Can anyone give a straight answer on what’s happening with PEP11?
Since the controversial gas field proposal off the coast between Sydney and Newcastle went from “dead and buried” to “very much alive” last month, the question has been just how alive the proposal really is. What are the chances of PEP11 ever being drilled and the surfers along that coast sharing their waves with the gas industry?
You might have caught the news two weeks back that the NSW Liberal government announced they would legislate to block PEP11. On the surface, great news.
There’s only one problem there… well, two actually.
One, it’s not their call. The whole 4500 square kilometres of PEP11 lies more than three nautical miles offshore, which puts it in Commonwealth waters. And while the PEP11 exploration permit is managed by a joint authority between the NSW state and federal governments, the federal government has veto over the decision. The state government could legislate to block onshore pipelines and processing, but the decision on the permit itself lies with Canberra.
The second problem here is there’s a NSW state election on March 25, and the Liberal government might not even be around to legislate anything. The NSW Labor opposition – leading in the polls – have formally stated their continued opposition to PEP11, but haven’t gone into any further detail beyond that, following their federal Labor counterparts in Canberra.
This is where it gets interesting.
Before being elected Prime Minister in May last year, Anthony Albanese had made his feelings on PEP11 pretty clear. He told a Surfrider Australia rally back in March 2021, "Absolutely, we will stop PEP11 going ahead, full stop. Exclamation mark. No question. Not equivocal. No ifs, no buts.”
But now in power, with the PEP11 permit landing back in his lap, Albo has pumped the brakes on the rhetoric. "It's important that myself and the resources minister, don't comment. We have proper processes. That's how we got into this circumstance in the first place," he said. "What my government will do is always act in accordance with the procedures which are necessary. We need transparency in processes."
The last line raised the blood pressure of campaigners who have fought the development of offshore oil and gas for years. The approvals process in Australia is traditionally far from transparent. It’s murky, confusing and designed to keep the public at arm’s length. It’s also, seemingly, weighted heavily in favour of the oil and gas companies. They rarely ever knock one back.
But maybe Albanese is being coy for a reason.
A quick revision of how we got here. Prime Minister Scott Morrison killed off the PEP11 permit back in December 2021 in the lead up to the federal election. The only problem is that Prime Minister Morrison was also Resources Minister Morrison as well after secretly appointing himself to the role solely to scrap PEP11. When this was finally revealed last year, after he’d lost the election, the companies who own the PEP11 permit – Asset Energy and Bounty Oil and Gas – immediately took their case to the Federal Court. The new Albanese government cut a deal: court action was stopped and in return the PEP11 permit was put back on the table for consideration.
Back to square one.
The judge’s comments however were interesting. He didn’t rule on Morrison’s secret ministry but instead said he believed Morrison’s public comments against PEP11 suggested he was “affected by apprehended bias” when he made the call.
Hello, can of worms. Albanese’s reluctance to comment on PEP11 since the ruling can be seen in this light. He appears to be keeping tight-lipped about the future of PEP11 to prevent a future court challenge if they were to scrap PEP11 again. The court challenge might happen anyway. Meanwhile, buoyed by record global gas prices and spruiking a domestic “gas crisis” (despite Australia producing three times more gas than we use) the companies holding the PEP11 permit have been busy pushing their case… despite the permit technically still being lapsed.
Either way, any decision is likely to be messy and a long way off.
In the meantime, as it gets kicked around like a political football, PEP11 still hangs over the heads of locals right along that stretch of coastline. They’ve had enough. “I’d challenge you to walk from Sydney to Newcastle and find one person who actually wants this to go ahead,” said Surfrider’s Campaign Director, Drew McPherson. “Nobody wants it. Not a single living soul. And yet here we are having to fight it again. For years we’ve been let down by the decision makers, and we deserve a quick resolution to this.”
You can send a message to your local MP about PEP11 here.