Western Australia has answered the “increasingly strident” calls from billionaire green hydrogen prospectors by proposing changes to the state’s land tenure laws to pave the way for huge wind and solar projects that will power the shift to green hydrogen.
WA lands minister Tony Buti said on Thursday that proposed amendments to the state’s Land Administration Act would introduce a new, more flexible form of land tenure for unallocated Crown land and pastoral land.
The potential opening up of “millions of hectares” of land for operations like carbon farming, wind farms, solar energy and hydrogen production was couched as a win both for the renewables sector as well as for “Native Title holders pursuing economic development.”
There are already more than one hundred gigawatts of wind and solar project proposals in WA, including 76GW from CWP Global, another dozen smaller gigawatt scale projects by a variety of parties including BP and Rio Tinto, and the massive but unspecified plans from iron ore billionaire Andrew Forrest.
According to the state government release, the move also responds to calls from pastoralists looking to diversify activities on all, or part, of their estates.
Another key party that has been calling for reform in this area, however, is Forrest, the newly converted green energy evangelist who just last month told the National Press Club that state government red tape had prevented him from making his first big green hydrogen investment in WA.
He made it in Queensland, instead.
“If you want to develop the hundreds of thousands of (hydrogen) jobs in Western Australia … you’ve got to get past the promises and allow projects to be developed by granting tenure,” Forrest said.
“I’ve written to the Premier (Mark McGowan) in increasingly strident terms saying, ‘Mate, we can’t wish this into existence, you’re either going to do it or not’.”
In response to those comments, ABC Online reported that WA’s hydrogen minister, Alannah MacTiernan, had suggested Forrest’s problems were more to do with Native title, than problems around tenure.
“We really appreciate the big investment that he has to make,” MacTiernan said. “But we do know that there are others interested in that same land.
“So we have to find a process that is going to be fair and not dissuade investment and also that does acknowledge what we can’t change, which is that there is Native Title over many of these areas.”
So has this been fair approach been achieved? According to the government release, the proposed amendments will affect management of unallocated Crown land and pastoral land, including changes to how pastoral rents are determined.
They will also cut red tape and streamline tenure approvals and introduce a new form of non-exclusive tenure to facilitate diversified uses.
The non-exclusive tenure changes, Buti said, could help open large areas of land for conservation organisations to preserve or rehabilitate biodiversity, or Native Title holders looking to undertake economic development activities such as cultural tourism.
“These changes will help Western Australia harness emerging opportunities in the renewable energy sector, as well as empowering Native Title holders who are pursuing economic development,” the minister said.
“Global demand for clean energy is increasing and Western Australia will be better placed to capitalise on this demand under these updated land tenure rules.
“Under these changes to the Land Administration Act we can establish a diversified and resilient economy, create new long-term job opportunities, and reduce reliance on fossil fuels to power remote communities.”
But the proposed loosening of the land laws are bound to raise controversy and eyebrows, particularly among indigenous communities long engaged in battles to prevent traditional lands from being mined or farmed.
Last year, Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group lost a High Court bid against a native title determination covering multi-billion-dollar Solomon iron ore mine, in a battle with an Aboriginal corporation in the Pilbara.
According to the ABC, the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC) had been fighting for ownership of its land since 2003, when it first lodged a formal native title claim while simultaneously fighting for a cut of mining royalties.
In comments this week, MacTiernan said the new package would expand on the Labor McGowan government’s commitment to deliver Pastoral Lands Reform, helping to improve land condition while supporting diversification opportunities for farmers.
“Importantly, it will also smooth the pathway for large-scale renewable energy projects right across the state,” she added.
“While the state government is already facilitating access to land for renewable hydrogen projects, these changes will provide new long-term tenure options for proponents.”