AusNet Services have today announced the final preferred transmission path for the Western Victoria Transmission Network Project (WVTNP).
This announcement may come as a shock to many given the WVTNP is still in the midst of an Environmental Effects Statement (EES), reportedly the most rigorous environmental impact assessment process in Victoria.
The EES process is administered by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) on behalf of Victoria’s Minister for Planning under the Environment Effects Act 1978. The purpose of the EES is to ensure that major projects are designed, constructed, and operated to avoid, minimise (if avoidance is not possible) or manage adverse impacts on environment and community, in that specific order.
To fulfil the requirements of the EES, rigorous and transparent investigation of potential environmental impacts is essential.
So why may this announcement come as a shock?
In June 2020, AusNet Services released the first project update. This update states, “we want to understand what is important to you; this will help us to maximise potential community benefits as well as identify and minimise potential project impacts”. This certainly sound promising and sounds like acquiring social license and identifying impacts are key aspects of the projects delivery.
Following that announcement, AusNet Services hosted webinars, community sessions and created opportunities for community members to share known impacts and their concerns. Thousands of Victorians joined the campaign in opposition to the project with a spokesperson saying, “the area of interest runs right through the heart of farming, agricultural, and rural lifestyle properties. The project passes through one of the highest risk bushfire areas in Victoria and will impact materially populated towns, public spaces, and the significant landscape of Western Victoria.”
“The impact on our communities is irreversible and unacceptable when there are better ways to deliver this project that need to be explored.”
In February 2021, following consideration of community consultation and feedback, along with early investigations, AusNet Services refined the broad area of interest for the proposed overhead transmission line down to multiple corridor options. According to AusNet, The identified corridors will be subject to further consideration of specific environmental effects including biodiversity and habitat, cultural heritage, landscape and visual, land use, socioeconomic, community amenity, health and safety, roads and transport, catchment values and hydrology.
Despite these claims, in June 2021 the multiple corridors were further refined to a proposed single overhead corridor. According to AusNet Services, the purpose of determining the proposed single overhead corridor was to focus on a smaller, more practical area to undertake intense field investigations for the Environment Effects Statement (EES). It’s clear that consideration of environmental effects on all feasible alternatives was not going to be proportionate as Victorians should expect from an EES. The rigorous process was short circuited for practical, rather than environmental benefits.
The refinement process from the broad area of interest, through multiple corridors, to the single preferred corridor is cause for concern. The referral of the project under the Environment Effects Act 1978 presented the project in terms of an area of interest rather than a proposed alignment. The EES should proportionately document the likely environmental effects of feasible alternatives, particularly where these offer a potential to avoid or minimise adverse environmental effects whilst meeting the objectives of the project.
How can environmental impacts be truly understood, and the most appropriate corridor selected if alternatives are not subject to the same level of scrutiny?
In early November 2021, AusNet Services released EES Preliminary Information Sheets which summarise the existing conditions based on desktops reviews, field surveys and investigations carried out by engineers and scientists. Note these information sheets summarise ‘existing conditions’, not ‘likely environmental effects’. It is important to reiterate here that to fulfil the requirements of the EES, rigorous and transparent investigation of potential environmental impacts (not existing conditions) is essential.
These information sheets indicate that field surveys and investigations will be undertaken within the project corridor to gather more information, where required, about existing conditions and potential project impacts. The findings will be updated and included in the impact assessment for the Environment Effects Statement (EES). It’s important to note that only at this stage of the EES process will AusNet Services seek to understand the project impacts. Not before narrowing the broad area of interest, not before selecting a preferred corridor and despite months of community feedback that the impacts on this region are too great.
There is sentiment in the community that rigorous and transparent investigation of potential environmental impacts on all feasible corridors and alternatives was deliberately ‘not conducted’. A community spokesperson said, “today’s announcement is no surprise. This corridor and path were always AusNet’s choice and the EES process has been massaged so they to get what they want.”
Whether or not this sentiment is true is not really worth the debate. If we trust the EES process, the project should succeed or fail on the depth of the impact assessments and measures put in place to avoid these impacts. That being said, if all potential corridors and feasible alternatives are not rigorously and proportionally investigated to understand the ‘impacts’, Energy Grid Alliance is concerned the WVTNP risks failure of this process.
The announcement of the final transmission path today should come as a shock to all Victorians as failure to meet the requirements of the EES risks genuine failure of the project. This results in failure to quickly unlock renewables which will impact renewable generator investors, energy consumers, Victorian communities and the future of our energy grid.
Is this final path a done deal?
This is where things get really interesting. Surely conducting rigorous impact investigations that allow for narrowing of a broad area of interest to a final transmission path means ‘this is where it is going’? Not quite.
In a recent article published by ABC Ballarat, Executive Director Stephanie McGregor acknowledged it's ‘not a given’ that the EES process is going to get approval. She added, the company has been investigating the possibility of underground solutions and alternative corridors but could not reveal more details while the efforts are underway. "We're not yet in a position where we're saying that is definitely going to happen in this location or that location."
If the location is not yet known, then why the announcement today?
That is a question many will struggle to understand and is one that possibly only AusNet Services know the answer to. Community members have suggested:
- Maybe the process of elimination from the broad area of interest has been massaged to favour AusNet’s preferred alignment rather than one preferred by the EES with superior environmental outcomes?
- Maybe this alignment represents the shortest distance and as such, appears to be the cheapest to construct, regardless of the socioeconomic or environmental impacts?
- Maybe the cost of conducting proportionate 'impact investigations' on all feasible alternatives is too great for AusNet to bear?
- Maybe AusNet simply don't understand the requirements of the EES process and believe that understanding current conditions is enough to determine the impact?
- Maybe project milestones must be brought back on track following delays experienced to date?
We could speculate forever but whatever the reason, today’s announcement simply does not make sense when the EES process requires proportional impact investigations which are not yet complete.
Despite today’s announcement, Energy Grid Alliance agree with Ms McGregor that there’s a genuine risk in the EES process that it won't be in favour of AusNet Services, particularly if the final path of the project continues to be refined without proportionate ‘impact assessments’ of all feasible alternatives.
Risk of material delays or project failure will continue to exist until proportionate impact investigations are conducted within the broad area of interest on alternate corridors, alignments, site locations, designs or other options for the planning, construction, or operation of the project.
The option that delivers superior environmental outcomes is the only acceptable option, as per the requirements of the EES, and Victorians should accept nothing less.