In Victoria's Westernport Bay, a battle has ignited over energy corporation AGL's plans to build a massive new gas import terminal at Crib Point, which would turn part of the internationally recognised wetland sanctuary into a 290-metre long floating gas plant.
It's part of a long-running David and Goliath story, where the underdog is the Westernport Bay community - including local fishers, surfers and sailors who worry that giant gas-filled ships will destroy the Bay they all cherish and rely on for their livelihoods.
At stake is much of what local people love about the place - the weedy sea dragons, endangered migratory birds, and the Humpback and Southern Right Whales, who visit each winter, surfacing to slap their tails against the sheltered waters of this shallow bay.
Now there are growing questions as to whether the State government will ensure it's a fair fight.
AGL's CEO recently called on the Victorian government to fast track environmental approvals through the Environment Effects Statement (EES) process. AGL have had nearly two years to produce thousands of pages of technical documents which make up the EES, but now under the cover of coronavirus, they want the government to rush through community consultation.
Premier Daniel Andrews has repeatedly referred to this EES process as the proper mechanism to determine whether the project should go ahead. Is it proper or fair to give the community only 30 days to respond, in the middle of a global pandemic lockdown, without being able to physically meet with each other or independent environmental experts?
Locals and politicians from around Westernport have fiercely opposed AGL's plans for the past two years. They are worried about the impact the gas terminal would have on their community, on vital tourism to the area, on the unique wetlands, and ultimately on the climate when the gas is burned.
The problem now is that the coronavirus pandemic will prevent the community coming together to analyse the weighty EES paperwork and press their case. While there have been suggestions of moving the process online, the reality is that many people around Westernport are still on dial-up internet speeds - if they have internet access at all.
The Andrews government has already offered energy corporations a great deal of flexibility in response to coronavirus. They delayed the implementation of new stricter pollution controls across the state, giving leeway to key industry players like AGL.
The question is - will they offer the same respect and forbearance to the community? Or will they give a giant energy corporation special treatment and let them use the pandemic as an excuse to override due process and crush community dissent?
Environment Victoria has joined the community in asking the Minister for Planning Richard Wynne to suspend the current EES process until it's clear how the community will get a fair go at having their voice heard.
If the assessment process has to occur while physical distancing restrictions are still in place, Minister Wynne should at the very least slow down the process and take extra steps to give the community a fair say.
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