WA premier not privy to ‘unprecedented’ call between Mark McGowan and EPA, but backs resources industry – best news

  • September 11, 2023

WA’s Premier Roger Cook has backed the state’s resources industry amid revelations his predecessor Mark McGowan pressured the environmental watchdog to withdraw emissions guidance, but conceded he was not privy to the conversation.

The ABC yesterday revealed never-before told details of a phone call Mark McGowan made to WA’s former environmental protection chief, Tom Hatton.

Dr Hatton claims that during the call the former premier pressured him to withdraw tough emissions guidelines he and his board had drafted in 2018, in an effort to put the state’s biggest emitters on a path to net zero.

In an exclusive interview with the ABC, he described the premier’s actions as an “extraordinary” political intervention that was “unprecedented” in the 50-year history of the agency.

Dr Hatton was chair of the WA Environmental Protection Agency from 2014 until 2020. (ABC News: Jake Carmody)

“It was extraordinary … it was colouring outside the normal lines of the interaction between the government and the EPA”, Dr Hatton told the ABC.

EPA ‘master of its own destiny’: Cook

When grilled about the claims on Monday, Premier Cook declared he would “absolutely” go into bat for the resources industry.

“The resources sector are a key part of our economy. We know the resources sector are a key part of our energy policy. We know that the resources sector are a key part of keeping Western Australians in work.”

But he wouldn’t be drawn on whether he would have done as Mr McGowan did.

A man wearing a suit and tie speaks at a press conference.

WA Premier Roger Cook has strongly backed the state’s resources sector.(ABC News: James Carmody)

“The EPA is the master of its own destiny, but it doesn’t work in a vacuum, it needs to understand the impact of its decisions”, he said.

Premier Cook repeated accusations made by the industry and government at the time that the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) had failed to adequately consult on its new guidelines.

The ABC has spoken to people involved in the stakeholder consultation and has confirmed peak lobby groups representing the mining and gas industries were invited to provide feedback on the guidance before it was publicly released.

A letter sent from the Chamber of Minerals and Energy and gas lobby, APPEA to Mark McGowan stipulated they were not allowed to inform their members of the new guidance.

A man in a suit speaks to reporters shot from between shoulders.

Mark McGowan has been accused of pressuring the EPA boss to withdraw tough emissions guidelines during his time as WA premier.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

But Dr Hatton and other former EPA board members dispute their interpretation of events, clarifying they simply asked industry not to distribute to the media.

The terms of reference governing the EPA’s stakeholder reference group, also seen by the ABC, stipulates that “members will distribute these documents responsibly and only for obtaining feedback from the groups they represent. No documents are to be made available to the media”.

When asked if the phone call made by Mr McGowan influenced the EPA’s decision to withdraw its guidance, Premier Cook said he could not answer that question.

“I was neither the premier nor the chair of the EPA at the time. But I do remember back then, that there was significant concern in the community about these guidelines”, he said.

The industry backlash was swift and effective.

EPA newspapers

A collection of newspaper headlines and advertorials from the time the emissions policy was announced and then rescinded.(ABC News)

Within 48 hours, articles, editorials and full-page ads funded by gas giant Woodside were plastered across WA’s only daily newspaper.

At the time, the successful lobbying campaign by industry raised questions about the close relationship between the WA Labor Government and big business.

EPA ‘essentially bullied’ into backdown

Climate scientist, Bill Hare said the revelations were proof big resource companies had significant influence over government in WA.

He said former premier McGowan should never have put Dr Hatton in that position.

“The EPA should not have been in a position of being essentially bullied into reversing its considered judgement about what needed to happen, I think that really undermines confidence the public can have in the Environmental Protection Authority,” Mr Hare said.

A mid-shot of Bill Hare sitting at a desk posing for a photo while holding a pen and leaning over a notebook.

Climate scientist Bill Hare says Mr McGowan should not have put Dr Hatton in the position he did.(ABC News: Evelyn Manfield)

“Anyone who works on energy and climate in Western Australia knows that these companies essentially call the shots and that the government and does whatever it does to help them help the companies do whatever they want to do.

“It was quite shocking and certainly for anyone who paid attention to the various TV news coverage of executives from the companies walking in on mass, if you like, to meet the premier, it was not a good look, optics wise.

“So, it showed very clearly, in a way, just where the power lies in Western Australia on, particularly on climate.”

Greenpeace has called for the federal government to intervene on Woodside’s proposal to extend the North West Shelf for another 50 years.

The group’s head of clean energy transition Jess Panegyres said Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek must carry out an independent assessment of the project, which is currently before WA’s EPA.

Greenpeace's Jess Panegyres

Jess Panegyres is Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s head of clean energy transitions.(ABC Pilbara: Amelia Searson)

“There are now serious questions being raised about the independence of the WA EPA,” Ms Panegyres said.

“In light of the perception of compromised independence and the staggering emissions from this project, we believe it must be subject to an independent federal assessment.

“Decisions this big cannot be left to a body that’s former chief has alleged is subject to serious interference.”

Mr McGowan declined to speak with the ABC.

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