Thursday, 29 November 2012
Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Wind Farms) Bill 2012; Second Reading
I rise today to speak to the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Wind Farms) Bill 2012. The excessive noise from wind farms bill is important and necessary. The issues at stake are of vital importance to all Australians. There are matters of health, matters of proper regulation and matters of substantial increases in taxpayer funding. The excessive noise legislation is not an attack on the wind industry; it is not an attack on renewable energies. This bill is designed to provide appropriate regulation of wind farm noise, delivering some comfort to residents near wind farms. It will help deliver regulatory certainty to the wind industry. It will sort out the dog's breakfast that currently characterises wind farm noise regulation at state and territory levels. It will help ensure that the Commonwealth's renewable energy certificates scheme is supporting wind farm operators who do the right thing by the Australian public and filtering out those who do the wrong thing.
There are some who have stated that this bill has only come into existence because apparently Senator Xenophon and I are obsessed with wind farms. That accusation is half right. I will not speak for Senator Xenophon—I know he is more capable than I am to do that—but I will speak for myself. Am I obsessed? Yes. I am obsessed with the health and wellbeing of ordinary Australians. I am obsessed with good regulation and accountability. I am obsessed with full transparency and with exposing cover-ups. And I am obsessed with the protection of taxpayers' money. This bill is, in essence, about all of these things, but more directly it is about proper regulation and the necessity for compliance.
The following from Senator Rhiannon regarding the need for independent studies into the effects of coal seam gas could have been written for the wind industry. Senator Rhiannon stated:
The government should not take the industry's word for it because at the moment the studies that have been trotted out are from industry.
In her call for a moratorium on coal seam gas, Senator Waters declared that a moratorium must be done:
… until we understand better those risks that we are taking and those long-term impacts that we may have—potentially irreversible long-term impacts.
In the supertrawler debate Senator Waters was determined in her call that the onus of proof must be on the industry and saying that the supertrawlers:
… must be banned until the best possible science has proven that they are not causing the untold damage the community is so concerned about.
There is no call for a moratorium in this bill. There is no call to ban an industry here. What there is is a bill that fulfils the calls by the Greens senators for full accountability by industry—for thorough examination of the risks, and for community concerns and dangers to health to be put ahead of economics. This bill seeks to ensure that an industry that enjoys substantial taxpayer subsidies is properly regulated, transparent and is held just as accountable for its actions as any other industry in this country.
Through the Senate committee inquiry over the last few weeks we have substantiated that this legislation is not onerous on the wind industry relative to noise legislation regulating other Australian industries. In fact, wind farm operators would only be required to meet half the noise limit currently demanded of other industries. The excessive noise limit of other industries is set at a noise above background plus 5dBA compared to the proposed legislation before the wind industry, which is background noise plus10dBA. Ironically, the industries that manufacture wind farm components in Australia, few though they are, are compelled to comply with these noise levels that are lower than for the wind industry itself.
I can guarantee that there are few industries in this country that would not love to operate under a noise standard of background plus 10dBA. In fact, those who suggest the industry noise standards should be fair and even to all should consider that to do so would mean either increasing other industry levels to background plus 10dB(A) or reducing the wind industry's level to background plus 5dBA. But to insist that the wind industry follow the same noise levels as other industry is too much like attacking a sacred cow to many here. While regulating excessive noise, this legislation is not excessive overregulation.
Through the Senate committee of inquiry we have substantiated that other industries, such as the aviation sector, must provide real-time noise information to the Australian public. In the case of airports, anyone can at any time access real-time live-feed information readily from the internet. If you are interested, I would be happy to send you a link so you can check it out for yourself. This ensures transparency and accountability.
During the recent public hearing, Professor Simon Chapman, who, while not an a medical expert and cannot be expected to provide an expert opinion on matters of health relating to excessive noise, made a valuable contribution regarding transparency. When asked:
… do you have an issue with that level of transparency in terms of the proponents of wind farms providing that information publicly?
Professor Chapman stated:
No, transparency is always a good thing—the right to information is a cardinal principle of a democracy, which good decision-making needs in order to take place.
Publicly available data helps displace worries and fears, eradicates the veracity of noise data being contested and supports independent checking and verification of noise data by the public. Unfortunately, despite statements by virtually every witness at the inquiry stating transparency is a good thing and that the provision of data is necessary, the wind industry sees it differently. In fact, the wind industry refuses to release information but then claims noise is not a problem, that it is all in the minds of local residents. They try to dignify this brush-off by calling it 'psychosocial' or a 'placebo effect'.
The best way the wind industry can prove that wind turbine noise is not a problem is by making public their noise reports and making publicly available real-time noise data. Just as Senator Waters suggested in the debate on the supertrawler, the burden of proof lies in the hands of the wind industry and not on the local residents or even on the regulator. Complaints means just that. All industry must comply with regulation whether they be the lepers of Australian industries, such as coal and uranium, or the sacred cows of the renewable industry—wind farms.
The industry must prove they are complying. It is not up to the local community and the taxpayers to prove they are not. The industry's refusal to release noise data does not support their case; it works against it. Why are they hiding the noise data? 'Commercial-in-confidence' is the most common excuse. 'Commercial-in-confidence', 'sovereign risk' and 'peer-reviewed' are expressions that seem to be used more and more—unfortunately, not for transparency but usually to keep something hidden or untouchable.
