We have previously reported that it appeared that Snowy Hydro 2 was seeking to avoid full scrutiny about the likely environmental impacts of the proposal to convert the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme into a pumped hydro system.

While the concept itself is an excellent one in that it will provide a huge ‘battery’ of hydro power for the eastern seaboard, it is essential the work be done in a way that minimises impacts on the environment of the Snowy Mountains. (Check here for a summary of possible impacts of the current proposal).

Recent news reports seem to confirm fears that Snowy Hydro is trying to ‘cut corners’ on the approvals process in order to fast track the development.

Peter Hannam, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald reports:

Snowy Hydro, developer of the proposed multi-billion dollar pumped hydro scheme, has sought fast-tracked environmental approval for pilot works that would disturb 114 hectares of a national park and excavate about 750,000 cubic metres of rock.

The company, now fully owned by the Commonwealth, is seeking to avoid having exploratory works related to the so-called Snowy 2.0 project declared a controlled action by the federal environment department, according to its lodged claim. Controlled actions involve closer environmental scrutiny and could delay the venture.

Snowy wants to carve out 236 hectares of the Kosciuszko National Park – 114 hectares of which it would disturb – in order to drill to determine rock conditions for an underground power station. This stage could turn out to be “one of, if not the most, challenging areas for the design of Snowy 2.0”, the corporation said.

Paul Broad, Snowy’s chief executive, told Fairfax Media the proposed works had been “designed in a way that avoids and minimises environmental impacts wherever possible”.

The steps include choosing a road access route that avoided effects on identified threatened species, such as the smoky mouse. External experts “believe the exploratory works avoid significant impacts to matters protected under the [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation] Act”, he said.

However, Keith Muir, director of the Colong Foundation for Wilderness, said it would be “an absolute rort of the environmental assessment system” to waive through a proposal to dig a 4.4 kilometre-long access tunnel measuring about eight by eight metres. About 114 hectares of a National Heritage-listed park would be bulldozed.

“If the current proposal is approved, construction of these major works can commence before the Snowy 2.0 pump-storage project is approved under federal or NSW law in true ‘Alice in Wonderland’ fashion,” Mr Muir said. “Government expenditure will then be locked in without adequate consideration of the project.”

A spokeswoman for Josh Frydenberg, Minister for the Environment and Energy, said his department was currently examining  the proposal “to see whether it needs to be assessed under national environment law”. She noted it was open for public comment until June 20.

A spokesman for the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage deferred questions to its federal counterpart.

Snowy 2.0 is a priority project by the Turnbull government as it seeks to bolster reliability of the electricity sector. Pumped hydro – which involves shifting water to a higher reservoir during periods of excess electricity and releasing it through turbines when power sources are relatively scarce – is seen as a key way to allow greater renewable energy penetration of the grid.

Kate Smolski, chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council, said Snowy 2.0 will have a major impact on matters of national environmental significance and all stages needed to be assessed accordingly.

“It appears the government wants to skirt around these laws by splitting the project up into five stages, which would obscure the project’s full environmental impact until work was well underway,” Ms Smolski said.

“This is what mining companies do to avoid scrutiny of the cumulative impacts of their projects. It is not a tactic appropriate for use by a federal government agency.”

Jeremy Buckingham, the NSW Greens energy spokesman, said Snowy 2.0 “should not be cutting corners”.

“This is not a light survey,” he said. “This is drilling and extracting rock from deep underground for several years which is a significant activity to be conducting in a national park and should undergo stringent assessment.”