The Port Phillip Channel Deepening Project and ESD

I was recently published in the book Marine Resources Management, edited by Warwick Gullett, Clive Schofield and Joanna Vince. The book is available from LexisNexis Butterworths.

My chapter, ‘The Port Phillip Channel Deepening Project and environmental law: A model for ecologically sustainable development?’, inquires into the ‘sustainability’ of the Port Phillip Channel Deepening Project. I conclude:

Australia has a sustainability agenda. As a nation it wants infrastructure projects to be ecologically sustainable, and it has a national strategy that outlines the expectations and understandings of ecological sustainable development. While there are questions about whether this is a suitable benchmark for assessing controversial and large-scale developments, it is unlikely that the present paradigm will shift anytime soon. Within this strategic setting dredging will continue to be advocated to accommodate the projected increase in global sea trade and will need to be assessed against environmental laws should they apply.

The question posed by this chapter is whether dredging can be consistent with the existing sustainability paradigm. In the Port Phillip Channel Deepening Project, decision-makers and the Port claimed that it could. Although to get to this position the Port and the decision-makers traded-off and managed-away environmental impacts to preserve their desired economic outcomes. Under the policy definition of ecological sustainable development this trading-off and managing-away can only occur if the integrity of the environment is not only maintained but the ecosystem is conserved. This was not the case for the Channel Deepening Project because there was no legal regime that required the protection of the whole environment of the bay. There were no minimal requirements for protection articulated in the laws that could be balanced, let alone not traded-off or managed-away. There were no regulated limits on harm to the environment or impacts on the marine parks, no regulation for undersea disposal of toxic wastes, and no rigorous planning policy that applied to the project. While the environmental management plan was detailed, it remained a plan enforced by the Port, with its primary focus on delivering the project and realising the economic benefits. Although the Port could arguably undertake a balancing of economic, social and environmental issues as they arose, they were not equipped, nor willing, to be the defender of ecological integrity at the expense of economic development. For all the Port’s environmental goodwill, the ‘show had to go on’. The fact that the Victorian Government created a bureaucratic and unlegislated Office for Environmental Monitoring for the project showed the gaps in the regulatory system and the absence of an agency equipped to protect the bay environment

The lesson is not that the Channel Deepening Project or any other dredging proposal should not or cannot occur in an ecologically sustainable way. While this chapter is critical of the way ecological sustainable development is used in practice because it is not always consistent with policy and often prioritises economic benefits over environmental impacts, change is possible and could be straightforward. The challenge is for law-makers to establish a legal regime that sets out the protection requirements for nearshore marine areas and that prevents decision-makers deviating from those conservation requirements even when confronted with opportunities for economic gain.

Questioning the sustainability paradigm

I was recently asked, on behalf of the Australian Centre for Environmental Law, to contribute a submission to the Australian Capital Territory’s Commissioner for the Environment Act 1993. The Office of the Commissioner was particularly keen to incorporate the concept of sustainability within her sphere of concern. In addition to proposing a number of amendments to the Act I challenged what I thought was a problem with sustainability in the following way:

We note that no objects currently exist in the Act: a gap that should be filled through this review. These objects should be descriptive and meaningful. They should use plain language and be capable of being understood by all Canberrans in a common way. We do not think that you need to incorporate the concept of ‘sustainability’ into your sphere of concern. Indeed, we caution you against doing this. We do not think that you should frame your objects around this principle either.

In Australia, while the Council of Australian Governments has attempted to define ecological sustainable development, it is commonly interpreted and applied using different understandings. A recent Federal Court decision adopted the triple-bottom-line approach to the principle so popular with business, giving equal weight to economic, social and environmental matters in an application of the principle to the dredging of Port Phillip in Victoria.

‘Sustainability’ is a contested term and an ambiguous concept. A lack of clarity and the employment of the term by government and business to suit their goals have resulted in the term becoming so malleable that it now means different things to different people and is used in different ways in different contexts. In a sense the concept was always intended to be used in this manner. Its origins date to before the Brundtland Commission issued the popular (but still not agreed) definition of sustainable development. At the international level the concept has always been primarily directed at development in developing countries. It was offered as a compromise by developed countries concerned with environmental degradation but realising that they could not unduly impede economic advancement in developing countries. Development activities were to proceed, sustainably, mindful of poorly defined ecological principles. Each nation could define and interpret the concept for their purposes.

Planning and wind farms in the UK

I was asked to give my view on the planning impediments to wind energy developments to Heren Energy, an energy news service. Heren understandably has a pro-wind agenda, hence the characterisation of the problem.

Here is what they decided to use of my contribution about those aspects of the planning process that create often intractable disputes, as published in Heren Energy’s European Daily Electricity Markets on 10 April 2008.

Understanding environmental conflicts

I have finished my dissertation, which is titled:

‘When environmentalists collide: understanding conflicting views and values of environmentalists to wind energy’.

You can download a pdf version from my Select Works site. By way of a tempter, here is an abstract for a paper I will draw from the dissertation.

Wind energy is one of the most contemporary land uses to produce conflict between environmentalists. Disparate groups have formed into competing coalitions in the debate on wind energy. In this paper, coalitions from Victoria, Australia and the United Kingdom have been characterised as discourse coalitions, and their views and arguments have been digested into compelling storylines. Drawing on the literature that supports the view that environmental conflicts can be explained by contrasting values, this paper uses a discourse analysis approach to identify and define the hybrid and plural values held by the actors within the wind energy discourse coalitions. Importantly for future policy development, the paper also explains how the identified values have influenced views and guided coalition actors in their participation in policy and project assessment, and suggests that an ignorance or preference for certain views and types of values hinders the policy making process.