Queensland windfarm backed by Apple and Andrew Forrest sparks warning over impact on threatened species
Credit: Graham Readfearn | Sat 11 Mar 2023 | theguardian.com ~~
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A proposed $1bn windfarm in north Queensland – backed by Apple and majority-owned by billionaire Andrew Forrest – would have unavoidable and significant impacts on four threatened species, including koalas and greater gliders, according to the project developer’s own environment report.
Developer, Windlab, wants to put 80 turbines and 150km of tracks on a site inland from Ingham to build the Upper Burdekin windfarm, 4.8km from the boundary of the Wet Tropics world heritage area.
The government authority that manages the world heritage park said it was “very concerned” that the cumulative impact of five proposed windfarms in the area – including the Upper Burdekin project – were “poorly understood”.
Conservationists said they were “deeply concerned” about the impact on threatened species and that the state’s current planning rules were unable to deliver the dual challenge of a clean energy future and the protection of biodiversity.
Queensland – the biggest greenhouse gas emitting state in Australia – announced last year a $62bn plan to decarbonise its electricity supply and build a renewable energy “super grid”: by 2040, more than a third of the state’s power is expected to come from wind.
A public environment report published by Windlab says 769 hectares will need to be cleared, including the habitat of four nationally threatened species:
- 662ha of Sharman’s rock wallaby habitat
- 746ha of koala habitat
- 709ha of northern greater glider habitat
- 754ha of red goshawk habitat
Koalas, greater gliders and the red goshawk – Australia’s rarest bird of prey – are all endangered, with the rock wallaby considered vulnerable.
Windlab will use biodiversity offsets to lessen the impact on the species, which means buying and protecting suitable habitat nearby. It has identified four potential sites but has not yet finalised the offsets plan.
The windfarm – about 65km south-west of Ingham – will mostly be built on relatively undisturbed forest and bush, with large tracts of well connected native vegetation, the report says.
Scott Buchanan, executive director of the Wet Tropics Management Authority, said the authority would make a submission to the project before a consultation period closed on 3 April.
Buchanan said: “The authority cannot comment on whether offsets for these species are acceptable prior to a thorough review of the [environment report]. However, as a general principle, the authority would always strongly advocate for avoidance of impacts on species of high conservation significance, rather than mitigation or offsetting.”
In September last year, the authority issued a position statement saying it was “appropriately concerned about the cumulative scale of proposed [windfarm] developments” as it would “involve significant clearing across a large and relatively intact landscape”.
Buchanan listed four windfarms being planned around the world heritage area – Chalumbin, Upper Burdekin, Mt Fox and High Road. A fifth, Kaban, is already under construction.
He said: “The authority is very concerned that the cumulative impacts of all these proposed developments remains poorly understood.”
Steven Nowakowski, a photographer and member of Rainforest Reserves Australia, a small environment group campaigning against windfarms in sensitive areas in the region, said, “This area harbours some very unique wildlife, like the red goshawk, koalas, rock wallabies and greater gliders. It’s one of the best sites in north Queensland for koalas.
“This is about trying to hang on to the biodiversity that’s left in this state while moving to renewables.”
He said the region risked being “industrialised” by a stream of new renewable energy projects.
Dave Copeman, director of the Queensland Conservation Council, said: “We are deeply concerned about these impacts on the habitat of threatened species. We believe that we can have both a clean energy future and protect our biodiversity, but our current planning frameworks are not facilitating this.”
The Queensland government has begun a review of its state planning guidelines to ensure “renewables are being built in the most appropriate locations” and to “consider and address potential cumulative impacts from renewable developments”.
Copeman said: “The Queensland government needs to get a move on, and complete and release the planning needed to identify the right places for our renewable rollout.
“Currently, projects are encouraged to develop close to the existing transmission line, and assessed under nature protection laws that are inadequate to ensure essential habitat is protected. This can’t solve either our climate crisis or the biodiversity crisis.”
He said the broad use of offsets by developers had consistently failed and Windlab’s promise to buy offsets was “not an adequate response”.
“We need many windfarms of the size Windlab is proposing as quickly as possible,” he said, adding the council’s greatest concern was the cumulative impact of several windfarm proposals.
Apple announced last year that it had an agreement to buy power for 15 years from the windfarm.
In a statement, Windlab said: “Following more than two years’ in-depth environmental studies and stakeholder consultation, we have delivered a revised project design that preserves more than 98% of native vegetation that exists within the boundary of the cattle property where the project is located, the majority of which is remnant vegetation.”
The recently revised design would support “overall improved outcomes for regional ecology,” the statement said.
“Our priority is to invest the time and resources to ensure a balanced, responsible project informed by rigorous science and the most up-to-date advice from regional ecology and environmental experts.
“We recognise the value of the region’s ecology, as well as the importance of biodiversity in ensuring a healthy climate.”
The company was committed to delivering a set of “robust management plans” that would protect native species and reduce weeds and predatory pests that also posed a threat.
Windlab will submit its final report to the federal government for environmental approval later this year. The company has said it expects to start construction in 2024 and start sending power to the grid in 2026.
The Guardian has approached Andrew Forrest for comment.
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