By Sonia Hickey: Sydney Criminal Lawyers Blog
In this day and age, with the ‘climate emergency’ on our doorstep, you’d be crazy and ‘out-of-touch’ for expressing concern about or opposition to a renewable energy project, right?
After all, the world needs to transition to renewable energy, sooner, rather than later.
But there’s a catch. Some of these projects come with major environmental flaws and impacts of their own, and these risks are not often made public. Some may even be unknown.
As a result, members of the general public do not always fully understand all the factors that should go into the cost / benefit analysis in order to make well-informed decisions about renewable energy projects, particularly those in their own neighbourhoods.
The Federal Government’s offshore renewable project currently proposed for the Hunter / Illawarra region in New South Wales is a plan for approximately 500 wind turbines towering 260 metres above the waterline (the Sydney Harbour Bridge is 49 metres high), placed in the water between Norah Head and Port Stephens.
Needless to say, this will adversely affect the aesthetics of the beautiful pristine ocean in the region, thereby likely creating a dip in real estate prices, but also the enjoyment of those already living there.
But separate to these factors, there are concerns about the impact of wind turbines on human health and the environment – concerns that many locals say are just not being addressed in a meaningful way.
According to the government, the turbine project is required to keep up with increasing energy demands in Sydney. Also according to the government, the turbines cannot be put into Sydney waters for two reasons – firstly the international submarine cabling off Narrabeen and Tamarama beaches, and maritime traffic through Sydney Harbour.
However, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) says that although there are exclusion zone activity restrictions around the Northern and Southern Sydney cabling locales, those restrictions do not prohibit the type of activity any offshore wind farm would undertake.
Further, the Sydney Harbour Port Authority estimates approximately 1200 commercial vessel visits into the harbour annually. By contrast, the Newcastle Port Authority figures determine a total of 4700 shipping movements in and out of Newcastle harbour – more than twice the number.
The arguments don’t stack up and nor does the logic simply because the further electricity has the travel, the weaker it actually becomes.
Wind turbine controversy
Wind turbines have been controversial for a long time because they require an enormous amount of space. But that hasn’t deterred governments from ploughing ahead (literally) with them anyway.
Currently Queensland is clearing around 70,000 hectares of bio-diverse forests for wind turbines, and the protests have begun. On land, the installation of wind turbines is particularly brutal – trees are felled, land is cleared, there are significant earthworks to carve wide roads (up to 70m wide) which are needed to bring in the infrastructure and the turbines themselves.
Turbines are made mostly of plastic and fibreglass and have a working life of about 20-25 years.
What doesn’t make sense in terms of the current proposals in Queensland is the land that’s been chosen for these wind farms – it is rich with native flora and fauna.Those in opposition to the plan (not necessarily the turbines themselves, but definitely the earmarked location) are trying desperately to lobby the state government to save the forests and the wildlife. But they have a long battle ahead. According to experts, in Queensland the only industry exempt from both the Vegetation Management Act and the Nature Conservation Act is the wind industry.
As one Queensland conservationist noted: “destroying forests in the name of climate is an oxymoron.”
The problem is most people are not particularly well informed about just how destructive wind turbines can be. And it’s time we got educated because there are more proposals in the pipeline for the Australian coastline – about 5 or six of them.
The wind turbine industry is one that has got away with ‘greenwashing’ for years.
In the Hunter, neither the NSW Government nor Hunter-Central Coast Offshore Energy seem to be able to fully explain the true impact on the environment, in particular the immediate impact on local marine and bird life as well as ecosystems within the sea.
While there is limited research in this area, it’s important to have definitive answers, or at least better answers than the ones currently being trotted out, particularly when we’re trying to save the planet.
A sudden spike in whale and dolphin deaths along the East Coast of the USA in recent months has ignited fierce debate about the effects of offshore wind farms. This is just one place where impacts on wildlife have been noted in the months after wind turbines have been installed.
And the impact on human health? This also largely unknown although a report on the Australian Parliament House website cites a study from Ontario which concludes that while some people living near wind turbines report symptoms such as “dizziness, headaches, and sleep disturbance, the scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects.
“The sound level from wind turbines at common residential setbacks is not sufficient to cause
hearing impairment or other direct health effects, although some people may find it annoying.”
The FAQ page on Hunter-Central Coast Offshore Energy states: “It is true that the wind, passing through the blades of wind turbines, produces a characteristic sound audible to anyone who is located a relatively short distance from the turbine.”
The website doesn’t define ‘relatively’.
But here’s where the alarm bells should be ringing loudly, because these symptoms are all dismissed as if they’re really nothing to be concerned about. However, most health professionals would attest to the fact that for starters, impact on a good night’s sleep is a significant problem because sleep is vital to overall health and wellbeing. Short term, sleep loss can cause brain fog and forgetfulness.
Fatigue is one of the highest causes of fatalities on our roads.
Long term sleep deficiency can increase the risk of chronic health problems such as heart disease and diabetes.
A ‘crisis’ demands immediate solutions
Of course, one of the issues we face when a ‘crisis’ is declared, is the fact that a crisis, by its very nature, demands immediate solutions and action.
But as we have seen time and again often – most recently with the government’s pandemic management strategy – crisis response can sometimes be too rushed, overlooking the need to proceed with caution, and then there are consequences, which can be severe.
But even a ‘crisis’ should not give governments license to overlook the importance of thorough independent research, to truncate due process and enable extensive public debate to ensure that all views are aired and considered.
Australia is still a democracy. As citizens, we deserve the right to due process, and public debate in particular, so that pros can be weighed against cons…. This is vital because our environmental protection laws are fundamentally pretty weak.
We need more education and greater transparency
Further, a ruling by the Federal Court last year basically let governments off the hook for decisions they make around climate change that may affect future generations. The decision certainly highlighted the fact that it is incredibly difficult in Australia to make government officials accountable for their decision-making.
In New South Wales, the right to protest has been all but shut down by the State Government, with laws which criminalize protesting. Under new laws passed last year people could be fined up to $22,000 and/or jailed for a maximum of two years for protesting illegally on public roads, rail lines, tunnels, bridges and industrial estates.
Inaction on climate change is an important issue that was neglected by successive previous governments, and we have all witnessed first hand the effects of climate changing – much of Australia’s east coast is still recovering from bushfires and floods. We need to address this, and
yes, we’re looking to governments to find solutions, but that doesn’t mean all renewable energy solutions are good solutions.
There is a much greater need for transparency around the real cost and true long-term efficiency of wind farms and how they fit into the overall renewable energy solution. In particular how and where they are built most definitely requires greater community consultation so negative effects on humans and the environment are minimised completely.