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Australia

Highly controversial ruling by minister -- Saving one potential parrot death

The risk that one endangered orange-bellied parrot a year could be killed in all the wind farms that may be built in coastal Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania in the next several years has persuaded Australia's environment minister Ian Campbell to veto construction of the 104 MW Bald Hills wind farm in South Gippsland, Victoria. Campbell took 18 months to make up his mind, during which time the A$220 million project has hung in limbo. It had been approved by the Victoria state government before Campbell called it in for further investigation into its environmental impact.

"The minister has based his decision on a report that shows almost zero effect on the endangered orange-bellied parrot from wind farms, even after assuming a worst case scenario," says Dominique la Fontaine of the Australian Wind Energy Association.

Campbell invoked the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to block the project following a government sponsored study estimating that existing wind farms and 14 planned projects across a huge area of Australia "cause up to one bird death a year." The study does not attribute the death threat directly to Bald Hills.

Just 200 left

There are just 200 orange-bellied parrots left in the wild. It breeds in Tasmania and migrates north in autumn, dispersing along the coast from South Gippsland to the Coorong in South Australia. "Every precaution should be taken to help prevent the extinction of this rare bird," says Campbell.

Industry commentators warn the ruling endangers other planned wind plant, including Hydro Tasmania's larger Heemskirk wind farm proposed for Tasmania's west coast. Heemskirk is directly in the migratory path of the endangered parrot.

Craig Woodfield of Tasmania's Conservation Trust is also convinced the end is nigh for the 160 MW Heemskirk project. "If this is any precedent, and I think it is, then Heemskirk is a goner, there's no question about it," he says. "The minor or the fairly low impact that the Bald Hills wind farm would have on the parrot is nothing compared to the impact Heemskirk would have. If the minister's going to be consistent, I think he's going to have to knock Heemskirk on the head."

The developer of the Bald Hills project, Wind Power Pty, is especially furious at the length of time it took for Campbell to make up his mind. "It has been over 580 days since the state government approved Bald Hills wind farm, which was the subject of two separate Environmental Effects Statements and an independent planning panel report which included some six weeks of hearings, says Wind Power's disappointed Steve Buckle. "This delay by Senator Campbell is completely unreasonable. Clearly this process sends a strong message to businesses considering investing in regional and rural Australia and that message is: you are not welcome."

Puzzled

Even some environmental associations confess to being puzzled by the decision. "It's troubling that Senator Campbell seems eager to save this one species while blindly ignoring other species. Scientists forecast up to one million animal species worldwide will be wiped out by 2050 because of climate change. Wind farms are one way we can reduce the impact of climate change," says Marcus Godhino of Environment Victoria. Bald Hills had been forecast to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 435,000 tonnes, the equivalent of taking 75,000 cars off the road, he adds.

The Victoria state government, furious that its approval has been overturned, has demanded that Australian Prime Minister John Howard conducts an urgent review of Campbell's decision. State premier Steve Bracks say the federal government has cast uncertainty over future investment in Victoria, not just in wind projects, but over other major developments as well.

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