Update: 30 March 2021
Today the Victorian Planning Minister, Richard Wynn, announced that the government would not approve AGL’s proposal to establish an LNG import terminal at Crib Point on environmental grounds. The decision flows from the government’s analysis of the environmental effects statement and large numbers of scientific and community submissions.
This is a positive outcome for Western Port that shows that the environmental assessment process in Victoria is effective at stopping projects that do not demonstrate the capacity to understand and mitigate risks they pose to the environment.
The Dolphin Research Institute considered response to the EES follows below.
The proposed Project is to establish a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) import facility with Floating Storage and Regasification Unit (FSRU) at Crib Point, and gas pipeline to Packenham.
The Victorian Minister for Planning determined that the Project (FSRU and Pipeline) requires an Environmental Effects Statement (EES) to be completed under the Victorian Environmental Effects Act 1978. The Commonwealth also requires the Project to be assessed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). The EPBC assessment will occur by agreement through the EES process. Numerous other state and local government approvals are required.
The Project is proposed in a region with sites of significant and sensitive environmental and heritage values, including Western Port’s status under the Ramsar Convention and as a UNESCO Biosphere.
The Dolphin Research Institute (DRI) is an independent marine conservation organisation with a focus on protecting Victoria’s marine values, especially our dolphins, whales and bays. Our strong evidence-based approach to providing marine science, education and environmental leadership span three decades.
DRI is part of the Western Port community, based in Hastings, and acknowledges and shares the community concern to protect Western Port. We have consistently said that an EES should be required to assess the risk the Project poses to Western Port. Also that DRI would form a position regarding the Project based on the evidence in the EES.
The Scope of the EES set by the Minister provides the framework to guide the EES and Project approval (included in Appendix 1). The EES is assessed by a panel appointed by the Minister.
It is the responsibility of the Project’s proponent to conduct an EES and demonstrate that the environmental risks can be adequately managed.
DRI’s response to the EES will follow the Scope and Principles outlined above and focus on the impacts on marine biodiversity, especially marine mammals.
An EES is required to provide an accessible, transparent and evidence-based description of the:
- Existing environmental values;
- Proposed actions and impacts on existing values;
- Risk mitigation strategies and the residual risk to environmental values.
In addition, the general approach principles for an EES requires the consideration of:
- Uncertainty in the analysis;
- Risk ratings of unintended but foreseeable events;
- Residual effects;
- Cumulative impacts of other elements in the Project or other activities.
DRI makes the following general observations of the EES:
- The EES is not easily accessed – tasking readers to simultaneously search through multiple sources at once to find the rationale behind risk assessments, often without satisfaction.
- The proposed actions seem to be adequately documented.
- It seems that most of the categorisation of marine environmental risks were determined in a one day workshop with unknown participants. This is hardly transparent and given the environmental values, adequate to give confidence in the process and conclusions.
- The presentation of risk in the form of “initial risk after initial mitigation measures”, without stating the raw initial risk is misleading. For example, with Marine Environment Risks:
- ME47: Unplanned grounding of the FSRU or LNG carriers impacting of shallow habitats. The initial risk is given as “low” based (confusingly) on the initial consequence of both “minor” and “negligible” after the initial mitigation is to comply with PoHDA Handbook. Surely the likely consequence of any ship grounding is greater than “negligible” as an initial risk – “catastrophic” could be more appropriate and should be stated before any mitigation measures are applied.
- ME40: Chlorine Produced Oxidants bioaccumulating in food chain. Initial mitigation is to use 6-port diffuser for mixing. The initial risk as rated negligible and the likelihood as “possible”. Surely, a detailed explanation in this section is required to justify how any bioaccumulation can be judged as negligible.
- ME49 and ME50: both regarding the introduction of marine pests, are contradicted in the body of the EES. Ballast water discharge is cited for the FSRU which is contradictory to the statement that ballast water is not permitted under PoHDA rules.
- Marine risks ME10-ME40 all cite the same initial mitigation measures about dilution either by the 6 port diffuser or the high rate of discharge. Drilling-down into the report reveals generalised statements about the distance from the FSRU without modelling the likely concentrations of toxicants. This is especially concerning if bioaccumulation occurs.
- The above examples are taken from the 53 marine environmental risks identified in the EES. Many require further clarification and justification, especially those relating to the 13 marine species listed under the EPBC Act and 26 FFG listed species. The risk relating to marine mammals will be discussed separately.
- A general principle expected in an EES is to deal with the uncertainties in data and analysis
- Some discussion of the limitations of the assessment of marine impacts is found as dot points on page 49 of the technical report, but it is unclear how and if these points influence the conclusions drawn.
- Data collection by desktop studies alone is limited by not having access to unpublished data held by researchers. Additional effort is needed to speak to organisations and researchers to ensure access to all relevant data. DRI was not directly consulted by CEE during the processand the result is clear weaknesses in the marine mammal section. It would be unlikely that this is isolated to marine mammals and consequently concerning.
