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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Hydro's link of faith

The Mercury: Hydro's link of faith [27nov05]

Mystery still surrounds Basslink, writes Simon Bevilacqua

BASSLINK economics have been cordoned off from the public, says a researcher who spent three years studying the project.

Tasmanians are expected to have blind faith that the Hydro got its sums right, she says.

University of Tasmania researcher Ronlyn Duncan fears a "zealous" commitment to the Basslink idea may have blinded Hydro Tasmania and compromised judgments about the $2.3 billion project's economic viability.

Dr Duncan says the business case for Basslink was not explained to the Joint Advisory Panel (JAP) which assessed and approved the project -- or to the Tasmanian community which will pay for it.

"The JAP was given a fait accompli and was left to do the best it could with the project within the constraints already imposed on it," Dr Duncan said in her thesis.

She said the process was not an integrated assessment based on social, economic and environmental impacts as required by law. It was little more than an environmental impact assessment.

"The broader implications of this project of state and national significance, particularly its economic aspects, were cordoned off from discussion," she said.

Dr Duncan spent three years studying the Basslink assessment process for her PhD.

Before coming to Tasmania in 2001, Dr Duncan graduated from the University of New South Wales with both a science and an arts degree.

She spent two years with the NSW Government's Sustainable Energy Development Authority, working with business to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

She came to Tasmania and attended all but one of 16 days of Resource Planning and Development Commission public hearings in 2001.

Dr Duncan read Tasmanian submissions and accessed 67 audiotapes of RPDC proceedings.

She became intimately familiar with the Basslink Draft Integrated Impact Assessment Statement (DIIAS) -- 6000 pages in 10 volumes with 75 additional reports.

"If stacked, the Basslink DIIAS would stand over one metre high," Dr Duncan said.

Quantity, however, does not equate to quality.

She said the DIIAS fell short of world's best practice, as sold to the Tasmanian public.

"If size was the criterion by which the rigour of an impact assessment statement and process should be judged, then Basslink's would be in the running," Dr Duncan said.

"In terms of comprehensibility, however, it would rank low. I found the DIIAS extraordinarily difficult to navigate. I was not alone."

Many public submissions complained about the DIIAS.

Basslink consultants Brown and Root Services Asia Pacific Pty Ltd (now Halliburton KBR Pty Ltd) also noted its unwieldy structure and shortcomings.DR Duncan's central concern was that economic impacts were a minor part of paperwork and consultation.

Evidence about Basslink's fiscal dimensions was restricted to two reports annexed to the DIIAS -- both predictive computer modelling.

Fiscal predictions were anchored in one predictive model called PROPHET -- about which there was little critical literature and no scrutiny.

She said modelling and inputs went unchallenged.

During RPDC hearings the line rental, or facility fee, to be paid by the Hydro to use Basslink was kept secret.

Dr Duncan said it was impossible to judge Basslink's viability without knowing how much it was going to cost the Hydro.

"With the economic aspects of the project embedded within predictive modelling and information about how the use of the link would be paid for deemed not for discussion, assessment of the viability of the project was cordoned off from independent analysis and verification and expected to be accepted on trust," Dr Duncan said.

The Hydro recently revealed the line rental, or facility fee, was about $92 million a year for 25 years.

This was at the top of the range suggested during the RPDC hearings -- the Greens and Victoria's Basslink Concerned Citizens guessed the annual fee to be between $60 million and $90 million.

"With issues of economic viability and the cost of the project out of bounds, the Tasmanian Government and the people of Tasmania have only the [Hydro Tasmania] board to rely on to make decisions about the viability of Basslink," Dr Duncan said.

"This is not to criticise the integrity or calibre of the board but it may be that zealous adherence to the ideas of Basslink has blinded the representatives of [Hydro Tasmania] and compromised their judgments about economic viability of the project."

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