When I was young the expression 'scientific studies show' ended all debate. The wind industry's reply to requests for data generally ends the same way. 'We are compliant', they say, 'so why do we need the data?' In answer to their stoicism I will say the same thing that I have said since I was given this reply several years ago. If you are compliant you have nothing to fear by supplying the data. If you are compliant then all the more reason for it to be provided.
This industry, the wind industry, is in business for pretty much the same reason as any other business: profit. That is fine. All businesses are encouraged to make profits, to develop and to add to the local community and to the economy. But, while most industries in this country go about making their profits, they do so under regulations which they are required to comply with and which prohibit them from causing harm to the health of the community or the environment. Almost all of these industries are compliant with these regulations, and those that are not are penalised and expected to become compliant or close. But here we have an industry that does not believe it needs to prove its compliance. When asked repeatedly at the hearing whether they would make their data publicly available, the industry representatives could only respond that it would depend on what it was wanted for. When asked why they objected to the excessive noise level of background plus 10dBA, as stated in the bill, their response was that the state noise guidelines were regulation enough. In reply to Senator Xenophon's question on what constitutes excessive noise, Mr Upson from Infigen stated:
Excessive noise, by definition, is a noise above what the state noise limits are. If you are over that limit, then it is excessive. It is simple enough.
I agree that it is simple enough. If you operate below the noise level limits you are compliant; if you do not, you are not. But the problem here is: how do we know if you are compliant if you will not supply the data?
The wind industry, like all industries, protects its interests wherever possible. In order to continue getting substantial public subsidies and to enjoy the rewards of the renewable energy certificate scheme, they need to comply. If they do not comply, their profits and their RECs are in danger. But to allow any industry complete self-regulation is disastrous—and we all know it. Yet here we have one of the most heavily subsidised industries in the country and we cannot get them to agree that verifying their compliance is a necessary thing. We constantly hear criticism of the subsidies given to the vehicle-manufacturing industry, but not a word about subsidies of an industry that are so defensive about complying with a basic noise level. If there is no public scrutiny, there should be no public money. I ask again: what do they have to fear?
Surely the best defence for a multibillion-dollar industry wanting to protect their business is compliance. If the data is compliant, their case is won. Releasing the data will either verify their compliance or show their noncompliance. If it turns out that the wind industry are noncompliant then it is best we find out now and ensure the problem is fixed so that any and all future wind energy facilities are constructed to meet compliance. The data collection methodology could be checked, the data outcomes could be checked and an independent verdict could be achieved. This level of obstruction will inevitably lead to the idea that the wind energy industry are hiding something.
The Senate committee majority report recommends a peace offering that was initiated by Pacific Hydro. It recommends that noise information may be provided to an independent authority. This is the only offering from the majority report. It opposes all of the noise aspects of the bill. While the smallest gesture from the committee's majority goes a little way towards what is needed, it is not enough. It is a gesture in the right direction, but it is still only a gesture. The wind industry needs a regulatory environment that can and will protect members of the public and the environment from noise emissions. That will support and encourage good industry practice and, in doing so, help protect the reputation and investment prospects of this industry.
If the Senate Environment and Communication Legislation Committee were sincere in analysing this bill, committee members would have showed up to the public hearing. If the committee were sincere in wanting to protect an important plank of the federal government's emissions reduction policy, they would welcome the regulatory environment of the wind energy industry being put on a scientific, accountable, and open footing. Emissions reduction should be across the board—reducing greenhouse gas emissions and noise emissions from energy technologies.
During the day of the inquiry, we heard the mantra of the wind turbine manufacturers and wind turbine operators: 'This is a states rights issue. The states are doing a great job. Leave the current arrangements alone.' The reality is that wind does not discriminate on state lines. No two states or territories have the same standard or regulatory compliance and enforcement approach.
The inquiry heard from the Pyrenees local council, which has the Waubra wind farm in its municipality. Despite receiving numerous complaints about noise, the council cannot access noise reports submitted by the wind farm to the state regulator. The state-based regulator will not provide them to the local council or to the public. I understand that the Victorian regulator does not have the internal capacity or technical expertise to scrutinise noise related reports it receives from wind farm operators and to arrive internally at an expert conclusion about their contents. Instead, it is happy to receive affidavits attesting to the reports being true and compliance being achieved.
That is how Victoria's statutory regulator for wind farms, the Department of Planning and Community Development, is dealing with the complex noise and environmental issues arising from the wind energy industry—by affidavit. It gets sent an affidavit from a wind farm operator or one of their consultants that says they are complying, and on that basis the regulator believes them. There is no capacity or willingness to engage, for example, the Environment Protection Authority or any other regulatory government authorities, scientists or health experts. The industry says it is telling the truth and, therefore, the state believes it is telling the truth. Because the regulator will not make the reports public, there is no external checking. During the inquiry, Mr Chris Hall of the Pyrenees Shire Council said:
It was only when Waubra started becoming an issue—with the number of complaints that were received—that the department's attitude towards being willing to take on enforcement responsibility seemed to change quite suddenly. They then wrote to us and other councils and indicated that basically they believed—without providing any legal advice, mind you—that they believed that the shires were the responsible authority for administration enforcement, overriding what they have done on the planning permit. It does not override the enabling legislation—that is legally unenforceable.
This is not regulation. This is not regulatory enforcement and compliance. This is systemic regulatory failure.
When the system that lets the industry do whatever it likes, when it fails to cover up the lack of regulatory enforcement and when the problems become manifest, the response of the regulator is to duck and shove responsibility elsewhere. No wonder the industry likes state based arrangements so much and is repudiating Commonwealth involvement. I encourage all senators to support this bill.