- The level of uncertainty in the modelling and plankton and nekton sampling requires greater consideration and explanation.
- Plankton technically refers to passively floating plant and animal life. Various adaptations mean that plankton don’t act as “static particles” as assumed in the modelling. This introduces uncertainty that needs further consideration.
- The data presented from plankton sampling, especially for fish larvae, shows significant variability and is also based on one year of monthly samples.
- The entrainment of larval fish is significant enough for the EES to reduce the scale of operation during warmer months. This is the only significant modification to the marine operation to mitigate risk, so a more in-depth explanation is required, that takes uncertainty into account. There is no justification for “what” constitutes an unacceptable loss of plankton and why certain thresholds were set.
- Ecological Modelling:
- Ecosystem modelling is common-practice today and should be used as a routine tool for this EES.
- Instead “Conceptual Ecological Pathways” are presented with a graphic on page 26 of the Marine Biodiversity Impact Assessment Technical Report –on the following page is a partly legible reproduction of a diagram of “a food web in seagrass near Crib Point” Credited to Watson 1984.
- Systems modelling provides a framework to test assumptions and uncertainties and to ask questions that are not possible to assess from a 26-year-old conceptual diagram. This would have added confidence to the EES conclusions.
- Ecosystem models would also provide an important tool to consider the impacts of the reduced primary productivity in the Lower North Arm that is predicted in the EES.
- Another principle expected in an EES is to provide Risk Ratings from unexpected events and from the cumulative effects from other parts of the Project or other activities.
- One clear matter is the significant reduction in effluent mixing that occurs when an LNG tanker is moored alongside the FSRU. It is noted in the EES, but no associated mitigation measure is included in the risk assessments. Regasification should possibly cease until the tanker is removed.
- It is becoming common around the world and in Australia where populations of marine animals such as dolphins, for example, are impacted by mass mortality events linked to cetacean morbillivirus. To a degree, this is symptomatic of upper order animals living in a compromised ecosystem that results in a suppressed immune response. One or more stressors make them susceptible to viruses. It could be an algal bloom from a flush of nutrients after a hot spell that causes fish kills, or oil spills or other causes in isolation or synergy. This matter of cumulative and synergistic impacts are not adequately treated by the EES.
- The matter of Chlorination Produced Byproducts (CPB) including Bromoforms and Trihalomethanes (THM), is acknowledged in the risk assessment as potentially bioaccumulating. Whilst it might be a localised matter close to the Crib Point facility, accumulation in the food chain needs greater consideration in the EES as it could have residual impacts with species across a wider area.
- “Cumulative and unexpected” would include an event involving the other 150 large vessels using the port, in particular the refined petrol tankers that also use this Crib Point jetty. The EES tends to dismiss these and similar risks by suggesting adherence to PoHDA procedures is enough. But “events” do occur with the best procedures in place, so this area needs further treatment.
Marine mammals are discussed in the Technical Report in section 5.11 Protected Matters, pp 197 to 199. DRI offers the following:
It is reasonable to conclude that excluding exceptional circumstances eg: stranding events, the following species are not known to occur in Victorian waters (3 nm seaward from the coast) or Western Port, so are not relevant to the discussion.
- Bryde’s whale
- Pygmy right whale
- Dusky dolphin
Note: Whilst blue whales do seasonally occur in Victorian waters, they have not been recorded in Western Port.
Figure 5-92 in the EES is used to show all recorded whale sightings by the Two Bays Whale Project from 2014 to 2017. This is both out of date and was reproduced without DRI’s permission.
DRI would have provided more complete data if asked.
Additional and clarifying comments:
Southern right whales
- The evidence does support that southern right whales are occasional visitors to Western Port and that the bay is not a known resting or breeding area. A correction is that they can be seasonally sighted in both the Eastern and Western entrance.
- Corrections to the EES statement.
- Western, northern and eastern Bass Strait is recognised as part of the migratory path for humpback whales.
- Central Bass Strait is known as a migratory feeding area for humpback whales.
- One humpback whale calf was recorded in Central Bass Strait in 2018 which based on its size and form was likely born in the region.
- There are multiple sightings (at least 5) of this species in Western Port but none in the Lower North Arm.
- The validity of the “Burrunan dolphin” as a species independent of bottlenose dolphin, is rejected by the International Society of Mammalogy’s Taxonomic Committee, the IUCN and the IWC. This is reinforced in papers published in 2020. The species found in Port Phillip and Western Port are considered Tursiops truncatus. The current status of the understanding of the species is maintained on DRI’s website: https://www.dolphinresearch.org.au/burrunan-dolphins/
- Western Port is not known as a habitat for more than approximately a dozen resident bottlenose dolphins. Regular sightings are made in the Somers to Merricks area, near Rhyll and at San Remo. Occasional sightings of up to 20 animals have been recorded near Crib Point and Ventnor.
