barrow Island will be the largest ever undertaken in the world. Given that it is unprecedented, isn't it the case that we won't know what effect it's going to have on the environment until it's actually in place?
GARRETT: That's true and my role in relation to the CCS proposal for Gorgon was quite limited and I have provided for a condition to make sure we're monitoring any potential impact on the species that might be in groundwater. I know there will be strict regulatory requirements for the CCS in terms of once it's actually injected into the ground.
But you're right, it's a long way off and in this period between now and then we need to continue working through as the Commonwealth and the state are, to have an a appropriate regulatory framework for the matter to be actually done and identified and controlled. And for the monitoring supervision and necessary measures put in place over the long term, once it's undertaken.
SALES: So in terms of Government thinking, OK we're going to give this experimental technology the go ahead, whose report or advice are you relying on that this amount of carbon dioxide stored under the ground will be OK for the environment?
GARRETT: The West Australian Government officials, Commonwealth officials and the company have been involved in a fairly significant period of exploration and contemplation of whether or not Gorgon is an appropriate site for CCS. I went to Barrow, I went to Barrow to look at the conditions that I was responsible for but I also had an opportunity to look at what was being proposed there in terms of CCS storage — capture and storage. We also have the specific institute that's responsible for providing advice to …
SALES: Have they in this case?
GARRETT: And I notice that Mr Cook has been out there speaking about the porosity of the rock and its suitability for CCS today. So to that extent the site has been looked at carefully and there's a significant exploration and monitoring process already underway to determine the best and most appropriate methods for injection over time once the facility is up and running.
But it is true that this is going to be both the largest and in a sense the first of its kind and it's really important that we get the regulatory framework right and we're committed to doing that.
SALES: But there are unknowns?
GARRETT: Well, knowns and unknown knowns. We could go down that road couldn't we?
Look, my view about CCS is that the absolute right position has been taken by the Government in both providing the resources for the research that's necessary. We're very involved globally with the Carbon, Capture and Storage Institute and there are a number of other countries involved as well. Given the amount of coal generated power both here and overseas that is still ongoing, to provide a safe and effective method of capturing and storing CO2 is absolutely critical. There is a scientific discussion, afield as to the best methods to do that, whether some geological formations are better than others and we have to proceed with caution and care, but we do have to take those steps.
SALES: Do government exports share the view of technical exports working with Gorgon's developers that carbon dioxide could leak from faults in the geological formation under the island?
GARRETT: Well I don't think it's clear that that's the case. Could is probably the operative word. The fact is that CO2 will be injected basically into sandstone. There are faults in the substrata there but faults can operate in different ways. They can operate as an effective capture mechanism or they can operate as a leakage mechanism.
SALES: And again we probably won't really know until it's in there.
GARRETT: Well, look we've got pilot projects underway now on CCS and we have reinjected substances into empty aquifers in the past. It has to be done very carefully and prudently. That will be the case here and we have to do it in a way which ensures that there is really strict and comprehensive monitoring for any potential leakages. But I think that the geological formation on Barrow is suitable to undertake a project of this kind.
SALES: Is it accurate that, without sequestration, this Gorgon project on its own would add about one per cent to Australia's overall greenhouse gas emissions?
GARRETT: I am not sure of the exact one per cent figure but it certainly is a greenhouse gas intensive project.
SALES: Around that figure?
GARRETT: It may be up to that figure. I don't have the figures to hand, Leigh.
SALES: I would like to whip around a few other matters if I may?
Demand for nuclear power is growing all over the world and of course Australia is a major uranium exporter. Isn't the case for nuclear power at least sufficiently compelling that the Rudd Government could have a look at it?
GARRETT: We're resource rich in Australia and that's one of the great things that we have as an energy inheritance and we don't need to go down what is a costly and frankly quite challenging path in terms of radioactive waste disposal with nuclear.
The fact is we've just passed a renewable energy bill in the Parliament. We will now see a significant investment in renewable energy in this country and I think the potential of renewables is still underdone, nothing like overdone.
