Federal environment minister Ian Campbell is demanding more information on the economic, social and environmental impacts of the 35 kilometre transmission line planned to take power from the wind farm to the grid. "This is a procedural issue," says Campbell. "The assessment by the Victorian government was lacking in a couple of areas."
His decision follows fierce criticism about the project's approval, led by Peter Ryan, leader of Victoria's National Party. Claiming local community concerns have until now been ignored, Ryan has gone as far as to call for a 12 month moratorium on new wind farms until clearer planning guidelines are established. "The Victorian planning guidelines are gendering uncertainty, which is the worst conceivable scenario for business development," he says, calling on the wind industry to "take charge of this fiasco."
Campbell, it seems, agrees up to a point, suggesting, that the project's potential influence on the area's bird life needs further investigation. In stopping the project, he is making use of his powers under the Commonwealth Environmental Protections and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Under this Act, he can call a project in for further investigation and reject it if it is seen to have significant impact on "matters of national environmental significance." It makes specific reference to consideration of threatened bird species and listed migratory species. The act it is rarely used, with only two of 1232 applications rejected in its name since it came into effect.
"The federal government is very keen on renewables but there are concerns that planning is being taken out of the hands of local councils," Campbell says. "The application process will need to thoroughly address all concerns that have been raised about the project. There has been hypocrisy on the part of the Victorian government. They would allow wind farms to the east of Port Philip Bay but not on the Great Ocean Road. The ball is in their court."
Hitting back, Victoria's officials accuse Campbell of political point scoring. "I am puzzled why the federal government has intervened," says state energy minister Theo Theophanous. "It is political point scoring...this action has the potential to kill the wind energy industry if taken seriously." He adds: "The biggest threat to Gippsland comes from global warming, not wind farms. We have to take responsibility for greenhouse emissions."
Victorian prime minister Steve Bracks points out the project has already undergone two environmental effects statements. "He's probably a little inexperienced. I don't think he's been there that long," says Bracks. "I'd recommend he read the federal act and examine the requirements."
In approving Bald Hills, planning minister Mary Delahunty stressed she was satisfied with a report on the potential impacts on birds. Commissioned by the project's developer, Wind Power, the report notes threatened species have not been observed in the area and there is unlikely to be significant impact on species protected under federal legislation.
While state officials are reacting with anger, Wind Power's Stephen Buckle remains undeterred, suggesting the request for further information is a standard part of the approval process. "Wind Power will continue to comply with the statutory process and respond to the request for information," he says.