Minister Ley interview with Kylie Baxter, ABC Radio Hobart

25 November 2021


KYLIE BAXTER: The plan for a multi-billion dollar, hard surface intercontinental Antarctic runway to be built and operated by Australia is now not going ahead. The Federal Government says it doesn't stack up environmentally or economically. Had it gone ahead, it would have been the single largest project ever undertaken by Australia in Antarctica and possibly by any nation. With a likely price tag in the billions, it was promised to give Australia rapid access to Antarctica in all seasons. It's currently not possible, of course, by ship because of thick sea ice in winter.

Sussan Ley is the Federal Minister for the Environment and joins me now. Welcome to the Drive programme.

SUSSAN LEY: Good afternoon, Kylie. Good afternoon to your listeners.

KYLIE BAXTER: So, Minister, your predecessor Josh Frydenberg and the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, made a definitive commitment to this project at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Buenos Aires in 2018. Did we just simply bite off a bit more than we could chew?

SUSSAN LEY: No, we didn't. And today's announcement by this government, the Morrison Government, reflects on the precondition for any infrastructure project, the runway, others that I assess, and that's a genuine environmental and economic assessment. So we've been researching this for five years, and during that time, we've absolutely seen that higher than expected projected costs, significant environmental impacts. And as Environment Minister, you know, the impact of this project on a really sensitive area of the continent certainly wasn't lost on me, and the complexity of a 20-year construction process in that extreme environment led to this decision. So now we need to focus on alternative options for expanding our wider Antarctic programme capability. And for those in Tasmania that are close to the programme that are very well connected with it because they see what it brings to the state, I want to reassure them as I have your Environment Minister and Tasmanian senators today, that it in no way signals a lessening of our commitment to a strong and vibrant Australian Antarctic programme.

KYLIE BAXTER: So you've cited cost as one reason for not proceeding. So what figure would you put on it, even just roughly, did the government's business case arrive at?

SUSSAN LEY: Look costs are not determined early on. They're explored and arrived at throughout the process that I described the research over five years. The initial business case had a cost of look, well back in 2018, I think it was under- it was $747 million and a much earlier completion time. That expanded a couple of years later to $2.97 billion and I think it's fair to say that that has almost doubled again. So cost is a factor. Part of the reason for that cost is the complexities of a 20-year construction project. And I also note, for example, that CASA changed the classification of the runway, which would increase the amount of pavement, the strength of the pavement, the approaches. We were talking about levelling 90 metres of hills to actually produce the flat area required. And so you can sort of see that something that has a shortened period of construction every year because of the weather, 5000 kilometres from Hobart, those costs are going to add up. So the best decision made today was the right decision, and that simply allows us to now look at alternative aviation and maritime options. And I know that people who live there are getting a sense of that with the arrival of the Nuyina, our $1.9 billion icebreaker, the most advanced polar research platform in the world. And as soon as your borders open, I'm coming down to have a look around and meet...

KYLIE BAXTER: I'll be honest, that was a very exciting moment. Everybody was so excited and we had a lock down.

SUSSAN LEY: And it was lockdown, I know. I got some photos sent back from some people who were walking their dogs on the wharf. But I mean, I think the way that, well of course, we think of Antarctica in terms of our expeditioners and transporting them and the supplies that they need, but it's just so much more than that. It's the scientific - and I know Tasmanians understand this - it's the scientific capacity and capability and strength that we want to demonstrate and that we will be able to as we look at new flexible options for the future.

KYLIE BAXTER: So now that the Davis runway is not going ahead, where will that unspent money go? Will it be back in consolidated revenue or remain within your portfolio?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, look, money is not budgeted and put away that far out, of course, with a timeframe that long. But what I can say is that there will be announcements made shortly about a stepped up financial investment in this Antarctic capability. So I can't describe what they might be right here right now, but they will become apparent soon. But what I said I can reassure Tasmanians about is that there will be significant announcements in the near future, and that is because we recognise the role that Tasmania, and of course especially Hobart, plays in creating the international Antarctic Gateway. We're fully committed to the Hobart City Deal, to the Antarctic Precinct. I've been down there and looked at the area and gained some sense of what the transformed city will be able to present to the world. And I do come back, Kylie, to the environment, because I am the Environment Minister, and I think that we have had a win today for the future flexibility of delivering our strategic, scientific, and environmental imperatives and projects in Antarctica.

KYLIE BAXTER: If anyone's just joining me on the program, my guest is Sussan Ley, the Federal Environment Minister. Now, Sussan, is there any possibility this project could be downscaled to become, say, a gravel runway or an intracontinental runway that operates, say, over the summer?

SUSSAN LEY: Look, we have a nice runway, and what we'll be looking at for the future is different aviation capability. What I see is medium lift helicopters. The Nuyina can host up to four helicopters that could do ship to shore. We've got helicopters in Antarctica now that only have about a 90 nautical mile range. We can do more with modern aircraft on skis. We can do more with drones, with unmanned aerial vehicles, so I do not envisage a runway at all. However, there may be hangers. There may be helicopter landings. There already are. And what we'll do is explore that fully and work out too how we can cover the continent better, or the eastern part. That is our- the area under our stewardship. Our stations are around the coast, but we've already got- we're building traverse capability inland for our million-year ice core. And look, the announcement today about us not going ahead with this project is a strong call to action for all the countries in the Antarctic Treaty, because no one should be building a paved, concrete runway in the world…

KYLIE BAXTER: But what is stopping, say, another nation from building a runway in exactly the same place in the Vestfold Hills? Is there anything?

SUSSAN LEY: Everything is done in Antarctica through the census, through the Antarctic Treaty system. We have a leading role at that table, with 54 countries and 29 who are voting members. So our opinion is well-respected. And the whole genesis, if you like, of the way Antarctica is managed comes from that treaty, negotiated during the Cold War, reaffirmed at the Madrid Protocol 30 years ago, and it is about peace, science, and the environment being the basis of everything that happens on the continent. So we will play to our strengths because we already have them in those areas, and we will make that clear to every other country.

KYLIE BAXTER: So what does this mean for Australia's position as a leading Antarctic nation under the treaty? Control of a major air hub would have potentially boosted our influence in Antarctica. Are we at risk of losing our leadership?

SUSSAN LEY: This enhances our role in many ways. We're already, at the treaty system, and through CAMLR, which is the Convention for Antarctic Marine Living Resources, we're already taking a leading role in establishing, securing co-sponsorship for marine protected areas, which I've talked about recently. We were a founding member of the treaty. We will emphasise that message that it's not about- you know, it's not about the amount of hard technology, the hardware that you have on the continent. It's about the future of peace, the environment, science. And that's a role that every country can participate in. And so, no, this actually enhances our leadership.

KYLIE BAXTER: And just finally, Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley is my guest. There are reports that China has been looking at building a runway not far from Davis, at Zhongshan Station. Would Australia seek to utilise that asset if China builds that runway?

SUSSAN LEY: We cooperate with all countries on the- in Antarctica. In fact, several countries helped us with an evacuation not that long ago, and that underscores the way all countries work, and the scientists and the expeditionists have those close relationships. But what it comes back to is that big decisions need to reflect the environmental- the environment of Antarctica, the need to preserve that environment, the need to respect it as the world's last wilderness that was based on so much in its early days. And I know I'm confident that the cooperation that all countries show in the work they do every day will continue.

KYLIE BAXTER: Sussan Ley, thanks so much for your time on the phone today.

SUSSAN LEY: Thanks, Kylie.

KYLIE BAXTER: Thank you. Have a great afternoon. Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley there.