Environment swept under the rug

How governments are leveraging the pandemic to pass dodgy environmental policies.

As we have come to grips with COVID-19, epidemiologists, conspiracies and economic turmoil have dominated the news cycle. While this may be appropriate given the significant impact of this crisis, it also leaves the general public without the critical eye of the fourth estate. As Australians turned their eyes to Italy and China fearing what was to come, state governments turned their eyes towards deregulation and the environment. 

In mid-March, as many feared the prospect of unemployment, Daniel Andrews and the Victorian Labor party lifted the moratorium on onshore gas drilling in Victoria. This was completed under the guise of introducing stronger environmental legislation, as it was coupled with a ban on fracking within the Victorian Constitution. This exercise in misdirection not only allows for the extraction of conventional gas to resume, but also tries to paint Victorian Labor in a good light for ‘banning’ fracking, a move which could be overturned with a change of government or change of heart.  

Not to be outdone, Gladys Berijiklian’s government has used this time to approve an expansion of Peabody’s Metropolitan mine in Helensburgh, NSW. The proposed expansion involves mining underneath the nearby Woronora reservoir, a reservoir that provides drinking water to approximately 220,000 residents of the Sutherland Shire and North Wollongong. 

The project has become a cause for concern over possible subsidence, which could lead to water loss and water contamination. Professor Stuart Khan of the School of Civil & Environmental Engineering at UNSW states: “From a water quality perspective, I don’t think any of this mining should be happening in the drinking water special areas.” In light of the recent drought, any sensible person would think that developments which could contaminate and deplete our sources of drinking water should be off the table completely.  

An attempt was made by local environmental and public interest groups to reject the proposed expansion. A petition, which garnered over 10,000 signatures, was set to be debated in the NSW Parliament. But in the spirit of democracy, it was ignored as COVID-19 saw the suspension of Parliament. Thus, the project was approved without proper consideration or due process. 

Sadly, this pattern does not stop here. At the time of writing, the highly criticized Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) is under independent review, with community submissions being made from organisations such as the Australian Conservation Foundation as well as USyd’s Enviro Collective. However, Environment Minister Sussan Ley has already claimed that the government may change the nation’s environmental laws before the review is actually completed in October, which would render the whole process redundant. 

The Government has conveyed a desire to deregulate and remove ‘green tape’ in an effort to stimulate the economy following the current pandemic. One suggestion may be to stop spending $41.8 billion on fossil fuel subsidies, or more radical still, make the fossil fuel conglomerates pay their fair share of tax. Looking ahead, it is pivotal that we stay vigilant and continue to critique our governments that clearly value their stock portfolios more than they value the environment, their constituents and, most of all, our democracy.