Recently I drove through the Snowy Mountains, from Tumut to Cooma, for the first time since last summer's mega-fires devastated the area. Some sections are regenerating with too-green epicormic growth, while in others the earth has been completely cooked and nothing will grow for many years. You can see where rains have eroded gullies on the barren hillsides. All the tussock around Kiandra has burned, and all that remains of the heritage buildings are brick chimneys.
On the east side of Kiandra, the Eucumbene River runs down into the dam of the same name. Fifty years ago I went fishing down into the gorge with my father, at a place called Suicide Hole. Our torch batteries ran down and we spent one of the coldest nights of my life there, huddled around a roaring fire. On my recent trip, I idly thought of walking back down there, and then realised that not only were there no trees in the gorge, but that I could see what looked like a huge pile of construction rubble on the hillside above.
I thought how my father's heart would have broken to see this. He died in 2007. He had worked on the Snowy scheme in the '60s. When we lived in the towns of Khancoban and Talbingo, he had introduced me to the bush, and instilled in me a deep love for this country. Last summer, like everyone else in NSW, I was glued to the Fires Near Me app. It showed the devastation of my childhood areas clearly, and I realised even then that I might never see the bush I loved again.
Now on top of the fires, the plans for Snowy 2.0 will render the environment my father and I enjoyed unrecognisable.
Writing in The Conversation last year, Associate Professor John Harris of the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science and Mark Lintermans from the University of Canberra argued the project "threatens to devastate aquatic life by introducing predators and polluting important rivers. It may even push one fish species to extinction".
The environmental impact statement for the taxpayer-funded project is almost 10,000 pages long, they stated, "yet it fails to resolve critical problems, and in one case seeks legal exemptions to enable Snowy 2.0 to wreak environmental damage".
They are not alone among ecologists and environmentalists in raising concerns. In March last year a group of more than 30 engineers, economists, energy specialists and environmentalists wrote an open letter, published in The Guardian, calling for a final decision on the Snowy Hydro 2.0 scheme to be delayed to allow an independent review. They were concerned the 2000-megawatt pumped hydro storage project in the Snowy Mountains would permanently damage the Kosciuszko National Park.
The group stressed that it would "convert extensive areas of national park into a construction site, with permanent damage over thousands of hectares and the destruction of habitat used by 14 threatened species".
Similarly, in Renew Economy, National Parks Association executive officer Gary Dunnett said this was "the largest ... most destructive development in a national park ever".
Their calls were not heeded, and the Snowy 2.0 juggernaut rolled on ... until the bushfires came through. When I passed by many months later, many of the roads were still closed. A substantial amount of Snowy 2.0 equipment in Cabramurra, and more than half the houses for workers, were destroyed in the fires. It was a further hit to the project, which has already faced significant cost blowouts and delays.
Bruce Mountain, the director of the Victorian Energy Policy Centre, has been perhaps the most strident critic from an energy market perspective. He told the ABC the project was likely to cost five times more than the then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, said it would. In another article, he argued that for at least the next couple of decades, Snowy 2.0 will store coal-fired electricity, not renewable electricity. It will also "create additional demand for coal-fired generation and lead to an increase in greenhouse-gas emissions for the foreseeable future".
There are financial concerns, too. Credit ratings agency S&P has downgraded Snowy Hydro's long-term issuer credit rating from A- to BBB+ and suggested additional federal government support for the Commonwealth-owned company may be required. S&P points to "weak hydrological conditions" reducing Snowy Hydro's power generation, which will be exacerbated by lower wholesale energy prices across the board because of the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.
The question is, with all these criticisms, why has the government pushed this project through, complete with photos of Scott Morrison with two thumbs up in front of Talbingo Power Station? Is it to bump up their supposed green credentials, to distract from the "gas-led recovery" furphy and the government's seeming unwillingness to have a real conversation about climate change?
When I think about Snowy 2.0, I return to this question of what my father's opinion would be of the new incarnation. He would probably have accepted the same arguments of jobs and progress as were used in the '50s, but would have questioned the technical assertions, and would have deplored the unnecessary environmental damage to the mountains he loved. We owe it to the memory of those workers who built the first Snowy scheme to scrutinise the case for this one.
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