- Further research is required to understand the spatial and temporal patterns of the dolphins living in Western Port. If the Project was to proceed, increased, and on-going monitoring of these dolphins should occur.
- Large numbers of bottlenose and common dolphins are present in Bass Strait.
General comments about large whales and killer whales:
- DRI has records of 174 sightings in Western Port involving no less than 350 animals and 5 species of large whales.
- There are 20 sightings of large whales in the Lower North Arm.
- As per the conclusion drawn in the EES, the Lower North Arm and Western Port, in general, are not known as areas of significance for large whales. No calving, breeding or feeding is confirmed for this region.
- There is no historical evidence to support claims that southern right whales have ever calved in Western Port. There is also no evidence of there being a whaling station at San Remo.
Other Risks to Cetaceans
- The EES presents a theoretical treatment and modelling of the risks to marine mammals (and fish). This treatment seems thorough, and based on appropriate literature. It concludes that acoustic impacts are localised around Crib Point, and that risk to cetaceans, pinnipeds, and fish is low.
- The acoustic study acknowledges the inherent uncertainties of this theoretical treatment without conducting acoustic studies in Western Port to ground-truth the assumptions and theoretical modelling. The Project should not progress without these studies.
- The EES concludes that “the consequence to the population of any whale species of an LNG carrier strike is minor (for the whale population)”. This sweeping statement is not adequate.
- Southern right whales have not recovered from commercial whaling days to the extent of humpback whales and are listed in Victoria as critically endangered. It is thought that less than 300 southern right whales are in the population that migrates to south-east Australia and fewer than 30 in the group that migrates through central Victoria. The death of one southern right whale could have severe consequences for this small population. The low surface profile of southern right whales and slow movement makes this species difficult to see and more prone to vessel strike than other large whale species.
- Whilst the likelihood of an LNG tanker striking a southern right whale is unlikely, the residual risk of ship strike for this species would be considered medium or high rather than low. This species should be considered separately, and the additional mitigation measures of marine mammal observers and reduced vessel speed should be considered from May to August.
- Overall, DRI agrees that the overall risk of ship strike in Western Port is low.
- The acknowledged risks from the bioaccumulation of toxins and the reduced productivity in the Lower North Arm require further investigation to consider cumulative and residual impacts on the food web. This should include consideration of the effects on prey species for the resident bottlenose dolphins in the Somers area. The development of an ecological model would facilitate these and other considerations.
The EES considers climate change from the perspective of Greenhouse Gas emissions during the construction and operations phases of the Project.
The operation of the FSRU in “closed” mode would significantly reduce but not limit the use of seawater, and consequently reduce some of the risks to Western Port’s marine environment. However, operating in closed mode would significantly increase carbon emissions from burning gas to regasify the LNG.
DRI notes that Climate Change is possibly the greatest long-term risk to Western Port and that balancing the need for gas in South East Australia against the need to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions is a complex matter with no simple or immediate solutions.
Whether or not this Project progresses, DRI urges actions to reduce the pull-factors for gas use and to progress the transition to renewable energy and the decommissioning of brown coal power plants in Gippsland. This requires government, industry and community to work together.
If the Project proceeds, AGL has committed to creating a fund of $7.5 million to benefit the local community. Whilst this is not an insignificant sum, DRI believes that AGL’s social license to operate in the Crib Point community requires a more significant contribution and a vision to create a demonstrable net gain for the locals and the environment.
As part of the local community, DRI urges AGL to commit to developing Crib Point into a “renewable” town providing a lasting net- gain for the community and significant and tangible step towards reducing carbon emissions and addressing Climate Change – long after the FSRU vessel is decommissioned and towed away.
The Project to develop an LNG import terminal in Western Port must only proceed if the proponent can demonstrate that the environmental risks to this sensitive, important environment can be managed and the environment protected.
DRI has focussed our consideration of the EES on the marine environment and conclude that the Project should not be approved unless key deficiencies in the EES are rectified, and the result presented for public comment.
The matters we consider should be addressed are:
- The rationale behind the assigned risks needs to be clearly discussed in an accessible manner. Initial risk measures, without the first level of mitigation, should be clearly shown. This process should be peer-reviewed, not just the initial studies, and be transparent.
- The treatment of uncertainty, cumulative, synergistic and residual impacts require more thorough treatment and clearly discussed as part of each risk assessment.
- Ecological System Models should be developed and applied to test assumptions and conclusions throughout the EES.
- Uncertainties about the residual Chlorine Oxidation Products and bioaccumulation should be more thoroughly considered.
- Acoustic studies should be completed in Western Port to understand the current acoustic environment (including how sounds propagates within this environment) and to ground-truth the theoretical modelling.
- The accuracy of the information about marine mammals should be updated as suggested.
- If the Project does progress, long-term monitoring of the resident and visiting cetaceans should be incorporated in the Environmental Management Plan.
Please address any questions to: Jeff Weir, Executive Director firstname.lastname@example.org