Renewables News

Minister denies humiliation over wind farm backflip

By Rich Bowden Aug 11, 2006, 14:41 GMT

Forced to reconsider his controversial decision in April to reject a $220 million wind farm proposal in coastal Victoria following last week’s Federal Court appeal settlement, Australian environment minister Senator Ian Campbell denied the resolution reached with developers of the venture was a humiliating back down.

Under the terms of the agreement, Senator Campbell agreed to set aside his veto over the project and called for the developers Bald Hills Wind Farm Pty Ltd to resubmit their proposal.

"Clearly having it in court would cost the proponents and cost the Commonwealth taxpayers,” he said following the settlement. “I think it's an entirely sensible and practical way forward and we look forward to receiving their submission in due course,"

Expressing satisfaction with the outcome, Bald Hills director Andrew Neobold said to reporters,

“We’re delighted with the outcome, it's as much as we could have achieved in court,” he said. “We think we have the scientific evidence on our side and of course we're…relying on the fact that [Senator Campbell] will make an impartial decision, and we expect him to do that.”

In a contentious decision derided by environmental groups and his political opponents, Senator Campbell had originally refused to approve the wind farm proposal in Bald Hills, Victoria. Citing a report, which called the proximity of the 52 wind turbines near to the coast a danger to an endangered species of parrot, the minister refused to ratify the development.

However in rejecting the proposal, Senator Campbell ignored his own Department of Environment and Heritage first assistant secretary Gerard Early, who found that the risk to the parrot was minimal.

In advice to the minister, Mr Early said there did “not appear to be direct evidence of any impact on the orange-bellied parrot” from the proposed wind farm site in Victoria's Gippsland region.

Mr Early called for a consistent approach to the approval of coastal wind farms saying that such an approach “…should be adopted for all development proposals in the orange-bellied parrot's migratory range and, as such, a lowering of the threshold may attract criticism in relation to other developments.”

Environmental groups have accused the minister of playing politics with the issue noting that the Senator’s Liberal party colleague and member for the local seat covering Bald Hills had campaigned vigorously against the establishment of the farm at the last election. Green groups also argued that the Senator’s unquestioning support for a nearby coal-fired power station posed a greater risk to the parrot.

“Senator Campbell’s sudden concern for the welfare of the orange-bellied parrot sits uncomfortably next to his government’s continued strong support for the coal-fired power stations that are changing our climate,” said Greenpeace clean energy campaigner Mark Wakeham in an April Greenpeace Australia media release.

Wakeham pointed to the minister’s support for the Hazelwood coal-fired power station as hypocritical and called on the environment minister to support renewable energy in Australia.

“Instead of tilting at windmills, Senator Campbell should be acting now to quit coal and move to renewable energy sources to protect all life on earth, not just one endangered species,” he said.

The Minister for the Environment denied ulterior motives for his decision and also rejected suggestions he was deliberately obstructing wind farm development in favour of fossil fuel powered stations.

“One wind farm proposal every fortnight has passed through the same process, so it can hardly be seen as a threat to wind power development,” he said in an answer to sustained questioning in the federal Parliament.

However the senator’s rejection of the proposal has disappointed many environmentalists who called for any renewable energy projects rejected on similar grounds to be given the opportunity to offset the risk to endangered wildlife.

In an opinion piece in the Age newspaper, eminent climate change scientist and author, Professor Tim Flannery said,

“The system could work as follows: if it is considered likely that a wind farm development might kill a single orange-bellied parrot each decade, for example, the wind farm developers should be allowed to offset this risk by funding initiatives aimed at increasing the population of orange-bellied parrots by one individual each decade,” he said.

“Such initiatives might include the protection of important habitat, feral cat eradication programs, or even support for organisations committed to saving the orange-bellied parrot.”

The issue of the building of the wind power turbines at Bald Hills was – and remains – a divisive topic amongst voters in the marginal seat of McMillan. Many residents are opposed to the wind farm believing money spent on its establishment would be better spent on researching ways to reduce carbon emissions from Victoria’s polluting coal fired plants.

“They [wind farms] are pretty useless, and that’s widely recognised,” said one local resident to the Victorian-based Age newspaper. “And you’re not saving a single bucketful of coal in [Victoria’s] La Trobe valley.”

The Opposition has called on the Prime Minister to take advantage of a rumoured cabinet reshuffle to sack Senator Campbell over his handling of the matter.

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