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Environmental Impact Assessment Process for wind farms

Environmental Impact Assessment Process – a proposal

By Iain Watt, marine scientist.

There is some pushback on the development of offshore wind farms, some of which is genuinely based on environmental angst regarding the potential impact of these developments on the ‘pristine’ offshore environment and associated ecosystems. The environmental impact assessments will in theory address this situation.

But these environmental impact assessments/statements will have to be demonstrably independent and transparent so they cannot be accused of being biased or influenced by the proponents and therefore unacceptable to sectors of the community, including those waiting to see how the environmental impact assessments will be undertaken. Any doubt as to the independence of the impact assessments will undermine the entire process and will no doubt be used to continue to drive more angst and division in the community.

The following is a proposal to mitigate this situation:

  1. Independence and transparency can be achieved by establishing a Trust Fund that the successful licensees subscribe to financially either equally or in proportionate amounts based on the size of their licence, providing a single fund to support environmental assessment work pertaining to the development of windfarms in the licence area. The Trust and associated entities will have to be clearly independent from the proponents and the Government with very clear Terms of Reference.
  2. The Government will have to put in place the necessary legislation or regulations to establish the Trust Fund (Trust) and to ensure the proponents of any wind farm development adhere to this process and accept the results of studies undertaken through the Trust.
  3. The Trust will:
    1. comprise of the necessary expertise to manage the fund and to deliver and assess the work of the contractors.
    2. develop the Terms of Reference for delivering the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), i.e. what is required of the EIA and the key areas of interest.
    3. include or access as necessary the expertise to be able to address the key areas of interest locally and internationally, for example, relevant environmental expertise on specific areas such sea birds, cetaceans, pelagic water column biology (fish and plankton including fisheries), deep water environment and ecology, hydro geophysics, sedimentation etc., offshore marine engineering to provide an engineering perspective to the environmental study and develop mitigation if necessary. This is not a complete list but is indicative of some of the expertise that will be required.
    4. manage the process to ensure that as far as possible the work will be carried out to generate as much cross pollination of ideas and information and mitigation measures as possible.
    5. identify, contract, and fund the necessary expertise to undertake the work. Expertise can be recruited from Government and Institutional bodies (e.g. Universities, CSIRO), private sector organisations and individual experts, but will work under contract to and management by the Trust.
  4. Overseeing the Trust: To maximise credibility of the process an oversight body (committee) will need to be created to ensure that the Trust is fulfilling its obligations to deliver an independent and transparent process.
    • This may comprise of academics from various Universities and Institutions, and include private sector and independent/international expertise as required. The entire structure and process will be funded through the Trust Fund by the money held in trust for the proponents. This process will help ensure a more broad-based ecosystem approach is taken to the required studies, for example, including a wider buffer zone around the individual licenced areas, and covering the areas between the individual leases generating a better understanding of the ecology and potential impacts across the entire lease area and not just the individual licenced areas with their minimal buffer zone.
    • This arrangement should overall be cheaper for the proponents and provide a better environmental basis for their work. It will also build trust with the community for the proponents and the Government. The data collected through these surveys will be owned by the Government and made publicly available for peer review and “blue sky” research through other institutions. A time limit prior to making the data available for further research may be appropriate but should not extend beyond 2 years. This will allow further independent research to be undertaken and any unrecognised long term impacts to be identified by independent researchers. The proponents may resist this proposed approach claiming the need for corporate confidentiality. There may be some specific technical features of each proponent’s proposal to which “commercial in confidence” consideration would reasonably apply.
    • The Trust should be given the discretion to allow some limited studies and assessments to be conducted separately by individual licensees, but the the bulk of the required environmental assessment will be common to all technical proposals.
    • Finally, it should be noted that certain individuals in the community have already publicly stated that they will not necessarily accept or believe the science! This is presumably a belief system that will presumably require some other intervention. The oversight committee will also review the work of the contractors and have the final say in conjunction with the Trust on the acceptance of the work.

Have your Say

The Commonwealth government is currently consulting on proposed Regulations to govern the requirements and processes to be followed by offshore wind farm proponents. The requirements will apply to private consortia which are granted Offshore Energy Infrastructure (OEI) Licences (expected mid 2024 for the Hunter licence area ‘declared’ in August 2023).  We assume these licences are what has previously been described as ‘feasibility licences’ which authorise proponents to further investigate a proposed wind farm in a specific location within the declared area.  This is an important opportunity to have a say on such matters as future consultation processes and the integrity of environmental assessments.  

The deadline for submissions is midnight on Sunday 12 May.

To take the survey and have your say, go to Public consultation on proposed regulations supporting the Offshore Electricity Infrastructure (OEI) Act 2021