AQ: Australian Quarterly

A king’s ransom: Public benefit within a modern energy landscape

Fritjof Capra & Ugo Mattei, “The Ecology of Law”

Australia has an abundance of resources capable of generating energy – gas, brown and black coal, uranium, wind, water and sunshine. When the resource resides within the sub-stratum of the land it is subject to state ownership in accordance with Australia’s public resource framework. This effectively means that the state must look after the resource for the benefit of the public as a whole.

Yet public benefit in this context has never been fully defined and is therefore grounded in unarticulated allocative assumptions. The general principle is to ensure that the management and exploitation of these public resources is conducted in such a way that it maximises their net benefit and promotes distributional fairness. For the most part, benefit is generally presumed to mean economic gain.

Existing governance frameworks, at both the state and federal levels, are grounded in the classic liberal assumption that economic prosperity generated through state-supported free-market environmentalism constitutes public interest. Hence, where an energy project promises job creation and wealth infusion this is treated, at both a political and regulatory level, as concomitant with public interest. Broader, non-economic benefits consistent with longer term notions of public interest are therefore marginalised and often ignored completely.

This is particularly concerning within a transitioning energy landscape where issues such as social and environmental sustainability, decarbonisation, environmental justice, and public health are significant public interest concerns.

Current governance frameworks are largely unresponsive to many of these broader collective value goals. Hence, approval processes for resource titling and environmental impact assessments do not adequately incorporate climate change imperatives or ecological sustainability objectives. These issues are often relegated into social licensing and/or community engagement protocols, the latter being conducted once a resource project has already commenced.

Where they are taken into account within environmental impact assessment processes, it is at a discretionary level, meaning that the relevant Minister has the power to choose whether the climate change impact is of a sufficiently robust level to justify the imposition of stronger conditions.

The proposed Adani mine in Northern Queensland is a good example.

This project has consistently been touted by state and federal governments as having the potential to create thousands of

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