Conservationists question fast-tracking of Snowy 2.0 in order to save COVID-19 hit economy

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reveals plans for what was then a $2 billion project in 2017. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reveals plans for what was then a $2 billion project in 2017. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Conservationists have called the Snowy 2.0 project "woefully inefficient" and an "environmental disaster", while the state government says it will will fast-track planning approvals as it looks to use major infrastructure projects to stimulate the COVD-19 impacted economy.

"Now is not the time to circumvent the planning process, but instead to take a deep breath and acknowledge that Snowy 2.0 is a dud," National Parks Association of NSW executive officer Gary Dunnett said.

"Despite the rapidly growing realisation that the massive Snowy 2.0 development is a deeply flawed, environmental disaster that will drive a species into extinction and offer woefully inefficient and costly energy storage, the NSW Government has signalled that it is determined to ram the project through under their short-cut approvals program to create temporary construction jobs."

NSW planning minister Rob Stokes said the first approvals of up to 24 projects could occur this month, with Snowy 2.0 estimated to create $4.6 billion in new investment, and up to 2,000 new jobs.

"By fast-tracking assessments, we will keep people in jobs and keep the construction industry moving as we ride out the COVID-19 pandemic and set our sights on economic recovery," NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian said.

Mr Dunnett said the project will set "an appalling precedent", claiming its approval would "exempt Snowy Hydro from prosecution for illegally transferring pest fish and diseases between waterways".

"Approval flies in the face of why we set areas aside as national parks- not for massive infrastructure projects, but as a sacred trust for future generations, our pledge that they deserve to enjoy and benefit from the natural wonders our generation has inherited," Mr Dunnett said.

Ngarigo elder and chairperson of the Southern Kosciuszko Executive Advisory Committee, Aunty Iris White. Photo: NSW Department of Planning

Ngarigo elder and chairperson of the Southern Kosciuszko Executive Advisory Committee, Aunty Iris White. Photo: NSW Department of Planning

"No national park, let alone Kosciuszko, should be used as a dump for millions of tonnes of contaminated spoil.

"No government should willfully drive an entire species, the Stocky Galaxias, into extinction, spread pest fish and diseases throughout the Snowy Mountains and the headwaters of the Snowy, Murray and Murrumbidgee, or strip hundreds of hectares of threatened species habitat down to bedrock."

"Our parks, our planet, need respite, restoration and stewardship, not more destruction."

Mr Dunnett said approval for the project would also ignore an open letter to the prime minister and the premier from energy, engineering, economic and environmental experts disputing the "claimed benefits" of the project and calling for a delay in its final approval.

Before he was forced into early retirement though illness, then Labor MP for Eden-Monaro Mike Kelly said he disagreed "strongly" with the open letter's claim the cost of the project could blow out to $10 billion, adding its construction will impact just 0.01 per cent of the national park.

"I can't see where they are getting that figure from. What the hell is that based on? I can't see it," Dr Kelly said in April.

"The biggest issue we're confronted with is the national park will be destroyed by catastrophic climate change.

"Without it [Snowy 2.0] we won't get to 100 per cent renewables, and this is an absolutely critical part of the solution.

"It [Snowy 2.0] is not creating significant damage, but we [the Labor Party] will keep an eye on it."

Dr Kelly said the project will now cost $5.1 billion, with over one billion dollars from the federal government and a further three billion from debt financing.

Snowy Hydro, which also owns retail businesses Red Energy and Lumo Energy and the utility connections business, Direct Connect, had originally forecast an initial cost of between $3.8 billion and $4.5 billion.

"The project is really all we have going now in the region,' Dr Kelly said.

"It's the only thing propping us up right now. It is absolutely critical we keep this rolling."

He said the government's decision to "move away" from importing cement for the project to the establishment of a tunnel segment factory in Cooma "means jobs" for the region.

"Around 150 jobs will be created as part of the new infrastructure with many of these being entry-level positions, with all training provided," deputy premier and Nationals MP for Monaro John Barilaro said in April.

Mr Stokes said the government was "working to get shovel-ready projects out the door, to create jobs and drive investment into our local economies during these extraordinary times".

In April, Ngarigo elder, traditional custodian and chairperson of the Southern Kosciuszko Executive Advisory Committee, Aunty Iris White, described the experts involved in the open letter to government as "champions".

Former Energy Australia managing director Ted Woodley said while climate change will "have a big impact on everything", adding the Snowy 2.0 project "will incur around 50 million tonnes of greenhouse gases during construction and the first 10 years of operation".

"If he [Dr Kelly] is suggesting that there is a wider community good with respect to climate change from Snowy 2.0 in the transition to renewable energy then I would disagree," Mr Woodley said.

"Snowy 2.0 is the most inefficient pumped storage due to its excessively long tunnel and remoteness from load centres, and is far more inefficient than other energy storage options like batteries. There are far better energy storage alternatives."

Mr Woodley said the $10 billion estimate was calculated from the addition of "other costs", and said while energy costs "may" drop with renewables, Snowy Hydro's own modelling has shown the project will "push electricity prices up".

He said the project has needed to apply for an exemption from the NSW Biodiversity Act in order to complete its major works.

"Snowy 2.0 is going to result in significant, unprecedented damage to Kosciuszko National Park and beyond," he said.

"Never has an industrial development been approved in a national park, let alone one of this size.

"There will be excavated soil dumped in the park on land and in reservoirs, some contaminated with naturally occurring asbestos and acid-forming rock. Enough to cover a football field three kilometres high.

"It will see the destruction of hundreds of hectares of habitat for 14 threatened species and spread pest fish and diseases throughout the scheme and downstream rivers."

Many of these waterways lead to the Far South Coast, Mr Woodley said.

This story Conservationists question fast-tracking of Snowy 2.0 in order to save COVID-19 hit economy first appeared on Bega District News.

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