24 03 OOG MR Oil and gas bill gazumps national environmental laws even after last-minute changes

  • Bill gives minister powers to override national environment laws for offshore oil and gas developments

  • Environment minister will come under huge pressure to support changes to environmental regulations when the federal government is backing gas

  • Bill rushed through days after thousands of Victorians and surfers joined ‘paddle out’ protest at Torquay to oppose offshore oil and gas industry

The Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) is imploring the Australian parliament to vote down the new offshore oil and gas bill, which will still allow the industry to bypass Australia’s national environment laws despite last-minute changes to the bill.

The Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage (OPGGS) Legislation Amendment (Safety and Other Measures) Bill 2024 has been years in the making, but the Albanese Government added an amendment that would effectively grant the resources minister the power to bypass the national environment laws, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Government backbenchers were reportedly uncomfortable giving the resources minister so much power, so the government changed the amendment just before it was tabled on Monday morning.

Under the late changes, the resources minister still retains the power to override the environment minister on changing environmental and consultation regulations for the offshore oil and gas industry. The veto powers granted the environment minister would force offshore oil and gas proposals to need a separate referral, assessment and approval under the EPBC Act in addition to existing requirements under the offshore oil and gas regulator, NOPSEMA – something a minister may be loath to do in the lead-up to a federal election.

Also under these changes, the regulations developed under the EPBC Act can be replaced if they meet vague ecologically sustainable development (ESD) guidelines, which will weaken environmental safeguards and consultation requirements, and lead to the fast tracking of offshore oil and gas developments.

AMCS Oil and Gas Campaign Manager Louise Morris said: “The parliament must vote down this bill, which will undermine environmental regulations for the offshore oil and gas industry, reduce the requirement for consultation with affected communities, and turbocharge the oil and gas industry when we need to be cutting the use of fossil fuels to stop the worst excesses of climate change.

“The Albanese government made some last-minute changes in response to government backbenchers’ opposition to the resources minister having the powers to override our national environment laws in the approval of offshore oil and gas developments.

“These late changes however merely replace our national environmental laws with vague principles of ecologically sustainable development for environmental and consultation regulations covering the offshore oil and gas industry.

“Now the federal government will be able to gut environmental protection when it comes to the offshore oil and gas industry in the next 12 months. The federal environment minister will come under huge pressure to not veto watered-down regulations when this government has shown itself to be so supportive of the gas industry.

“These changes are being rushed through both houses of parliament this week, with the aim to have it done and dusted by tomorrow and passed through before parliament rises early for the Easter break.

“This is all being done just days after thousands of Victorians paddled out in Torquay on Saturday calling for greater protection of our ocean and marine life from offshore oil and gas, and seismic blasting. We need better regulation, not fast-tracked regulation that benefits industry at the expense of the environment, as this amendment aims to do.

“This massive show of public opposition to new offshore oil and gas comes as we now have four separate proposals for seismic blasting and test drilling for gas before the government regulator NOPSEMA, all focused on one area of ocean in the Otway Basin between Victoria and Tasmania. The proposed changes to the OPGGS Act will have a direct impact on the approvals process imminent for these proposals, one of which would be the largest 3D seismic blasting project on record globally.

“The massive seismic blasting proposal by partnership TGS/SLB-Schlumberger, covering 45,000 square kilometres of ocean, has been beset by multiple failures of community consultations and environmental safeguards. If these amendments to our national OPGGS laws are passed by the Senate, they will continue to weaken transparency and environmental protection for our ocean in the face of a massive expansion in gas exploration.”

This bill was introduced to the House of Representatives on 15 February. It was referred to the Senate Economics Committee on 29 February, which held a half-day public hearing on 14 March, and had to hand down its report on 22 March. The government made further changes to the bill before the vote today after the government backbench revolt.

Ms Morris said: “This bill, masquerading as a work health and safety bill, is being rammed through parliament. It was introduced to the lower house a little over a month ago. It was referred to the Senate committee on February 29, which held just a half-day public hearing on March 14, and had to hand down its report a week later. The question has to be asked, why the rush?

“If Labor and Liberal pass these amendments this week, they will weaken the environmental protections applied to the offshore oil and gas industry by the Abbott government in 2014.

/Public Release. View in full here.