Four key environmental battlegrounds on the agenda as Australia’s parliament resumes

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
<span>Photograph: Darren England/AAP</span>
Photograph: Darren England/AAP

Several heavily contested climate and environment policies remain unresolved as federal parliament returns on Tuesday, and may again be the focus of debate over the next month.

Here are some issues you may be reading and hearing about in the weeks ahead.

Redefining the Australian Renewable Energy Agency

The government tried and failed in June to change the agency, known as Arena, so it would fund a broader range of technologies including carbon capture and storage and so-called “clean” or “blue” hydrogen made with gas. It is now making a second attempt.

Angus Taylor, the energy and emissions reduction minister, wants the agency to fund five priority areas under the government’s technology investment roadmap – CCS, hydrogen, soil carbon, energy storage and low-emissions steel and aluminium.

The new regulations would also allow it to issue grants for projects announced as part of the May budget, including in heavy transport, low-emissions cars, industrial energy efficiency and micro-grids.

The government’s first stab at this was disallowed in the Senate by Labor, the Greens and other crossbenchers. Their main argument was that a renewable energy agency should act in accordance with its name, not fund CCS or fossil fuels. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, which the government had hoped would help it block the disallowance motion, skipped the vote.

As is required when a regulatory change is disallowed, Taylor has rewritten his plan for the second attempt. His changes, which were registered last Friday, makes the link to the government’s low-emissions technology investment roadmap more explicit.

Related: Environment officials questioned use of land government already owned as offset for western Sydney airport

Rather than disallow the entire regulatory change, Labor resolved on Monday that this time it will attempt to strike out just one section – section 7 – relating to the tech roadmap so Arena cannot be used to fund CCS and gas-based hydrogen projects. It will not contest the government’s push to expand Arena into areas such as transport and industrial efficiency. The Greens have a similar position. It is unclear where One Nation stands.

There was some dissent within the opposition over its position (dissenting backbencher Joel Fitzgibbon repeated his view that Arena should be allowed to fund CCS and gas-fuelled hydrogen) but it was a minority view. Labor says it supports CCS, but funding it through Arena would reduce support for renewable energy.

If Taylor’s regulatory change this time survives the Senate in full it may yet face a legal challenge. A Liberal-led committee found Taylor’s first attempt may have been illegal as it went beyond what the parliament envisaged when it created Arena. Industry group the Smart Energy Council has previously said it would head to the courts if the regulatory change was not disallowed.

Changes to national environment laws

There is an even longer-running dispute is over whether the government will be able to change the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

A once-in-a-decade review last year chaired by the former competition watchdog head Graeme Samuel found successive governments had failed to protect Australia’s environment and recommended a complete overhaul of the system.

Samuel recommended the introduction of new national environmental standards and an independent assurance framework to ensure developments complied with the law. He said it would allow more decisions over developments affecting the environment to be transferred to state and territory governments.

The Morrison government has been pushing to do the second bit – deregulate the environmental approval system by handing decision-making powers to the states – since last year, but hasn’t been able to get its legislation through. A bill that was drafted before Samuel finished his review was blocked by the Senate.

It now has a second bill that sets out a framework for national environmental standards and creates an environmental assurance commissioner role within the environment department. The proposed legislation has been criticised for not adopting Samuels’ proposed standards and instead just mimics protections in the failing EPBC Act.

Both bills are due to be debated in this sitting period. To date, Labor, the Greens and key crossbench senators have opposed them on the grounds they do not live up to Samuel’s recommendations and ensure environmental protection improves.

The South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick is working on amendments to the bills after consulting with environmental groups and industry. He says he won’t support the government’s proposed standards but the status quo works for no one. “It may not be possible but I’m trying to find a way through the impasse,” he said.

Using the green bank to underwrite gas power

Government plans to transform the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) – sometimes described as the country’s green bank – has largely dropped off the radar over the past six months following Coalition infighting over whether coal-fired power should qualify as “clean”. Publicly, they remain unresolved.

Legislation was introduced to parliament that would give the CEFC – a sister institution to Arena that lends to market-leading projects that cut greenhouse gas emissions – responsibility for a long-promised new $1bn “grid reliability fund”. The fund would underwrite new flexible electricity generation that can be called on when needed, including “fast-start” gas-fired power plants, pumped hydro and batteries.

The change would make it explicit that the green bank could support gas-fired power (on the grounds the fossil fuel would “support the achievement of low-emission energy in Australia” by backing up solar and wind) and make it exempt from a requirement that every CEFC project must deliver a financial return for taxpayers. It would also give the energy minister the power to direct the CEFC to look at investing in particular technologies.

Critics said climate funding should not be used to support fossil fuels. The plan quickly disappeared from parliamentary debate after Barnaby Joyce – then a mere backbencher, now the deputy prime minister – proposed an amendment that would allow the CEFC to also invest in coal-fired power.

Related: Beetaloo Basin’s traditional owners condemn government for fracking handouts to gas companies

While a couple of Coalition MPs indicated they could support Joyce, the government rejected the idea and the legislation hasn’t been seen since, but Senators have been told it could be considered over the next fortnight.

Grants for fracking in the Beetaloo Basin

The Greens are moving a disallowance motion to try to stop a $50m grants program offered to help companies explore for gas in a vast geological sub-basin about 500km south-east of Darwin.

The first grants under the program – part of the government’s much-promised program for a “gas-fired recovery” from the pandemic – were announced by the resources minister, Keith Pitt, last month. They went to a subsidiary of Empire Energy, a company with strong Liberal party links that had earlier lobbied federal ministers for information on the funding scheme.

The $21m in grants to Empire subsidiary Imperial Oil and Gas are being challenged in the federal court by the Environment Centre Northern Territory and the Environmental Defenders Office, and the program is the subject of a Senate inquiry (see here and here). A vote on the Greens’ disallowance motion is expected on 25 August.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting