21 November 2023
People involved in assembling the environmental knowledge base for threatened and migratory species relating to wind energy development off Gippsland, Victoria, came together for the first time at a Marine and Coastal Hub workshop in October.
The two-day workshop was organised by Dr Karen Evans of CSIRO, leader of a hub project focussed on threatened species datasets relevant to the Gippsland Declared Area for Offshore Energy Infrastructure. Almost 60 people attended, either at CSIRO Hobart, or online. They included researchers, consultants, Commonwealth and state government regulators, and proponents of offshore wind energy projects.
Beginning in Gippsland
A 15,000-square-kilometre area in the Bass Strait off Gippsland was the first area declared suitable for offshore renewable energy by the Minister for Climate Change and Energy in December 2022. The area was the first of six priority areas to be considered in Australia.
Before an offshore renewable energy infrastructure activity can commence, proponents must secure relevant approvals and licences under Commonwealth and state legislation. The first step, once an area is declared, is for a proponent to apply for a Feasibility Licence under the Offshore Electricity Infrastructure Act (OEI Act). Feasibility Licences can be issued for up to seven years.
Offshore renewable energy projects that may have a significant impact on matters that are protected under Australia’s major national environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), must be approved before proceeding beyond the feasibility licence stage. The assessment process (managed by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) on behalf of the Minister for the Environment) considers impacts on matters of national environmental significance (MNES). The public is invited to comment on the proposed development before a decision on whether or not to approve a project is made by the Minister. The EPBC Act provides the legal framework to protect and manage Australia’s unique plants, animals, habitats and places.
Under the OEI Act a proponent must have a management plan approved by the Offshore Infrastructure Regulator (OIR) and be issued a Commercial Licence before construction of an offshore infrastructure project can proceed. The management plan must address the licence holder’s obligations in relation to work health and safety, infrastructure integrity and environmental management and protection. The management plan provides a basis for the OIR to monitor and enforce compliance.
This hub project responds to an identified need by DCCEEW and the ORI to rapidly identify and collate accessible environmental information on priority species of seabirds, migratory birds and cetaceans. This includes species that are listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered under the EPBC Act and are at potential risk from offshore renewable activities (these are listed on the Project 3.21 page). The functions of the ORI are administered by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA).
The Hobart workshop provided a forum to identify and connect relevant data-holders and associated datasets. It also provided the basis for developing a path for ensuring that all suitable ecological data for priority species was identified, consolidated and made available to identify information gaps and inform decision-making. Participants also had the chance to ask questions and share their experiences, knowledge and perspectives as the approach to accessing and using environmental data for regulating offshore renewables is developed. This discussion highlighted an underlying need for alignment and collaboration to access and assemble the scientific knowledge base for effective environmental assessment, decision making and long-term management.
The workshop began with presentations by Raquel Carter, Chief Environmental Scientist at the OIR, and Chris Hicks, Director of DCCEEW’s Offshore Renewables Strategic Engagement, Policy and Advice Section.
Raquel Carter outlined challenges and opportunities gleaned from experience in regulating the offshore oil and gas sector. She emphasised the need for enhanced scientific certainty to support decision making and improve confidence in proposed management. Frameworks for data standardisation, sharing and access, and adaptive management also would be important.
Raquel also highlighted the importance of prioritising research to meet the needs of a broad suite of end-users and more effectively tailor research outputs to support offshore activity management and regulatory approvals processes. This is consistent with the NOPSEMA Research Strategy, which identifies a suite of research priorities relevant to offshore renewable energy proposals.
Chris Hicks acknowledged the ‘awesome brains trust’ brought together by the workshop. He said that his DCCEEW team had been set up to establish a regulatory approach for assessing and managing cumulative environmental impacts at a regional level under the EPBC Act, and in accordance with Australia’s Nature Positive Plan.
Chris said that as well as considering the environmental acceptability of projects, DCCEEW would play a role in determining appropriate survey protocols and data standards. It would also assist with acquiring the data required to establish ecological baselines to underpin the environmental impact assessment of developments. The objective of this work was to enable the establishment of Australia’s emerging offshore renewables industry in accordance with the principles of ecologically sustainable development. He said that with support from the ORI, DCCEEW had initiated three pilot research projects that focus on defining scopes of work to establish suitable regional ecological data baselines for orange-bellied parrots and swift parrots, albatross species, blue whales and southern right whales.
Collaboration to identify cumulative impacts
Concentrating multiple, large-scale offshore renewable energy infrastructure projects within declared areas has the potential to add to cumulative risks to species that will need to be mitigated. Both workshop presenters emphasised the critical need for coordination among and between researchers, regulators and proponents to effectively marshal the environmental data required to address cumulative impacts.
Collaborative approaches to gathering ecological data to improve our understanding and management of the biological and ecological implications of offshore windfarms would:
- avoid duplicating research and minimise the oversaturation of research at sites such as islands hosting seabird populations;
- allow combined studies to establish an effective baseline data layer for all key species; and
- provide opportunities for more cost-effective approaches to collecting data and ongoing monitoring in support of assessments, reporting and adaptive management of interactions and impacts.
Seven key actions
A discussion of available data and information focussed on priority species. This highlighted common information needs, as well as challenges and areas of uncertainty. Key factors to understand include whether species are present in the region, the risk of individuals interacting with offshore wind infrastructure, and the consequences for populations.
The workshop produced seven key recommendations for supporting more informed decision-making for the Gippsland area. These were grouped into four themes.
Engagement and communication
- Better connect all stakeholders to improve communication and awareness across those generating and using data and information on priority species across the region.
Research prioritisation processes
- Increase the transparency of the prioritisation of species including detailing the criteria used and applying consistency in approaches across species and declaration areas.
- Determine a priority list of potential impacts needing to be understood and the key datasets needed to quantify those impacts.
Ensuring data quality, provenance and interoperability
- Coordination of data needs including data standards, best practices and data agreements.
- Requirement for reducing uncertainties associated with establishing baseline and impacts including requirements for robust survey designs.
Immediate research needs for determining risk
- Determine the vertical overlap between infrastructure and birds.
- Determine noise emissions directly generated by infrastructure.
Presentation series updates research users
A hub event held in September updated research-users on the progress of related work in Project 3.3: ‘Guiding research and best practice standards for the sustainable development of offshore renewables and other emerging marine industries in Australia’.
This project is identifying existing information on environmental values, best-practice assessment and monitoring standards, and knowledge gaps. It is taking a regional approach to reviewing data on oceanography, seabed habitats and threatened species. The project aims to identify the Indigenous communities adjacent to declaration areas, and identify existing Sea Country plans and information on relevant cultural values. Information on potential risks and mitigations in relation to offshore windfarm installations and operations also is being collated.
More than 70 researchers and research-users attended presentations given by researchers from hub partner agencies including the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Deakin University, University of Western Australia and Geoscience Australia. They outlined existing best-practice standards and marine environmental data portals.
Portals and publications
- Offshore wind in Australia
- Key environmental factors for offshore windfarm environmental impact assessment under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
- Nature Positive Plan: better for the environment, better for business
- NOPSEMA Research Strategy 2023–2025
- Victorian Biodiversity Atlas
- Natural Values Atlas (Tasmania)
- Movebank for animal tracking data