Hold the champagne. Here we go again.
Coastal environmental groups who fought for years to sink plans for an offshore gas field between Sydney and Newcastle are preparing to start the fight all over again, with the Federal Court set to overturn a decision to block the controversial project.
In December last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced he was stepping in to kill off the exploration permit for the PEP11 gas field. Morrison however wasn’t stepping in to save the coastline, the climate, or the marine life that lives out there. No, he was stepping in to save his chances at the next election. The coastline adjacent to PEP11 is the most populous in Australia and includes several blue-ribbon electorates that he needed to win the May 2022 election. The PEP11 plan was wildly unpopular with locals along that coast. It was electoral poison.
The problem with Morrison’s decision – that didn’t come to light after he’d lost the May election – was that he’d secretly sworn himself in as Resources Minister to make the call. Not even the actual Resources Minister knew. As soon as this deception was made public, the companies that own the PEP11 exploration permit – Asset Energy and Bounty Oil and Gas – took the new Federal Government to court, challenging Morrison’s original decision. It was announced last week the parties had reached an agreement to end court proceedings and start the approval process all over again.
PEP11, dead and buried, had crawled out of the grave.
Cue the outrage from community campaigners who’ve fought years to stop it. “I can’t believe we’ve got to fight this crazy zombie gas field all over again,” said the Surfrider Foundation’s Drew McPherson. “The people of the coastline between Sydney and Newcastle have spoken loud and clear for years on this. Nobody wants this gas field to go ahead apart from the gas company. It’s hugely disappointing that we’ve got to go back and fight this again, but we’re ready to go. That coastline is no place for a gas field.”
There is hope, however.
The decision to approve or deny a new permit for PEP11 will now fall back to the joint authority of the NSW and Federal Governments. The NSW Government last year ruled out all offshore exploration and mining. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, back in March 2021 when he was Opposition Leader, came out swinging hard against PEP11. "Absolutely, we will stop PEP11 going ahead, full stop. Exclamation mark. No question. Not equivocal. No ifs, no buts.”
He’d be a brave man to walk back those words, but the global energy market looks very different to what it did a year ago. With gas companies in Australia crying about gas shortages, and global gas prices at record levels, PEP11 will take some stopping second time around.