PARK WATCH Article June 2024 |

Shannon Hurley, Nature Conservation Campaigner, on the reception to Winds of change, and further developments with offshore energy

The publication in March of VNPA’s discussion paper, Winds of change, grabbed the attention of the media across the state. It led to interviews with ABC radio’s regional and metro drive programs, coverage in daily and weekly newspapers and a front-page feature in The Age.

After sharing the paper with state and federal environment and energy ministers, relevant departments and energy and nature groups, the idea that marine spatial planning (MSP) is the way forward is finally taking hold.

Winds of change is a solution-focused paper about addressing challenges in the offshore wind energy industry. It’s already achieving its aim – to create conversations about the role proper (and early) MSP plays in protecting marine biodiversity values, saving time and costs, and avoiding problems and potential rejections.

While energy and environment representatives see the value in MSP, a tool enshrined in Victorian legislation for coordinating ocean uses in state and federal waters, there’s still no commitment to use it by either level of government.

Criteria without merit?

Since the release of Winds of change, there have been moves to bring offshore wind energy development closer to fruition.

On 1 May 2024 the first six feasibility licenses were given to five companies in the Gippsland offshore wind farm zone by Chris Bowen, Federal Energy Minister. With a total of 37 applications, the successful candidates were High Sea Wind, Gippsland Skies, Blue Mackerel North, Kut-Wut Brataualung, Offshore Australia 1 and Star of the South Wind Farm.

Feasibility licenses let developers progress the feasibility of an offshore infrastructure project and conduct assessments, surveys and potential approvals before applying for a commercial license.

There are a further six potential companies who could obtain licenses, subject to First Nations consultation. The merit criteria applied by the offshore wind regulator, NOPSEMA (the same body used for oil and gas projects) includes: the technical and financial capacity to carry out the project; the viability and suitability to hold a license; and whether the project is of national interest.

It’s disappointing to see that natural values aren’t included in this criteria for decision-making. This reinforces the issue that energy planning is not coordinated with environmental planning/assessment but treated separately. Again we’re looking at a future where instead of protecting the web of life, renewable energy projects end up contributing to its destruction – if not located in the right places.

This was further emphasised in the amendment regulations to support offshore wind infrastructure. Disappointingly conservation organisations weren’t listed as interested parties to be specifically consulted. We hope this is an oversight, and not a deliberate exclusion.

VNPA compiled a submission and sought a briefing from the Federal Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water to clarify these issues.

Back on the Victorian front, the state Budget included: $17 million to continue planning and designing a renewable energy terminal at the Port of Hastings, where the infrastructure for offshore wind farms can be assembled.

We interpret this as confirmation that the Victorian Government will keep pushing the development of Western Port Bay, even after it was rejected by the Federal Environment Minister due to unacceptable impacts on the Bay’s Ramsar wetland. Yet another reason marine spatial planning is direly needed.

While we appreciate the complexity of coordinating a swift roll out of an entire national energy industry, we hope that state and federal governments see the sense in adopting upfront marine planning.

We will continue to raise this important issue with the Allan and Albanese governments, industry, local, state and national groups, ocean users, Traditional Custodians and the media.

A summary of Winds of change can be found in the March 2024 Park Watch at