Projects regulated to death

November 24, 2023 7:00 AM
Libby Mettam
WA Liberal Leader

They’re phrases and actions governments roll out when they need to buy time. 

Establish a taskforce, conduct an inquiry, do an audit and the latest one from Premier Roger Cook – undertake a “short, sharp review”. 

We’ve been assured the “short, sharp review” of WA’s environmental approvals process to remove obstacles to major green energy projects will “impress” industry.

After almost seven years under the current State Labor Government, I doubt any investors will be wagering their projects on it.

Industry has been vocal for years about the increasingly restrictive regulatory hurdles proponents must clear to develop new projects. 

It is clearly not a new issue. But the latest rhetoric from the Premier and his Environment Minister Reece Whitby suggests it’s news to them. 

Minister Whitby described the work to remove obstacles to major green energy projects as a “fundamental audit” and spoke of his frustration about delays and expense. 

As the minister overseeing the process, he has been unable to effect any real change in seven years, so there’s little confidence that change will happen quickly. 

According to the CCIWA, there are about $381 billion dollars’ worth of investment projects in the pipeline that are yet to receive environmental approval that could create an estimated 106,000 jobs.

Of those the CCIWA surveyed, 40 per cent were at risk of abandoning their project due to longer than expected approval times.

As outlined in the WA CCI’s Green Web report, businesses have described working with the State Environmental Protection Authority as “laborious and frustrating” with “ever changing guidelines and shifting goal posts.”

Currently, the normal expectation for a mine to come online is eight to 10 years, double traditional expectations of four to five years.

WA Labor may have woken up to the urgency of overhauling regulatory frameworks or risk losing billions of dollars in future projects, Federal Labor seems intent on making the process more cumbersome through its so-called reforms to the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Industry will no doubt be eagerly anticipating what recommendations the Premier’s short, sharp review will make to address the web of bureaucracy and red tape his Federal Labor mates seem intent on creating.

I expect it will only further highlight the gaping cracks in the State-Federal Labor relations and test the Premier’s so-far weak resolve to challenge the Prime Minister on issues important to WA. 

It was not lost on anyone that the Federally funded Environmental Defenders Office, whose primary objective seems to be to delay project development in the courts, helped bankroll a court case to prevent Santos from laying pipeline off the coast of Northern Territory. 

This Labor Government-funded activist group now has Woodside’s $16.5bn Scarborough LNG project in WA in its sights.

The need for strong, effective regulatory oversight is essential. Projects must have social licence and efficient regulation supports this. 

But activism, vexatious legal action and over regulation delivers no positive environmental benefit. 

We’re told the Premier’s short sharp, review may require new legislation, which further begs the question, why hasn’t this been a priority until now?

Why, after the 2021 election, was this government’s first legislative priority electoral reform? 

WA’s influence over global markets - such as LNG, renewable energies, and critical minerals – should be dominant. We’re a low-cost energy jurisdiction with significant land to spare.

Our potential to lead the world’s decarbonisation efforts is second to none because of our abundance of the minerals critical to its success. But potential is just that if it’s not harnessed.

Competing with the generous financial incentives on offer by some of our allies is not an option, but we have levers to pull.

Whether it’s red and green tape, regulatory approvals, industrial relations threats, or just mismanagement, it’s clear we’re not creating a competitive environment to ensure the confidence of investors remains steadfast.  

Governments at all levels have become so focused on box-ticking, they have lost sight of the value of these industries to support economic growth, job creation and prosperity. 

The most recent example is the embarrassment that was the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act which the Premier himself admitted was complicated, unworkable and went too far. 

While the ACH Act was repealed, the damage done to WA’s reputation will take years to reverse.

Not only is industry competing with a poor federal framework, but they’re also keeping a close eye on the Albanese Government’s so called Closing Loopholes Bill.

The Federal Government, if successful, is going to make life extraordinarily difficult for Australian businesses by increasing costs, complexity, and red tape.

These industrial relations changes will come when Australia can least afford it. In a state as reliant on the mining sector as WA, the outcomes of this union-driven agenda will only be negative.

These delays and increased frustrations cannot be tolerated.

Boards across the country and the world will be looking at the situation in WA and will rightfully question whether these constraints are worth any eventual payoff.

If we make it increasingly difficult for companies to mine and export our lithium, nickel, cobalt, and other rare earth minerals, then they will seek alternatives and invest elsewhere.

There’s a lot riding on the Cook Labor Government’s “short, sharp review”. Let’s hope it is more than just the usual plan for a plan.

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