As well as that, we have significant resources of Liquid Natural Gas, which is what we've just been talking about. So we don't need to in this country reopen a debate which frankly was settled when Mr Howard couldn't convince the electorate that his plan to put 25 nuclear reactors around the country was the right energy solution to dealing with climate change.
SALES: But why rule it out categorically when you've got people like the union leader Paul Howse calling for it this week? Why not just look at it?
GARRETT: I don't think what Mr Howse says was entirely compelling, and I certainly respect his right to make his views. The fact is we have got to concentrate on identifying an energy source and set of energy sources for Australia which will provide us with sustainable energy in the long-term and minimise mistake risks, compliant risk, risks to the environment, governance and nuclear, notwithstanding your introductory remarks, still is highly expensive and costly. It produces radioactive waste for the longer term and the location of that radioactive waste is something which is a compelling and long-term political issue for countries like Australia.
The Australian population don't want it and we don't need it. So why invest time, effort, energy and cost when you've already got adequate and ample and safer energy sources at hand?
SALES: OK, in January 2008 you said that you were committed to seeing the phase out of plastic bags by the end of that year. It's now September 2009. Too hard?
GARRETT: Well, I hope not. But it's up to environment ministers at the state and federal level to consider the issue.
SALES: Do you want to set a new deadline?
GARRETT: Well we've done a couple of things there. The first thing we've done is we've got an agreement from the states for a national waste policy generally and that is very positive. We've begun the process of looking at issues like e-waste, particularly computers and televisions and also we've conducted the right regulatory approach in terms of determining whether or not the states and the Commonwealth want to move to an issue in terms of dealing with plastic bags.
I know there are strong feelings about it in the community. But the jurisdictions at state level have very different views about it. Some states are quite willing to phase out or ban and other don't want to take that path. The Commonwealth's always said we won't put a tax on plastic bags. We need to get agreement from the states.
When we meet in November, we will have an opportunity to look at the research that's been brought forward to us as ministers and we will consider the options that get put on the table in front of us.
SALES: The Productivity Commission recently recommended that the parallel import restrictions on books be lifted. Isn't it every day that the Government dillydallies on making a decision on those recommendations is another day that Australians have to pay more for books than they should?
GARRETT: I don't know that we're dillydallying, Leigh. It will take time for the Government to consider the Productivity Commission recommendations. And I am writing back to people who are writing to me saying we will look at the recommendations but we recognise that we do have a healthy and vibrant literary culture and a healthy publishing industry as well.
So we will look closely at the recommendations.
SALES: Is the decision imminent?
GARRETT: I will not go into the timetable but it's something we will consider relatively soon.
SALES: Brendan Nelson bowed out of politics this week, acknowledged by many as one of the nice guys. Does idealism survive in politics?
GARRETT: Yeah I think it does but although in the daily battle of daily ideas, messaging and demands on politicians on whatever side of the fence they're on or whatever level that they're operating at, you sometimes are dealing very much with the nuts and bolts of the debates of the day. But I think it does because I think you have to have ideals to go and do the work, to want to put yourself up and to represent these issues and hopefully to have some opportunities in government and as a minister to do the kinds of things that you've dreamt about. And that your party has championed for a long period of time.
SALES: Do you still consider yourself an idealist?
GARRETT: Absolutely, yeah. And more so than ever?
SALES: More so than ever!
GARRETT: And just very quickly, I was at Cape York on the weekend. Here we are providing some support for Indigenous rangers. Now I am not here to trumpet the Government's policy.
SALES: Yes, you are! Who are you fooling?
GARRETT: But you know, I reckon it's really good because here we have young Aboriginal men and women working in their communities, really looking to an opportunity to do something where they can build their skills, develop a livelihood for themselves in the future and working on country which they know intimately and seeing that happen, seeing the opportunities we're providing for them and that governments can. That to me is very close to my ideals and I was pleased to be there.
SALES: Peter Garrett thank you very much for joining us.
GARRETT: Thanks Leigh.